Linux: no longer a winner?

Linux: no longer a winner?

Summary: The applications and GNU components we think of as Linux don't depend on the Linux kernel - meaningthat the only barriers to mass migration by Linux developersto Solaris or the BSDs are psychological.

TOPICS: Open Source

I was thinking about the future of Linux when it occurred to me that one path for its future can seen as a simple consequence of what we mean by "winning." In other words, asking whether Linux will still be a winner in ten years leads first to the question of what we mean by "winner" and then to an answer about where Linux is going.

If by "winning" we mean making your software do what you want it to for your community of interest while seeing your ideas become widely influential, then the lessons of open source history are clear: winners either build in the academic tradition of humbly taking other people's work forward or roll history back to some branching and then set off in whole new directions.

Look at the history of widely accepted and extra-ordinarily influential IT product sets like those under the Apache, Perl, or BSD labels, and the most striking thing they have in common is that the originators set out to solve specific problems, used what other people in academia and open source had done in new ways, and judged the choices they made along the way in terms of the problem rather than in terms of the market for the solution.

If we define "winning" in terms of making money, then we're usually talking about people who monetise other people's work, most often by telling customers both that their products are uniquely wonderful and, at the same time, really -wink, nudge- not a copy of a proven but more expensive commercial product they're already familiar with.

Look at Microsoft's history: from QDOS to SQL-Server and the new Vista interface, every major product has copied someone else's earlier work and been offered to the public simultaneously as better than an existing product, as proven by users of an existing product, and as a way of grabbing the benefit offered by that existing product with less money and less learning.

Both of these forms of winning have legs, in the sense that I'm quite confident that twenty years from now somebody will be making money packaging second hand ideas for the uninformed, while academics and others will be advancing new ideas traceable to what's in place now.

There is a third kind of winning: one based on the fullfillment of somebody's political agenda and not directly related to either money or technology. Thus the GNU utilities are wildly successful despite being neither innovative nor second rate, largely because they express the Free Software Foundation's political objectives without forcing users to accept those objectives.

Linux kernel history, however, isn't that simple - Linux started as one thing, became another, and now appears to be avoiding some hard choices. Thus the kernel started as a classic academic effort to improve on another set of ideas, specifically in response to a disagreement about the value of using, or not using, x86 interrupts in the Minix kernel, but then got pushed forward in response to an unrelated political agenda by people who have since dropped it.

What happened was simple: the mid nineties mass media developed what I call "the Myth of Torvalds" to express their own political agenda: positioning Linus as the Robin Hood of software, single handled standing up to American multi-nationals to bring free computing to the common man. Great, except that IBM's later success in deputizing most of the merry men made it difficult for even the most dedicated fantasist to continue the charade - and the vacuum left when the hot breath of media support disappeared meant that Linux failed its tipping point sometime in 2002/3 and is now in apparent decline relative to Windows, Solaris, and the BSDs.

That doesn't mean it will go away anytime soon, of course - IBM could keep it commercially alive for decades, the momentum built up in north American and European open source and academic usage will not disappear quickly, and the political advantages to the use of Linux across Asia will probably continue to drive acceptance there. But what's scary for Linux is this: the applications and GNU components we think of as Linux don't depend on the Linux kernel - meaning that the only barriers to mass migration by Linux developers to Solaris or the BSDs are psychological.

Meanwhile today's kernel development process doesn't fit any of the categories describing long term winners: it's not driven by the search for excellence, by greed, or by politics. Instead the key driver right now appears to be the SCO lawsuit with lots of effort still being dedicated to proving that Linux is somehow not Unix - and not only isn't that characteristic of long term winners, but it's creating barriers to growth by working against standardization across both time and distributions.



Topic: Open Source

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  • Speechless!

    SCO!, have you actually read about that case recently, or looked at SCO's share price, it's in the junk band now. No one gives any credence to SCO's claims and the judges are getting noticably more irratated with the SCO legal teams lack of evidence.

    Regardless of whether or not the Linux kernal is used in the future, or not, the importance is that we have the Open Source movement, which means people have a choice as to what they run on their computers.

    If something better with reasonable licensing comes along people will use it.

    A more important article would be "Vista: Never gonna be a winner". Judging by some of the comments I've read on ZDNet about sticking with XP Vista could be the new "Windows ME".

    Open source doesn't have to make a profit, Microsoft does.
    • Playing with words...

      ... is what seems to be going on here. What is a "winner"? Do "winners" have a preferred business model?

      On Murph's approach where should Mac OSX be?
      • MacOS X

        is an Apple shell on BSD Unix.
        • Apples are evil?

          [i]"... an Apple shell on BSD Unix."[/i]

          I know that Murph, but you say in your article that Linux users will migrate to Solaris or BSD so are you counting OSX in that migration?

          Does Apple come under your definition of winning by "monetising" other people's work?

          Do you really think that the momentum building up behind things like Ubuntu will also carry Solaris along? There's no "community" for Solaris in the same way that there is for SuSE, RedHat and Ubuntu. BSD has a similar problem. If Linux is perceived by ordinary users as "geeky" then Solaris and BSD are perceived as for uber-geeks.

          Don't expect a stampede - you won't be seeing one.
          • I wouldn't say evil

            But from OSX to MP3 players to clipping some ideas from Xerox, Apple has simply been "monetising" other people's work.
            They don't invent, any more then MS. They take the ideas from those who can, and wrap it up in a pretty package that is easier to use.
          • ye s- but the packaging adds value

            Both BSD and Apple's interface work reflect a true search for excellence - and yes, both sets of ideas as currently implemented build on work by others, but that's perfectly normal and acceptable.

            This discussion actually previews my Thursday blog - which says that I like the software despite the HW. Basically I don't think Apple is ripping off the community with its software, and they certainly don't sell MacOS X as a cheaper version of someone else's commercial product.

            So, no, I don't Apple is just about monetizing other people's work, I think they contribute to the community in many ways - not least by leading the way in commercial adoption of good OS/interface ideas. Remember, there's nothing wrong with making money, it's how you make it that separates the good guys from the bad.
          • I agree

            I just wish you could see past your bigotry and understand that for the most part, that is exactly what MS does. It collects and puts together the ideas of others (and for the most part, no, MS doesn't copy Apple. MS copies the very same people Apple copied) into a package that the users like.
            And no, Bill never showed up at anyones house with a gun and forced them to buy anything; people look for best solution to their particular problems, and having found it, buy it.
            Just because you don't like their choices doesn't make the wrong or incompetent.
          • Reply to mdemuth, below

            - I've no idea why zdnet uses this software, or sets (if it's set-able) depth limits on threads.)

            .. however, I do think MS's behavior is reprehensible - and so did Judge Jackson - and to my mind the differences are in the business and technical ethics involved.

            MS produces products that are, at least when introduced, downgrades of what they copy. Apple does the opposite: they add value when they copy.

            Now about Mr. Gates never showing up with a gun.. that's pretty crude - a more sophisticated form of armed robbery uses a checkbook instead of a Gun. Know any happy NCD shareholders? - see? buy a few key decisions, and destroy a competitor, much more effective, and not even a crime - just "good business practice."
          • Innovation

            Microsoft's definition of innovation is having Microsoft's products do what Microsoft products have not done previously.

            That's a legitimate definition, if less challenging than one with a larger amount of invention.

            Having said that, Microsoft's technology provides invention for users:

            There are many people who are unlikely to encounter a technology unless it occurs in Microsoft products.

            Microsoft improves on functionality that may be recognized when introduced. (Oddly, in some situations, this improvement is called extending, and Microsoft is criticized for the effort. A product should be left unimproved because of affection for the primitive, I guess.)

            Microsoft also makes functionality available to third parties which would otherwise have to take the trouble to develop it for themselves. Or not.

            Microsoft also keeps expanding the technologies' utility after initial issue, as well as spreading it to other products.

            The resources to do all this are available only to a large company.

            Having said that... Some of Microsoft's business tactics have been reprehensible. The fact that one group of people is making influential decisions for a significant industry is risky, even were the people making the decisions insightful statesmen.

            At least Microsoft isn't IBM. Small favors appreciated.
            Anton Philidor
          • re: innovation

            [i]"Microsoft's definition of innovation is having Microsoft's products do what Microsoft products have not done previously."[/i]

            Actually, that is the dictionary's definition of innovation. People tend to confuse innovation with invention.

            [i]People[/i] invent. [i]Companies[/i] innovate.
          • Rubbish

            "They [Apple] don't invent, any more then MS. "

            What a complete misunderstanding of the history of personal computing and sadly
            a reflection of the increasing ignorance of our field.

            Apple has created a huge number of firsts in personal computing. Yes some of
            this built on others work, some of it was through acquisitions, but much was
            through very creative employees.

            Apple continues to redefine personal computing, particularly through it's unique
            approach to industrial design and usability.

            Any comparison with MS innovation is offensive.
            Richard Flude
          • Yes, I'll never think of a desk lamp...

            ... or a shiny metal cube the same way again.

            Apple has been and remains an innovative company, but isn't "Apple continues to redefine personal computing" an exaggeration?

            Me, I think a workable definition of personal computing has been available for a while now.
            Anton Philidor
          • Care to elaborate

            Since you seem to be convinced of a "huge number" of firsts that Apple has "created", you should be backing up your argument with some examples if you want anyone to take you seriously. Which firsts (from the "huge number" of them) can you provide us examples of?

            If Apple being compared to MS is "offensive" you might want to post somewhere else. Since these boards will always have Mac/PC comparisons you might find yourself offended on a daily basis.
          • agree

            Apple also had little faith in the inventions of their
            star employees at one point or another. First, their was Steve Jobs' Macintosh and then Jean-Louise Gassee's BeOS. It's all
            politics to the corporate types.
          • Apples /Macs are evil!

            Heaven help us if Apple/Mac got some relevant market share!
            It is the huge mob of 'uber-windoze mentality' creatures whom are the Apple/Mac nemisis! They are sucked in with all the eye candy, and if they finally discover the underlying goodness, find the source code locked away!

            But, what do I know, as I only service them...

            I use for schools, charities, friends, and family. Great for Demonstrations at the huge chainstores!

            For Installfests, Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Fedora Core 6, Knoppix, and, some of the *BSDs, are all fine choices, too!
          • Just tried LAMP ubuntu - didn't work

            The install went fine, but then when it tries to run it simply reboots and loops that way forever.

            I guess you get what you pay for after all. Maybe if I donated a $1 to the effort my results would have been a little better :)
            THEE WOLF
          • maybe it was you...not the software ...nt

  • Search for excellence

    > Meanwhile today's kernel development process doesn't fit any
    > of the categories describing long term winners: it's not driven
    > by the search for excellence, by greed, or by politics. Instead
    > the key driver right now appears to be the SCO lawsuit with
    > lots of effort still being dedicated to proving that Linux is
    > somehow not Unix

    I'll argue with that, and the article, on two grounds.

    First, Among the things in my other tabs right now is this:

    --- a/Makefile

    +++ b/Makefile

    @@ -1,7 +1,7 @@

    VERSION = 2


    SUBLEVEL = 20



    NAME = Homicidal Dwarf Hamster


    Yep. I'm getting ready to patch and compile the 2.6.20-rc4 kernel and I'm looking it over first. That's why I'm finding this annoying. The SCO lawsuit as a driver for kernel development is, as the saying goes, so over. In terms of politics GPL3 and open-source vs. binary blobs are a bigger driver for what seems to be going on there right now. And yes, that means they are trying to handle the change of hardware effectively. Which is what excellence is about.

    tSCOg-sothoth is not over yet, but if it ever drove the kernel updates it doesn't now.

    Second, while the growth of Linux has largely been at the expense of other flavors of *nix this has never been because of its innate superiority to them. Linux has simply been a more economically viable model for an OS geared towards power users and technical applications. So Sun has also released Solaris under Open Source. I probably like the ideas of Open Source better than I do Linux. And I like Linux a lot. I don't, however see it as the Universal Panacea. The importance of Linux in recent years strikes me as a symptom of an out-of-kilter market where traditional models not paying to retain skills any better--which is why Anton Philidor's conspiracy theory seems to me to be more simplistic than outright wrong.

    That is not intrinsic to the OS. It is extrinsic, and in context adds interest to Nicholas Negroponte's complaint that Linux is "bloated" for OLPC (I'm tempted to send you a rant about that at Even with intermittent Internet connections the potential for lowering the costs of educational application development is awesome). To a large extent it is serving the Power User better in a context where the proprietary solutions are serving us so poorly that it isn't a level playing field.

    The continued commercial development and adoption of Linux may or may not continue. That is not the same as being A Good Thing, and it is definitely not the measure we should be applying to it. Linux began as a student project more than fifteen years ago. Today it does drive a significant portion of our technology. After fifteen years. That, in artistic terms, qualifies it as a Monument, like the Telegraph and Telephone before it. That is, in this case, a proper measure of success: Linux is still a winner and the question is "How long are we going to keep being losers?"
    • Please send that rant

      amd lets talk about turning it into a guest blog.
    • You do realize that the blog you cited is by this guy, right?

      On [url=] page 2[/url], he states as follows:

      [i]I write the ?Paul Murphy? technology books and articles on Unix you can find on the internet along with my daily ?Managing L?unix? column on zdnet.[/i]