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Linux: no longer a winner? (From Jan 8/07)

(From Jan 8/07) Look at Linux today and you see none of the motivational characteristics shown by other open source success stories.

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.