The Top Five Linux Stories of 2011

2011 was a big year for Linux, but then what year isn't a big one for Linux these days?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Taking a look back at Linux in 2011

Taking a look back at Linux in 2011

Just like with networking, I looked at my five most popular Linux stories of the last year,

How to install Google's Chrome OS

Review: Barnes & Nobles' Nook Color goes Android Tablet

The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

Five Reasons why Google's Linux Chromebook is a Windows killer

Sun CEO explicitly endorsed Java's use in Android: What do you say now Oracle?

and while they're all fine stories, I can't say that they're the most significant stories of the year. They did, however, inspire me with the ideas for my list of 2011's most important Linux stories. So, with no further adieu, here from least to most important, is my list.

5) GNOME Forks

Not that long ago, GNOME was the most popular Linux desktop interface. KDE was, and is, good, but most popular Linux distributions, such as Fedora, Mint, and Ubuntu all used GNOME 2.x for their interface. Then along came GNOME 3.0 and it all went wrong. To this day, I, and a lot of other people, aren't sure what GNOME's developers had in mind for their take on the desktop, we just know we didn't like it.

GNOME has seen a major revision, 3.2, and many people still don't like it. I certainly don't. So, Ubuntu has continued to go in its own direction with its Unity interface. One group of Linux developers decided to fork the still popular GNOME 2 into a new desktop they call MATE. And, Mint, after trying to add extensions to make GNOME 3 more palatable, is now forking the GNOME 3.x shell into a GNOME 2.x like interface: Cinnamon. Good-bye GNOME. It was nice to have known you, but I see you only as a desktop infrastructure, not the interface itself, in the future for most users.

4) The Decline of the Linux desktop

I recently wrote a story that got a lot of people worked up noticing that Mint has gotten to be the most popular Linux desktop People are still writing responses to that story over a month later. It's a pity none of them have thought the issue through.

The matter of whether Ubuntu is still the most popular Linux distribution isn't that big a deal. Windows, as I've said before, has won the desktop war and Linux isn't going to somehow magically catch up with it. That doesn't mean that you should drop the Linux dektop. I'm going to keep using traditional Linux desktops for years to come. They're better than the alternatives, but put all the Linux desktops together and they still have only a tiny percentage of the desktop market. Let's just deal with it and move on to much more interesting Linux interface news: Linux is winning everywhere else.

3) Ubuntu changes directions

Ubuntu gets it. You may hate the Unity interface, but they're not making it for you-the long time Linux desktop fan. They're making it for Windows home users; Windows business users; and tablets and smartphones. And, why not? Does it mater that much whether Ubuntu is number one or two on the old Linux desktop market when Windows 7 is used by almost a hundred more users for every Linux desktop user?

Ubuntu also is seeking to integrate the cloud into its desktops They're not the only ones. OpenSUSE has also figured out that an old-style fat desktop can do well with full cloud integration. Google wonders, however, just how much desktop do you really need if you could do everything on the cloud.

2) The rise of Android and ChromeOS/cloud computing

For more on that look at where Linux is kicking rump and taking names in a new and growing end-user market: smartphones and tablets. Yes, Apple is still the number one tablet maker, but the Android-powered tablets are catching up fast and on smartphones, Android is already number one with a bullet. Windows? It's barely an afterthought here. The mobile future belongs to the Linux distribution we call Android.

At the same time, Google thinks those of who will still be using desktops in the future will want to use a cloud-based operating system that uses Linux as its foundation: ChromeOS. Google is betting that you're going to want a Chromebook for your PC needs in the future. I think they may be right. There's a reason why not only Google, Ubuntu, and openSUSE is looking into this. Apple, with iCloud, is also exploring it. I don't see the old desktop going away quickly but I can see cloud-based, end-user alternatives catching up more quickly then you might have thought even a year ago.

One thing I am sure of though, tomorrow's end-user computing experience is going to be powered by Linux one way or the other as the legacy Windows systems start to dwindle away.

1) Patent Wars

Remember when people who weren't in the know thought that SCO, with its bogus Unix copyright claims was danger to Linux? I do, I covered the heck out of that story since, while I knew from the start SCO didn't have a case, other people thought SCO actually was on to something. Today, however Linux, open-source software and indeed all programming development faces a far more dangerous intellectual property (IP) threat: the granting and mis-use of bad software patents.

Companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Oracle have all used patents to threaten Android devices' very existence. In the end, these lawsuits will fail. Not because they lack merit-in a world when Apple can get a patent for using apps during a phone call anything goes-but because Google, et. al. will sue them right back with their own patent portfolios. As Microsoft knows all too well after its defeat by i4i, they can be stung by patent lawsuits just as much as any Linux vendor.

Sooner or later I expect big business will get sick of wasting hundreds of millions of dollars suing and countersuing each other to no good purpose. That won't be the end of it though. Patent trolls, who have no real business of their own, will still collect patents and then sue the companies as soon as they actually do something useful with patented ideas. That will mean higher prices for all of us since end-users are ultimately the ones that pay the patent trolls blackmail money. What's even more troubling s that some patent trolls are now targeting small businesses. Google and Samsung can afford to defend themselves, a small business? They can't.

This isn't just a Linux issue, it's bigger than that. If we expect real programming innovation, software patents must be discontinued. That, alas, is something we may not see this decade... if ever.

Taken all-in-all, though, it was a great year for Linux. Whether it was supercomputers, big data or smartphones and tablets, Linux keeps growing. By this time next year, Red Hat will have become the first Linux company to have recorded a billion dollars in earnings, and, if you count all users on all devices, it just might be that Linux will be the number one operating system of all.

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