Two decades after Linus Torvalds developed his famous operating system kernel, the battle between Linux and Microsoft is over and Linux has won, says Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin. With the one glaring exception of the desktop computer, Linux has outpaced Microsoft in nearly every market, including server-side computing and mobile, Zemlin claims.
"I think we just don't care that much [about Microsoft] anymore," Zemlin said. "They used to be our big rival, but now it's kind of like kicking a puppy."
While Microsoft's stock has stagnated over the past decade, open source torchbearer Red Hat has soared, Zemlin notes. And Linux software is everywhere, he says, as proponents of the open source project prepare to celebrate its 20th year of existence.
"I think that on the 20th anniversary, it's worth reflecting back on where we came from," Zemlin said. Linux had a "humble start as a project for a college student in Helsinki, to something today that runs 70% of global equity trading, something that powers, really, the majority of Internet traffic, whether it's Facebook, Google or Amazon."
Linux can be found in consumer electronics devices, like Sony televisions and camcorders, the Amazon Kindle, and in smartphones and tablets as part of Google's Android. Linux leads the market from the tiniest embedded systems to the largest supercomputers, with more than 90% of the Top 500 supercomputing sites in the world running Linux.
"Linux has come to dominate almost every category of computing, with the exception of the desktop," Zemlin said.
Windows still powers roughly 9 out of 10 traditional desktops, with the rest going to Mac and Linux. Linux's failure to capture desktop share is "disappointing to many," Zemlin admitted. But "the good news is the traditional PC desktop is becoming less important, and areas where Linux is very strong in terms of client computing are becoming more important."
That, of course, is a reference to smartphones and tablets, where Microsoft has struggled to unseat Apple and Google's Android. However, a recent IDC research note predicted that Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 devices would overtake the iPhone in worldwide market share by 2015.
When asked about this prediction, Zemlin responded with what can best be described as several seconds of hysterical laughter. "Oh my God, Steve Jobs! Short Apple stock!" he joked.
Reasons to be cheerful
Zemlin's optimism stems from the success of Android, which uses a kernel derived from Linux. Android devices are now more widely used than the iPhone, and HP's webOS is also a viable mobile contender using Linux.
Zemlin believes that as smartphones and tablets draw people away from their desktop PCs and laptops, Microsoft's hold on the computing market will diminish. "Today people use smartphones more, in many ways, than they may use their traditional PC," Zemlin said. "In that case, Linux really does have dominant market share through things like Android or other versions of Linux that are out there in the mobile space."
On the tablet front, though, Apple's iPad is far and away the leader, which poses a problem to those who prefer open source technologies.
"Apple is your worst enemy and your best friend if you're an open source guy," Zemlin said. "Apple in many ways has done a lot of good things for open source and for Linux. It changed the definition of what client computing is. That has been good for Linux. Apple also has a lot of open source components within their products and tends to work very well, in some cases, with the open source community. But I'm not going to argue that they don't have a very closed system as well."
Linus Torvalds started developing the Linux kernel in 1991 as an open source alternative to Unix. Combined with the GNU software created by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation, it forms the core of many operating system distributions.
Depending on one's point of view, Linux began either on August 25, 1991, when Torvalds posted a message saying he was creating a free operating system as "just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu," or on October 5, 1991, when the first Linux code was released. Linux enthusiasts will celebrate both dates, but the main activities will take place August 17-19 at the LinuxCon North America conference. The Linux Foundation is also holding a big event this week, the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit.
The Linux Foundation, of which Torvalds is an employee, is dedicated to accelerating adoption and development of Linux, and bringing people together to collaborate and boost technical innovation around the kernel. Created in 2007 and based in San Francisco, the foundation counts as its members and financial supporters many of the biggest names in the tech industry, including IBM, Intel, Oracle, Cisco, Google, HP, Red Hat and dozens of others.
"It's basically everybody but Microsoft," Zemlin said. "We get money from corporations and we get money from individuals who just believe in Linux and use it day in and day out."
Despite Zemlin's sunny outlook, he notes there are still challenges. Patent lawsuits and legal uncertainty might prevent some people from adopting open source, even though these problems aren't unique to open source, Zemlin said. "We have to educate producers of products how to comply with open source licenses in a low cost and efficient way. That's a challenge," he said.
Microsoft dominating the desktop
And, of course, there is that issue that Microsoft still dominates the desktop software market. When asked why Linux has failed to build desktop share, Zemlin said, "There was this monopolist who just kept everybody else out of the marketplace."
Others, like GNOME creator Miguel de Icaza, have argued that Linux and open source developers "don't seem to get our act together when it comes to understanding the needs of end users on the desktop."
But while Microsoft has sold 300 million Windows 7 licenses and reported record second quarter revenue of nearly $20 billion, Zemlin said Linux people aren't giving up on the desktop market just yet.
For one thing, the desktop operating system itself is becoming less important as people do more and more of their work in the browser, he notes. In the future, you just may need a browser running on top of a lightweight operating system. While Microsoft's Internet Explorer runs only on Windows, major open source browsers such as Chrome and Firefox run on Windows, Mac or Linux.
"The reality is that the fat lady hasn't sung yet," Zemlin said. "Operating systems in general are like huge tides that ebb and flow very slowly over time, it's almost glacial. It takes time for people to realise that they may not need that set of computing requirements for the desktop anymore, and get used to different ways of using a computer."