What's next for Linux

A quarter-century of open-source software

Business

For those who discovered Linux in their 20s and still consider themselves young, the milestone is somewhat disconcerting: in 2016 the open-source operating system, which is maintained by a global community of programmers, will turn 25. The anniversary is not only an occasion for the free and open-source software movement to celebrate victory over proprietary software in many markets, but to contemplate what comes next.

It is “just a hobby” and “won’t be big and professional”, Linus Torvalds, then a computer-science student at the University of Helsinki, wrote on August 25th 1991 in an e-mail to fellow programmers. He wanted them to comment on his effort to re-work Minix, a simple form of Unix, then a dominant operating system. “Any suggestions are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them,” he added, already signalling how he would run the Linux community. 

Mr Torvalds must have been shocked to see Linux (together with a package of related software, called gnu) become “big and professional” within only a few years. But his timing proved perfect. The internet had just started taking off, making it possible for developers from all over the world to collaborate cheaply using e-mail. And there was much demand, among programmers as well as big technology firms, for an alternative to Microsoft’s Windows, which then was heading for world domination.

Mr Torvalds also designed Linux in a modular way, meaning it can be easily improved and adapted to computers other than the pcs for which it was originally written. Today Linux and its derivatives are the most widely used operating system. It powers tiny medical devices as well as entire computing clouds, and everything in between, including cars and rockets. Its biggest success, however, are smartphones: more than three-quarters of the nearly 1.5 billion devices expected to be sold in 2015 run on Android, which has Linux at its core. Even Microsoft, which long considered open-source software a “cancer”, now says that it “loves” Linux.

Code of conduct

Yet Mr Torvalds’s most important contribution was organisational. He showed that it is possible to get big global communities of developers, who can be as hard to herd as cats, to produce something highly useful. Today open-source projects are counted in the millions. GitHub, a site where most find an online home, boasts 10m developers and 26m projects (not just for code, but for text and data as well). In many software markets, particularly programs which make up the innards of it systems, open-source has become the dominant way to write code. Apache for servers, Hadoop for data analysis, OpenStack for cloud computing—the online world would come to a screeching halt were these collectively developed programs to disappear.

Open-source software is no unmitigated success, however. Predictably, it is hard to make money from something that is free. Only one Linux company has made it big: Red Hat, which is expected to take about  $2 billion in its 2015 financial year, mostly by selling support services to users of the operating system and other open-source programs. The main beneficiaries of such software have been operators of huge data centres, such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, which wouldn’t be able to offer cheap cloud-computing services if they had to pay for the software.

To give back, many of these firms have also become big contributors to open-source projects—and sometimes donate entire software packages developed in-house, as Google recently did with Kubernetes, a program that makes a cluster of computers act as a big one. But as computing moves into the cloud, open-source software may become less important. One reason why it has been so successful is that it was easy to get, without a complicated procurement process. But signing up with an online service is often even more convenient.

That said, Linux and the like are here to stay, even once the movement’s founders step down. In the early days of Linux, Mr Torvalds—who is less involved in the project than he used to be, but still has the final say in what new pieces of code make it into the program—often wondered what would happen if he gets “hit by a truck”. Today he seems to be less worried about his demise: his lieutenants could take over. At a recent conference he seemed less than keen to oversee the process of boiling down Linux to make it fit into very small connected devices, collectively dubbed the internet of things. Perhaps, Mr Torvalds, who turns 46 by the start of 2016, has started thinking about life after Linux. Will he retire when his baby turns 25?

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