Technology - The future of Linux and open source

Recently, I attended the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in Malaysia. It took only a day at the Expo to realise just how much Linux and open source are changing. Much of this change seems to be stemming from the radically different audience to which Linux now appeals.

Generation gaps

The first generations of Linux users are now barely visible. When Linus Torvalds released version 0.02 of the Linux kernel in 1991, he claimed it would embody a time passed, when "men were men, and wrote their own device drivers". All gender analysis of the history of the computing industry aside, Torvalds was renewing the ethic of early computing in a time which had become increasingly Windows and Microsoft orientated. It was a time when the rate of UNIX server deployments was in dramatic decline, due not only to the Microsoft marketing machine but also stagnancy and lack of competition in the UNIX market.

Linux and open source quickly changed this. IDC research shows that the rate of UNIX server deployments is again on the increase. This cannot be attributed solely to Torvald's original release and those initial developers who got involved. Much of the renewed popularity of UNIX was seen in a second generation of Linux and open source users who began to get involved in the Linux movement during the mid-1990s because of the sheer accessibility of Linux over other high-end operating systems. That is, because it is freely distributed and because it offers an instant in-road into tech-nical computing, Linux became the operating system of choice for many computing enthusiasts and hobbyists.

This second generation was much more application-focused. They were taking advantage of the computing possibilities of Linux: Web serving, data serving, and firewalls, rather than kernel hacking. It was this generation that powered Linux into the mainstream in 1997 at a time when Internet start-ups needed computer systems which, as Robert Hart of Red Hat says, "need to turn around on a 10 cent piece".

And it is the Internet start-ups that constitute much of the third generation of the Linux and open source users. Such users are, however, generally non-technical and uninterested in the internals of Linux. How, then, can Linux and open source continue to grow?

Open source fundamentals

The open source development model is unique in the software industry for allowing software users direct access to software developers, thereby giving users the freedom to pursue their own computer ends outside of market directions and pressures.

Companies such as IBM and Compaq have begun to shift their approach toward the open source development. "Open source development principles," says IBM senior consultant Glenn Wightwick, "are becoming fundamental to the development process at IBM: distribution of projects, analysis from developers outside the company and peer review are increasingly important." This has been highlighted by IBM's founding of seven Linux Development Centres in the Asia-Pacific region, which encourage open source developers and IBM developers to meet on projects.

Compaq, with its Test Drive program (www.testdrive.compaq.com), allows public access to different Linux configurations, including a Beowulf super computer and a four-way IA-64 machine running TurboLinux.

This spirit of open development has been necessitated by what I termed earlier the third Linux and open source generation. Though this generation may be non-technical, open source development gives it direct feedback to the development process: requirements can be translated quickly into realities by open source developers.

The future?

In a speech to the Linux and Open Source Conference in Sydney in March 2000, Jon "Maddog" Hall, founder of Linux International and VA Linux board member, remarked that there would be a time in the future when everything ran Linux. While I'm not sure that this will be the case, it is becoming clear that as businesses increasingly move towards an Internet model, the open source model will become more pervasive, making it difficult for software companies to continue pushing a proprietary software model.

How will software companies continue to exist in an open source market? I believe in two ways. The first is by delivering complete computing solutions. Software will always need to be configured and managed, and it will always need to run on hardware. The second survival path will be changing software from a product model to a service provider model, where software, for example, is customised for individual businesses and applications.

The future will be one where the original idea of Linux and open source develops to become the software industry as we know it. Linux has started to change the way computing is approached: no longer restricted by proprietary software, the future will be one of freedom for users.

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Gavin Sherry

PC World
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