August 17, 2006
Why is Linux Successful?
By Sean Michael Kerner
SAN FRANCISCO — The success of Linux over the past 15 years boils down to a few key factors, according to a panel of Linux luminaries.
Larry Augustin, chairman of VA Software, Eric Raymond, founder of the Open Source Institute, Jon maddog Hall of Linux International, Chris DiBona of Google, and Dirk Hohndel of Intel regaled the capacity crowd with tales of their first experiences with Linux and Linus.
They also made some strong statements as to why Linux has succeeded where BSD failed, as well as noted the conditions required for Linux to succeed in the years to come.
Dirk Hohndel noted that timing was key and that Linux started off as a purely European phenomenon.
For Hohndel three key factors that fostered the rise of Linux: 386 chips, which provided enough power; rise of the Internet, which permitted the collaboration necessary to build Linux; and the GNU toolchain, without which none of Linux would have happened.
Hohndel also noted that Linus Torvalds is also obviously of critical importance.
“Linus is able to take people who vehemently disagree on architecture and get them to agree,” Hohndel said.
It is that ability to agree that made Linux different from the BSD community.
Larry Augustin noted that in the early days, BSD was clearly more functional than Linux, but by many measures has not exceeded it.
Eric Raymond said the cause for BSD’s failure could be summed up in one word: “overcontrol.”
Hohndel responded by throwing out one word of his own: “fragmentation.”
“Overcontrol leads to fragmentation,” Raymond retorted. “Linux’s strength is that it is more loosely coupled.”
Maddog Hall said he thinks the success of Linux had a lot to do with the marketing of Linus Torvalds
“Here’s this nice young man wearing sandals and with a funny accent, as opposed to other people that weren’t quite as nice.”
Over the last 15 years there have been a number of “tipping points” for Linux.
Hohndel recounted that one such tipping point occurred in July 1998 when Oracle said it was going to port to Linux.
“It was on the day of the naming of Linus’ daughter, our god-child,” Hohndel said looking at Maddog.
The fact that a company could credibly tell people they could make money from Linux was a big deal.
Raymond noted that a big turning point for him was the open sourcing of Mozilla by AOL, an event that ultimately led to the creation of the open source label and the OSI, which he founded.
DiBona cited the availability of decent installers for Linux, as well as the rise of the Internet as tipping points.
He also noted the deficiencies of other competitive platforms to Linux.
“If Mac and Windows didn’t suck, people would’ve used them,” DiBona said.
The panel also tackled the issue of where Linux will be in the next five years and what needs to be done to get there.
Hohndel predicted that the embedded market will be 80 percent Linux in the next five years.
For the desktop, market share in mature markets will be single digits in five years; in emerging markets it will be in the 15 percent to 20 percent range.
“Adoption of the Linux desktop is more likely in emerging markets where there is no legacy,” Hohndel said.
Raymond got riled up as he proclaimed what he thought was necessary to be done for desktop Linux to be successful.
“We need to do whatever compromise is necessary to get full multimedia capability on Linux so non-technical users don’t dismiss us out of hand,” Raymond shouted.
A somewhat more relaxed DiBona advised the audience to tell people to use Mozilla Firefox on their desktops.
“Develop for the Web,” DiBona said. “People can switch to Web applications from their desktop more easily.”