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Oct 30 2011

Linux is dead? Long live Linux!

Mike Gualtieri of Forrester pontificates on the swan song of the venerable open source computer kernel Linux, declaring its hopes for world domination to be “game over”.

Poor Linux. It struggled so hard to dominate the world. It was the little open source engine that could, but it didn’t. It never even came close to Microsoft Windows on the desktop, with less than 2% share of desktops. The bright spot for Linux is that 60%+ of servers on the Internet run Linux.

But the real end to Linux’s hope for world dominance came when mobile platforms iOS and Android cleaned clocks in the mobile market. Sure, Android is built on top of Linux, but Linux is only one of many piece parts of the Android mobile operating system. It is not Linux.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Linux is, of course, because if anything is Linux, it’s Android.

Linux is the computer kernel — the core program that runs all the hardware and lets a user interface, all the whizbang pretty stuff that keeps you from having to learn The Matrix, sit on top of it and translate between machine and human. You don’t “run Linux” on your desktop, you run a Linux-based operating system on your desktop. Ubuntu, Fedora, Linux Mint, Debian, SuSE, and a thousand other Linux distributions all vie for the tiny sliver of desktop market share that isn’t gobbled up primarily by Windows XP. And yes, this desktop market share is indeed rather slim. However, that’s not the only computer space available for market share, not by a long shot — there’s also the supercomputer space, which is dominated by Linux, and the aforementioned 60+% of internet servers running Linux when it could alternately run one of many versions of Windows, FreeBSD, Mac OS X Server, or some flavour of UNIX. And then there’s the mobile phone market.

And Android, Google’s phone OS, has captured by some accounts over half of the phone market — iPhones, Blackberries, and phones running Symbian or Windows or some other proprietary OS have to be counted together to rival the Linux heavyweight. Merely by having Linux as your kernel, you are running Linux, in the same sense that if your house uses power from the power grid, you’re running Nikola Tesla’s alternating current (rather than Thomas Edison’s inferior direct current!).

I don’t personally care what Linux’ market share is. The philosophy is somewhat parallel to the various freethought movements in that it rejects dogmatic adherence to the predatory practices of one particular monolithic company, approaching knowledge as something that should be spread freely rather than hoarded jealously. When you download a piece of open source software, you’re not just getting it for free, you’re also getting the freedom to participate in the software development process should you so choose. The process is entirely transparent, so you know that everyone has access to the source code, so it must be that much more secure to keep the baddies out. And it does. Exploits, compared to the gaping holes you get with the welded-shut Windows philosophy, are few and far between, and they’re patched extraordinarily quickly when they’re discovered — usually in time intervals counted in days, rather than months or years.

All of the inherent merits of the free operating system aside, it is not dead. It is not game over. It’s not even napping. In this household, we run it on my work laptop, on my home desktop, and on Jodi’s netbook. We run it on our media centre. Freethought Blogs is running it. Google runs it for every one of their hundreds of servers. We’re running it on soon to be dozens of servers at work, under my jurisdiction. If our PS3 was not one of the now-closed versions of the firmware, I’d almost certainly run it on that as well. And hilariously enough, forrester.com is one of those 60% of servers running Linux.

If Linux is dead, so’s your server, Gualtieri. Sorry to hear about the death of your blog host.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    lordshipmayhem

    Agreed. Much as Microsoft would love to declare victory, in everywhere but the desktop, it’s an also-ran.

    And Forrester has been trumpeting Microsoft for years – it’s a paid shill. Ho surprises here, move along. Pronouncements from Forrester about Microsoft’s triumphs are like pronouncements from Harold Camping about the end of the world.

  2. 2
    theophontes, feu d'artifice du cosmopolitisme

    Good to see someone putting things back in perspective.

    With all the recent adulation for Job’s “genius”, I don’t think many people realise that the thing that they are actually after – the content on the servers – has more to do with the (60% Linux) servers than the tacky trinkets that are used to access cyberspace.

  3. 3
    jamessweet

    Don’t forget embedded systems.

    Got a look at a gadget the hardware guys are building over where I work — can’t talk about it as some of the stuff has yet to be patented. In any case, most of the electronics are on a board they designed, but for the main control part of it, they just bought a little off-the-shelf Linux brick that they stuck onto it with some serial communication to the rest of the board.

    That said, I run Windows on my home desktop, my work desktop, and my work laptop. (I also have a Linux machine that I VNC into at work, for Unix-y stuff) I may switch my home desktop to Linux at some point — we made the awful mistake of putting Vista on it, so I’m a bit off Windows for that. But my work laptop is running Windows 7 and I’m rather liking it, so maybe we’ll just switch to that. I dunno.

    Pointing out that Windows dominates the user-facing part of the marketshare, while poo-pooing Linux for being mostly confined to servers, supercomputers, embedded systems, and just about anything not user-facing, is rather asinine. While Linux can be a great choice for the home user, that has never been its strong suit.

  4. 4
    theophontes, feu d'artifice du cosmopolitisme

    @ jamessweet

    While Linux can be a great choice for the home user, that has never been its strong suit.


    Aux contraire!
    We have eight machines running Ubuntu in our family. Where we need to run windows programs, we have them under virtual machines. So much easier. And you can take snapshots of the windows machines when they are running properly.

  5. 5
    Nomen Nescio

    i’ve been running Linux near-exclusively since 1995, and it’s worked fine for me. Ubuntu on my home desktop, Fedora and CentOS at work on my workstation and the servers i babysit, a couple of windows virtual machines here and there for occasional stuff.

    the main reason windows dominates on the desktop is MS Office. OpenOffice.org is fine for most things, probably 90% or more, but then you run into interoperability issues with people using those few remaining percent of functionality that MS office has and who probably aren’t even working for your organization, yet you need to work with their documents and macros and OO.o just won’t cut it. (also, Access and Visio. OO.o doesn’t duplicate their functionality nearly well enough, doesn’t even read their files properly. few use those two, but those who do use them rely on them.)

    the next biggest reason is user training, an issue too many of us linux geeks just don’t understand the full scope of; retraining is a huge deal. third biggest may be active directory, a genuinely good idea that initiatives like OpenIPA have just barely begun to catch up onto.

    oh, and then there’s video games. game houses will cater to whatever platform’s the biggest, though, they’ll code for windows exactly so long as that gives them the largest market share and no longer.

    server side, there’s no competition; the bare metal runs either some Unix or a VMWare server OS, the server instances run Linux or a windows server domain controller instance. Ubuntu server’s had a “build your own virtual machine server cluster on the quick” set-up for years now, so long as the server software you need to run doesn’t demand microsoft there’s just no reason not to use Linux.

  6. 6
    Nomen Nescio

    argh. correction to my last; “OpenIPA” should be “FreeIPA”. that’s what i get for talking about software i don’t actually use. :-/

  7. 7
    Jason Thibeault

    jamessweet@3: a point I didn’t get across strongly enough in the original post is that the specific flavor of Windows that dominates the desktop market is Windows XP, even now, after Vista and Windows 7. Sure, you can’t get XP on new hardware, but demand for newer desktop hardware has waned significantly of late.

    But yes, thanks for pointing out the embedded space. Windows Embedded (e.g., XP Embedded specifically) can’t hold a candle to embedded Linux flavors.

    Nomen @7: ActiveDirectory itself is a proprietary extension of the Netscape-developed LDAP protocol. We have a number of open-source projects connecting to our ActiveDirectory using LDAP integration for their auth stack. The only reason we’re using ActiveDirectory is because those proprietary extensions were all that Windows desktop clients know how to work with. I’m glad that there are projects like Samba to reverse-engineer those extensions, but I don’t see any specific novelty in them outside of their tightly integrated and proprietary natures. Various flavors of Linux OSs can do configuration based on a domain policy when connecting to an LDAP server, and have been able to do so since long before ActiveDirectory and Group Policies.

  8. 8
    tuibguy

    I am reading this on a Linux Mint loaded laptop, an operating system for which I paid exactly zero dollars. If other people want to pay for their operating system as well as for anti-virus software and firewalls, I don’t care if I am in the lowly 2% that would rather put our money to good use.

    Beer.

  9. 9
    Michael Fisher

    I’ve heard an open source 10″ tablet is on the way once a decent touch GUI has been sorted out (It might be ZaReason). That would suit me down to the ground for simple stuff like reading, email & diary. Do you know anything about that Jason? Perhaps there’s already table-suitable linux + touch s/ware combo already out there?

  10. 10
    Michael Fisher

    table = tablet

  11. 11
    Sithrazer

    @Michael Fisher
    Ubuntu’s recent switch to Unity is for that very purpose, it’s meant to work with smartphone/tablet touch interface (and small screen size) in mind.

  12. 12
    Larry Ayers

    I’ve used nothing but Linux since 1995. I’m bemused by the recent adulation bordering on apotheosis of Steve Jobs. Quite the visionary and businessman,but I’ve somehow missed out on his pricey products. Don’t need or want them.

  13. 13
    quantheory

    My experience in scientific computing has been that Windows is not even in the game. Linux variants are the biggest player, followed by OS X on personal devices (desktops, mobiles) and less well-known Unix-based OS’s like AIX or FreeBSD on servers and supercomputers. Windows is only in play when using some proprietary environment such as MATLAB (in which case you probably don’t care about the OS do much as ease of installation and effective support).

    I realize that scientific computing is not a huge share of the market, but it’s an important niche that guarantees that some very smart people continue paying attention. No one wants to pay for Windows just to get an OS that is less efficient for one’s own purposes, less easily modified, less familiar to one’s own community. and where it is actually more difficult to set up the kinds of software you want to use.

  14. 14
    Nomen Nescio

    Jobs was a genius in many ways, particularly to do with design of every kind — the major Linux GUI, Gnome, has been consciously aping MacOS for many a year now, as has Windows in its own way — but he had his share of faults too. his obsession with controlling every detail of the platform likely was what relegated Apple to a niche market, and may have been the driving force behind the move toward the walled garden of iOS and the iPad.

    LDAP was developed as an IETF standard building on X.500. the Novell directory services Jason’s thinking of, NDS, were pioneering and brilliant, but not a direct ancestor of any current standard i know of. it’s true that any Linux distribution can make very good use out of LDAP, but Active Directory still has great advantages in its deep, thorough integration into the OS and its great simplicity of configuration — joining a machine into an AD domain is usually very much simpler than configuring LDAP, KerberosV5, and all the other bells and whistles on a Linux box. unifying configuration and management of all those parts is largely what FreeIPA endeavors to do, and with a few more years of effort they may well get there.

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