January 01, 2000

Linux in 2000

The other day, someone asked me what my worst nightmare was. I told him, "Linux world domination." Surprising as it may seem coming from a Linux advocate, the fact is that this issue is being debated in Linux circles the world over. With the absence of competition linux may not have much to look forward to.

However since that will take a long time to happen, we look at the past how linux succeeded as it is today and where its headed towards in the near future.

Battling Since Birth

Linux was born in the midst of the Minix generation of Intel 286s. Minix, which did not allow free distribution of code, was the de facto OS for university curricula back then (1991). After winning over Minix, Linux fought the software crunch of the early 90s and integrated many common Unix tools ported over in the first quarter of this decade. And just before it stood against Microsoft in the late 90s to fight for a pie in the desktop segment, Linux fought hard to get X-Windows applications ported to it. And today, as I look back at the decade gone by, Linux is fighting its toughest battle yet-the people. In short, Linux can succeed only as much as people can accept it.

Two years ago I wasn't so sure if Linux would ever gain commercial acceptance. Linux was always developed by and for a niche group of developers, and commercialization was the last thing on their mind. From the day it was created by Linus Torvalds, it was intended for education and research purposes only, with its source code free for all to see. Until the end of the millennium. The first signs of acceptance became visible in 1998, seven years after its birth, when the corporate world stepped in. Though still not considered a desktop environment, it was put to test by the likes of Sun and SGI for stability issues and came through with flying colors. The rest, as they say, is history. The Internet, as we know it today, was soon running on various versions of Linux. Apart from companies like Red Hat who centered their business around Linux, others like Netscape, Oracle, Creative, Corel, and Novell also stepped in. 1999 saw an end to the lack of commercial support, which had long plagued Linux as an acceptance criterion for larger corporations.

1999 was also the year when the Linux community made a unified effort to educate the press about how money could be made from a free OS. The press had been largely ignorant of the growth of Linux, because it was always looked at as a free OS, which did not have any business viability. The most notable development on this front was the emergence of Linux advocacy guidelines, which are today being followed by most organizations that support Linux.

The year would be particularly remembered for the Microsoft versus DOJ case, which boosted Linux in its own way. With a view to show that Microsoft was not a monopoly, Microsoft conducted a business analysis of Linux within its own closed doors. Now known as the Halloween I and II documents (www.opensource. org/halloween/), the revelations of these tests were a huge draw for the press. The document sparked a full-blown debate, so much so that Linux came to be talked about by the masses as well. It was apparent after that debate that Linux was in fact being considered as a direct opponent to Microsoft's Windows NT. IBM, SGI, Sun, and SCO were the next to join the Linux bandwagon. Red Hat's successful IPO in August '99 redefined the business viability of Linux. While things went quite well for Linux, it did have its share of ups and downs. The initial success of Linux blinded many Linux supporters to the OS's shortcomings. The comparative tests of Windows and Linux conducted by PC Week magazine and Mindcraft, an independent organization, produced results that the Linux community didn't want to hear. Notwithstanding the doubts raised over the authenticity of these tests, it became quite apparent in successive tests that Linux did need optimization of a few core components, which were way too slow to stand competition from Windows NT. Linus Torvalds himself was not pleased with the results, and since then a lot of work has gone into optimizing the code.

Linux (Em)bedded

Another area where optimized code could help Linux is that of Linux-embedded devices. Over the past few months, global focus has been steadily shifting from "one computer in every home" to "computers on the go." Cellular phones, MP3 players, and other handheld devices that talk to web servers already exist, as do handheld devices that organize your daily to-do lists. What we haven't seen too much of yet are watches, refrigerators, and microwave ovens with OSes built into them. Some of these are already happening, but some are waiting for the right OS. Not only is the open source mechanism of Linux ideal for manufacturers to use as a building block for such intelligent devices, it would also be economically disastrous to start work on a new OS from scratch. Cobalt, in 1997, was one of the first companies that started using Linux for its appliances (cache engines and web servers). A few others have since come up; some of them have also developed routers based on Linux. I'm sure the new millennium would see a lot more of these Linux-based devices. 3Com's Palm and Microsoft's Windows CE have shown that there is a growing market for handheld devices. A number of Linux ports to smaller chips are in progress, some of which are uCsimm, ARM, and the Palm.

Penguins and Icebergs

Some of the most mind-blowing graphics in the movie Titanic were rendered using a collection of Alpha processor-based machines running Linux. Linux was used in a research project at NASA to create such parallel-processing supercomputers. Now code-named Beowulf Linux, the system has the capability to harness the processing power of multiple machines. C-DAC's PARAM supercomputer-which used its own OS and was developed from scratch-is till date unrealistic for most Indian universities to afford. Now with the Linux Beowulf cluster ready for market adoption, research centers in India could set up much more powerful supercomputers with relatively low investment. It won't be long when a couple of old Pentium or 486 boxes would be put together to make Bollywood version of Titanic. Moving from the server to the desktop was perhaps the biggest challenge in Linux's history. The desktop is the playground that determines the success of an OS. The user friendliness and intuitiveness of the Linux GUI has been one of the most ignored issues for a long time. The lack of an open version of Motif, which was used on the Sun platform, was one of the reasons behind the slow start of Linux in the desktop arena. It was not until 1997 that any one could come up with an alternative and better Window Manager. KDE and Gnome, the two most popular environments today for Linux newbies, have gone a long way in enhancing Linux's sheen. Companies like Dell, Compaq, SGI, and Gateway-which would not have associated with Linux three years back-are now supporting Linux by selling Linux preinstalled machines along with similar Windows offers. Some hardware manufacturers are afraid of jumping onto the Linux bandwagon due to certain licensing restrictions in Linux, but that too is slowly becoming a thing of the past. DVD support is an excellent example of hardware support going wrong. The licensing specifications for DVDs forbid open source completely; this has left Linux users high and dry. Creative Technologies was one of the first big organizations to actively promote open source by opening up its specifications.

Linux Everywhere

But licensing is not the reason why Unix failed in the 90s. It failed because it could not stand united against Microsoft products. Though some analysts see a similar future for Linux, GNU licensing does address some of these issues. Organizations like FSF, which backs Linux with legal support, are recognized for their contribution to popularizing Linux. Linus Trovalds, who holds the trademark "Linux," is still the principal maintainer of the Linux kernel around which all Linux apps are built. For each critical development tool in Linux distribution, a committee works out how to get things done. Though it might be a bit slow, this democratic setup ensures that Linux doesn't go the way Unix did. With Linux stocks (of companies like Red Hat) touching the sky, it's anybody's guess what Linux would be like in the new millennium. Red Hat today has enough market capitalization to buy a few companies. Cygnus, a well-known development tool builder, was one of the first companies to be acquired by RedHat. Sun Microsystems has been busy pulling in companies like StarOffice and the like. Corel Corp. has launched its own version of Linux, as you can see from the PC World CD this month. At present there are about twenty different versions of Linux with different configurations and for different environments. All running on the same kernel and other tools. It's difficult to predict the impact of Windows 2000 on the success of Linux, or whether my wristwatch would one day run Linux. But one thing is sure to happen: We would see some radical changes in the way software is written, shared, and maintained around the world.

A version of this article was contributed to PCWorld Jan 2000 issue.