ON AUGUST 25, 1991, a Finnish computer science student named Linus Torvalds announced a new project. “I’m doing a (free) operating system,” he wrote on an Internet messaging system. The rest, as they say, is history.
Here’s what he posted to the comp.os.minix newsgroup:
Hello everybody out there using minix –
I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).
He insisted it was a hobby, but it became something bigger. Much bigger. Today, that open source operating system—Linux—is one of the most important pieces of computer software in the world. It’s since more or less conquered the world, first becoming the de facto heir to proprietary Unix and latterly serving as the operating system for enormous numbers of devices large and small.
Chances are, you use it every day. Linux runs every Android phone and tablet on Earth. And even if you’re on an iPhone or a Mac or a Windows machine, Linux is working behind the scenes, across the Internet, serving up most of the webpages you view and powering most of the apps you use. Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Wikipedia—it’s all running on Linux.
Plus, Linux is now finding its way onto televisions, thermostats, and even cars. As software creeps into practically every aspect of our lives, so does the OS designed by Linus Torvalds.
Today, Linux is huge. “In many ways, we’ve actually reached the fabled ‘world domination’ everyone joked about 20 years ago,” says Matthew Miller, project leader of popular Linux distribution Fedora in an interview to PC World “Linux is the default operating system for most things… Android puts Linux at the heart of the most common consumer operating system in the world. Open source, to some degree or another, is now the default licensing model.”
But not everything is perfect. Miller is critical of Android increasingly relying on closed Google services. It’s not an open-source project in the same way Linux is. “Software patents are an ongoing problem” that “loom over open innovation,” too.
But more companies are investing in true open-source projects—not just releasing some code under an open-source license, and then forgetting about it, but building a real community and engaging with it. Even Microsoft, once the sworn enemy of Linux, is embracing Linux and open-source software more than ever, and that’s huge.
Indeed, the biggest surprise to Miller is Microsoft’s embrace of Linux, and open source in general, which would “have been April Fool’s Day material only a few years ago.” But he’s not completely convinced about Microsoft’s change of heart until we see an open-source Minecraft. Miller is not alone though, many in the Linux community have feelings along similar lines.
For years, Linux remained in the background, quietly powering web servers for the world’s largest companies, but never finding much success on personal devices. That changed in 2008, when Google released Android and it first found its way onto phones. Android can’t run Linux desktop applications that haven’t been translated to Google’s platform, but Android’s success has been a huge boon for Linux and the open source community by finally providing that open source software could work in consumer applications.
Linux’s reach now extends so much further than smartphones. You can already find Linux in smart TVs from companies like Samsung and LG, Nest thermostats, Amazon’s Kindle e-readers, and drones from companies like 3DR.
Those huge displays in Tesla cars are powered by Linux, and many car companies—including Toyota, Honda, and Ford—sponsor the Automotive Grade Linux project, which is dedicated to building software for connected cars. And when self-driving cars finally hit the road, you can bet they’ll be powered by Linux.
Companies turn to Linux today when they want to build new technology for the same reason that web developers turned to the operating system in the 1990s: they can customize it to meet their needs, and then share (or sell) the results without having to get permission. And it’s all because a Finnish student decided to share his work with the world. Not bad for a hobby project.
Going into the next quarter-century, it will be interesting to see how the Internet of Things plays out. Many of these devices are based on the Linux kernel and various open-source projects, but there’s still a huge security problem.
The situation now reminds of the situation with Linux on university networks at the turn of the century—a big security mess, no sensible standardized management tools and uncertain updates and lifecycles. That’s not sustainable. Open source and open standards can be the solution, but it’ll require those genuine communities —if a device requires some central service and only the original device manufacturer can effectively make fixes and updates, it doesn’t matter what the license is.
Like it did during its formative years, Linux needs to keep evolving, both as a community and as a technology. On the community level, we need to continue to self-police ourselves, to ensure active discourse without being overtly combative, ensuring that all individuals are welcome to contribute. New blood is what keeps open source projects active, and these fresh ideas and faces can ultimately help us anticipate and address the IT problems of the future, potentially before they even exist.
At a technology level, Linux has long been focused on infrastructure, with sysadmins carefully hand-tuning and configuring systems for very specific purposes. With the growth of DevOps, this emphasis on infrastructure needs to give way to more automation and scripting, to help reduce the need for hand-tuning and provide more prescriptive default settings for the developer who just wants to “develop,” not set up a very specific server use case. It’s really about continuing to make Linux easier to use and more applicable to a much broader set of scenarios, both developer and operations wise, out of the box.
Collaboration is Linux’s lifeblood, but rather than internal collaboration, which the project excels at, the next 25 years of the community will be defined by how Linux collaborates outside of the project boundaries. Linux needs to continue to bridge divides between other communities, like OpenStack or the various platform-as-a-service projects, to ensure the continued survival of not just Linux, but pure open source as we know. In fact, consider the highly disruptive innovation underway right now in cloud, devops, and data analytics. Major advancements in these spaces are based on a foundation of Linux. Each of these areas of innovation have very tight dependencies on Linux evolution – for example in virtualization, security features and resource isolation, network & IO acceleration. Some may question “Is Linux done? Does it really matter?” The answer is that Linux means more than ever! It’s not just a base foundation. Rather it’s now a foundational component in a much broader collection of open source capabilities that are literally changing the world. Which is why nobody needs to be nostalgic looking back thinking they missed the “glory days” of Linux. Because it has never been more influential and core to broader technology innovation than right now. There’s a ton of incredibly challenging work ahead that more than ever will require the power of community to succeed.
It’s been a great 25 years, Linux – the next 25 are poised to be even more impactful through our collective efforts.