Linux is now a quarter-century old. August 25, 2016 marks 25 years since the day Linus Torvalds posted a message announcing Linux to the world. “I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu),” he wrote.
Since then, Linux has taken the world by storm, powering millions of servers, a countless number of embedded devices, and most of the smartphones in the world—by way of Android.
Getting started with Linux
I spoke to Matthew Miller, project leader of popular Linux distribution Fedora, to get his thoughts on this momentous occasion. He’s been a Linux user since 1995, just four years after Torvalds started his “hobby” project.
Miller didn’t actually become involved with the Linux community until a few years later, when he was at Boston University’s Office of Information Technology. His experience mirrors that of a lot of Linux users, who discovered how easy it is to get involved and to make a difference:
“We had a real problem with Linux installations popping up everywhere and then getting hacked into almost immediately. Security just wasn’t a big priority at the time. I started a project to make a tailored distribution which would be secure out of the box, and better integrated with campus services. I based that on Red Hat Linux, and got involved with the community around that, which lead directly into the Fedora Project when that got started. Fedora has a strong and vibrant community, and I found that it’s pretty easy to have your work and ideas make a big positive impact.”
World domination in a quarter-century
Today, Linux is huge. “In many ways, we’ve actually reached the fabled ‘world domination’ everyone joked about 20 years ago,” says Miller. “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 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.
The Internet of Things and year of the Linux desktop
Going into the next quarter-century, Fedora’s project leader is interested 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. He’s critical of the culture and lack of community around these projects:
“The situation now reminds me of the situation I described 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 I was talking about—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.”
Miller doesn’t expect to see a landmark “Year of Linux on the Desktop,” but he does expect Linux to increase its market share among “people who care about having an actual general-purpose computer.” He sees the mass market moving to tablets, phones, and simpler interfaces, leaving Linux as an increasingly appealing option for people who need a traditional, general-purpose PC. He points out Stack Overflow’s survey which found that 22 percent of developers use Linux on their primary desktop, and he expects to see that number grow—with maybe even the majority of developers using desktop Linux in five years. “The same pattern will play out for power users and all kinds of content creators,” he says.
But don’t despair, Linux fans. Linus Torvalds himself is still hopeful about the year of Linux on the desktop. “I’m still working on it. It’s been 25 years. I can do this for another 25. I’ll wear them down,” he said at the Embedded Linux Conference earlier this year.