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Protecting the foundations of Linux – an interview with Jim Zemlin

Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, and Linux User’s 100th issue special guest editor chats about the 20th anniversary of Linux, the future of embedded Linux devices, and the current state of the kernel among other things...

Jim Zemlin is the executive director of the Linux Foundation. In this capacity, he heads up the efforts of the Foundation by bringing important people and organisations together to fix problems. We spoke to Jim two years ago about printing, desktop disparity and the future of Linux on consumer devices. This past April, we caught up with him again while playing his role as Linux User’s guest editor in this our centenary issue, and checked in on those topics.

Perhaps the single biggest change since our first interview with Jim has been the widespread popularity of Linux on handheld devices, mostly thanks to the Android platform. But that’s not all that has changed. Linux has continued to grow in popularity around the world, and recently Zemlin jokingly referred to criticising Microsoft as similar to “kicking a puppy”. Linux, he said, is the default choice for almost every new device-based project,
and on the servers of startups, governments and other cash-strapped organisations.

Jim recently broke his leg while skiing, so he was easy to catch at the annual Linux Collaboration Summit in San Francisco. We chatted with him about the 20th anniversary of Linux, the future of embedded Linux devices, and the current state of the kernel…

This year sees the 20th anniversary of Linux. Why has it been so successful over the past 20 years?

I think it’s more of an industry shift, where you’re seeing this massive adoption of Linux as the underlying fabric of a lot of different computing. All of the fundamental advantages Linux had – in terms of the availability of the source code, the low cost, the fact that you can own this stuff and build your own things on top of it –have turned out to be truly fundamental advantages. It’s amazing to look at.
In Silicon Valley there is not a startup today that uses proprietary software to build their company. In the hottest segment of the market today, it’s not Web 2.0 any more… It’s the new wave of social media companies like Groupon. Go to any of those companies and they all build their technology using open source. It’s Linux. It’s open source databases. It’s Apache web servers. It’s all open source. They’re doing that not just because the stuff is high quality, provides high availability and fast throughput, but also because it’s cheap for them to build. I was one of the founders of a company called Corio. When we went public, the number-one risk statement on our sheets was that we didn’t own the software. We hosted it, but it was built on proprietary software. It really is true. When I ask if Google could be the company they are today if they used .NET? Maybe not. There’s this fundamental advantage Linux has for people to own their code.

What’s interesting in Silicon Valley is that in addition to all these companies building on open source, they’re not just not buying software, they’re not buying hardware either. They’re launching using cloud services from Amazon and other providers. That’s reduced the amount of risk and the amount of capital required. I guess if you’re interested in old workloads and using MS Office, you’d say Windows is doing pretty well. And I wouldn’t deny they are, but if you’re into any new kind of workload, or into greenfield deployments, it’s all Linux.

If you go into other segments, like mobile, the same fundamental advantage holds true. In the consumer electronics world, it’s even more compelling. You’ve got this twofold pressure in the world of TV makers, or phone manufacturers, or DVD makers, which is that you not only are needing to spend more money creating these devices, it’s also a cost that is largely derivative
of software.

Take the top ten smartphones on the market today, turn off screens, lay them side-by-side and tell me which is which. You’ll have ten blank screens in a candy-bar form factor. It’s hard to tell an iPhone from a Droid until you turn it on and see the software is very different. When the software becomes the primary differentiator of these devices, the software component becomes very expensive. In addition to that price pressure in terms of building, these things are only on the market of 12 months. That gives these guys a lot less time to make money off of these things. They’ve decided that instead of making money off the hardware, I’m going to offer products and services on top of that. The only platform that allows you to control your own destiny is Linux, because it’s open source. We have these fundamental structural advantages in the market due to the licence cost and due to the critical mass that Linux has in terms of this broad architectural support. Once it’s taken on that critical mass combined with these advantages, it becomes something that’s very, very difficult to compete with, if you’re a proprietary software company. Microsoft… It’s evident they truly struggle.  In the markets they seem to care about and try hard to win, Linux seems to be doing a pretty good job competing.

How has Linux changed the world since it was created 20 years ago?
It has fundamentally changed the way people live every day. Let me give you an example. I think Bill Gates changed the world. Bill Gates changed the world with a simple vision of a PC on every desktop running Microsoft software. And the PC did change the way people interact in their daily lives. Linux has gone even beyond that. It’s not just powering desktops, but it’s a fundamental component of the global economy. It runs 75% of global equity trades. Wall Street and Linux are inextricably linked. It runs air traffic control systems, trains, Google, Amazon, eBay and Facebook. It’s in your phone. It’s in your TV. I mean, it’s changed the world so fundamentally, and people aren’t even aware it exists, which I think is one of the most elegant things about Linux.

It has driven billions of dollars of cost out of the IT industry. It has enabled services that are a part of everyone’s daily lives. It has changed fundamentally the way people think about developing software. It has proven the collaborative model is better.

Why do Linux communities work while many others fail or collapse in drama?

These are all self-forming communities. When you say, why do things stay the same versus change? One of the reasons for that in Linux is because what works tends to stay and what doesn’t work tends to fade away. That’s the beauty of these self-forming communities. There’s no artificial hand out there trying to force Linux in any direction. It takes on its own life and flow. That has been hugely advantageous as it jumps from one industry to another. And it does this with a single freakin’ kernel, which is freakin’ amazing.

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