Linux 24 years later

TWENTY-FOUR years ago this month, a young Finnish programmer announced on a newsgroup that he was developing a free operating system designed to run on personal computers. It was just a hobby, it said—nothing big.

With the benefit of hindsight, the announcement by Linus Torvalds turned out to be quite the understatement.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous example of the widespread growth of Linux today is in mobile phones. Google Android, which powered 82.8 percent of smart phones shipped in the second quarter of 2015, is based on Linux.

Linux has also made huge inroads in Fortune 500 corporations, according to the 2014 Enterprise End User Trends Report from The Linux Foundation and the Yeoman Technology Group, which surveyed companies such as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Bristol-Myers Squibb, NTT, Deutsche Bank, the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ. The survey found that Linux was the platform of choice for the cloud for 75 percent of the companies, and 78 percent felt that Linux was more secure than other operating systems.

Among companies that ran their networks on Linux, 87 percent added Linux servers in 2014, and 82 percent planned to add more in 2015. This was accompanied by a drop in the deployment of servers on other operating systems.

Linux and its open source approach are also at the forefront of innovation from technology giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. Even Microsoft, whose CEO once described Linux as a cancer, has created its own variant of Linux to power switches on its Azure cloud platform.

In the increasingly important field of Big Data, where data sets are so large or complex that traditional data processing applications are inadequate, most of the solutions such as Hadoop and MapReduce use Linux as their underlying platform.

All 10 of the world’s 10 fastest supercomputers run Linux. In fact, 94 percent of the Top 500 supercomputers in the world run on the open source operating system.

Ironically, just about the only area where Linux has not dominated is the platform for which it was first developed—desktop computers.

Hard data is difficult to come by because Linux is free and there are no sales figures to indicate the true number of users. The Linux Counter project estimates there are 81.5 million Linux users—which is a drop in the bucket of 3 billion Internet users.The most commonly cited figure is about 1.5 percent of the market—which isn’t all that high either, regardless of whether or not you believe that the numbers from Net Applications or StatCounter are understated.

Torvalds himself acknowledges the low penetration on the desktop and attributes this to the fact that very few computer manufacturers sell their machines with Linux already installed.

“This is my personal failure in Linux that I started Linux as a desktop operating system and it’s the only area where Linux hasn’t completely taken over,” Torvalds said at the Aalto University Center for Entrepreneurship in June 2012. “That just annoys the hell out of me.”

“The reason that the desktop is so hard to crack is that most consumers do not want to install an operating system on their machine. And that’s not desktop-centric. You don’t want to install an operating system yourself on your cell phone, either. The reason Linux is successful on cell phones is not because you have 900,000 people downloading disk images and installing them on your cell phone everyday. No, it’s because it comes on the cell phone pre-installed. And that has never happened in the desktop market.”

In his remarks three years ago, Torvalds said the fourth or fifth generation of Google Chromebooks—which come with a version of Linux pre-installed--could change things.

This year, worldwide Chromebook sales are expected to grow 27 percent to 7.3 million units, the research company Gartner Inc. says, with most of them going into the education market, where the inexpensive, web-centric laptops managed to beat out iPad shipments to schools.

The absolute numbers aren’t all that big compared to the 261 million desktop PCs and notebooks that Gartner projects will be sold this year, but it’s a start.

This is nothing to sneeze at, considering that Linux too, which dominates most areas of computing today, had a humble start 24 years ago as a mere hobby. Chin Wong


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