The Future of Linux

An informal report on the panel discussion held in Santa Clara on July 14.

The Future of Linux was set up as a panel discussion and was held at the Santa Clara Convention Center (in the heart of Silicon Valley) on the evening of July 14, 1998. It was hosted by Taos Mountain and the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group (SVLUG), and was sponsored by them, Intel, Red Hat, Linux Journal and VA Research. Apparently it was considerably more popular than Taos expected; people stood in line for up to an hour to register, and the free food and free VA Research/Linux T-shirts ran out. I didn't get a firm count, but Taos said 850 people had returned their RSVP, and my estimate is 700 to 900 attended.

Linus Torvalds and the Panel

The panel was a distinguished group: Jeremy Allison, one of the lead Samba developers; Larry Augustin, founder of VA Research and member of the Linux International Board of Directors; Robert Hart, from Red Hat Software; Sunil Saxena, from Intel's UNIX Performance Lab; and, of course, The Man himself, Linus Torvalds. (While I know there are a lot of Linux fans who like to pronounce “Linux” with a long “i” sound (LYE-nucks), and despite the fact that Linus himself doesn't care how anyone else pronounces it, he unquestionably did so with a short “i” as in “linen” (LINN-ucks). In Swedish he presumably still pronounces it the third way, roughly “LEE-nooks.”) The discussion was moderated by Michael Masterson of Taos, who traded off questioning duties with Phil Hughes, all-around hairy guy and publisher of Linux Journal.

Linus Torvalds responds to a question from the audience. Ben Spade, president of the Silicon Valley Linux User Group, serves as microphone wrangler.

I did not have a tape recorder, so answers are paraphrases of what was actually said. [Comments in square brackets are my personal asides.]

Phil Hughes' Questions

1. How much bigger will the Linux market be in 2000?

  • Jeremy Allison said 20% to 25% of shipping Intel systems will have Linux pre-installed.

  • Linus Torvalds said that he's always been bad at predicting things and basically weaseled out of answering the question.

  • Sunil Saxena also declined to speculate.

  • Larry Augustin said that Linux would be the #1 UNIX by 2000.

  • Robert Hart mentioned the Datapro report that showed only two operating systems increased their corporate market share in 1997; Linux was one of them. He said the doubling time was 12 months, which would imply between 20 million and 40 million Linux users; “I'll be surprised if we don't go beyond that.”

2. World domination: how much longer? [in reference to Linus' rather famous stated goal in his .sig or .plan or something]

Linus Torvalds: “That used to be a joke... [much laughter] ...and it's becoming less and less so.” He said his ego hopes it will happen in five to ten years; but more realistically, he hopes that in five to ten years no one dominates the industry.

3. What is Samba's role in Linux's acceptance?

Jeremy Allison first asked for a show of hands; it appeared that roughly 40% of the audience used Samba. Then he gave the short answer to the question: Samba “essentially allows people to remove NT servers.” He noted that SGI is officially adopting Samba [recall that they, like HP, are now selling NT systems as the low end of their product line] and that “some crazy folks are running it straight off of CDs with 200 users” (mostly universities who “do not want NT”). By the end of the year, he hopes that Samba will be able to completely replace all primary NT Server functions.

4. Open Source is obviously just another fad—isn't it?

Larry Augustin was the first to disagree; he said that Open Source is here to stay—for example, it allows a company like Netscape to compete on its own terms with Microsoft, not on Microsoft's terms. It also supports a Darwinian model: if one vendor's support is lacking, you've got the source and can take your money (and business) elsewhere. That's not possible with the closed-source model epitomized by Microsoft.

Robert Hart expanded on that point: it's all about control. If you need a new feature or bug fix or other customization, you can simply hire someone to do it for you. “You don't need anyone's permission; just do it!” I believe he related an example of a company with a large application that was in dire need of a bug fix; they were willing to spend essentially any amount of money or manpower to get the thing working, but their vendor was unresponsive and they had no real alternatives.

Jeremy Allison claimed that he was fundamentally “a lazy programmer” and that the Open Source model is a way of letting users do the work [more laughter]. He mentioned that some incredible Samba patches occasionally turn up in his e-mail—often oddball customizations useful to only a few people, but to them they're extremely useful. “Imagine asking Microsoft to do a custom NT Server for your site.”

5. What will be the long-term effects on Linux of Microsoft's recent win against Netscape (i.e., bundling MSIE in Win98)?

Linus Torvalds dismissed the Department of Justice and the U.S. legal system as important factors in Linux's future; “the only thing that will matter is the market.” In fact, he claimed it's an advantage since there are many companies who find it hard to compete, when Microsoft sees what they're doing and simply incorporates similar technology directly into the OS. In the Linux arena they can find a niche and compete (echoing Larry's comments above), as Corel has, for example. “That's one reason why, in the end, a monopoly just doesn't work. [pause] Maybe that's just me...”

6. What do we need to do to get applications (such as from Adobe and Quark, which are the only non-Linux applications used by Linux Journal), ported to Linux?

Robert Hart said there are just two things: let them know you want Linux ports, and show them there's profit to be made.

Larry Augustin related an article seen on Slashdot earlier in the day about Informix's unannounced Linux port and said the key is to tell vendors, “If you port it to Linux, we will buy it.” [Three days later, Slashdot and InfoWorld Electric reported a sudden reversal of plans at Oracle: they will be porting Oracle 8 to Linux after all. In fact, they say they've had it running internally for a while already. See also InfoWorld Electric's article on Informix's official Linux announcement, made on July 22.]

7. With regard to the Linux Standard Base (a standard for base-level compatibility across Linux distributions): Red Hat and Debian's standard package formats, Red Hat's early adoption of glibc vs. everyone else, etc., are we doing this right? Are there too many Linux “standards”?

Robert Hart had three points in response. First, a lot of discussion goes on between the various distribution makers, precisely for the purpose of avoiding fragmentation. Second, we have a danger of stultifying and crushing the rapid pace of development and the incredible customization choices available to users if we have too much rigidity and standardization. Third, to the other distributions: “Please get with it—glibc is the only actively maintained C library.”

Larry Augustin countered that he's seen a lot of users who, when they upgraded to Red Hat 5.x, found that “everything broke”. [Thanks to Jason Riedy for the reminder that just installing the older libc 5.4.x somewhere in the library path isn't sufficient; most shared libraries used by older applications need to be duplicated, as was the case in the changeover from a.out to ELF binaries a couple of years ago.] “You're in the big time now. Some things (like Informix) users can't simply recompile—try to make things easier for people and remain compatible.”

8. What if Microsoft plays the Linux game? For example, Open Windows 99 or Internet Explorer for Linux?

Linus Torvalds first noted that he's working at a company [Transmeta] whose product won't be available on the Internet. He went on to say that he has a lot of respect for Microsoft's PR machine, and “let's hope they do.”

Jeremy Allison apparently interpreted “Open Windows 99” as a hypothetical Microsoft release based on Linux, and said he would welcome MS Linux—the GNU General Public License (GPL) limits abuse. “If they change it, we'd get the source code,” to which Linus muttered, “We could fix it, too.” [much applause and laughter]

9. NASA, NIST, the U.S. Postal Service, the IRS all use Linux—is the U.S. Government the first step toward world domination?

Linus Torvalds: “I hadn't really thought of that, but now that you've planted the idea...” [more chuckles]