A decade of Linux

More than ten years ago, I helped Linux's adoption along by proving out that Linux and Samba actually worked faster than the then-dominant Windows NT operating system. Today, as we bid adieu to the 'noughts', everyone uses Linux in devices from DVRs (digital video recorders) and smartphones, to the Internet, where everything from search engines such as Google to the social networks like Facebook and Twitter to vital business networks like the world's stock markets rely on Linux. Only the desktop remains unconquered, and who knows? Between Linux-powered netbooks and Google's Chrome OS, by 2019 perhaps even that will have changed. After all, who would have thought in 1999 that Linux would have quietly become so prevalent throughout computing?

Let's take a look at this last decade and see how Linux made its journey from niche operating system to its current prominence.

2001: Linux Kernel 2.4

The Linux 2.2 kernel was great — for standalone servers and brave desktop users. It was only after the Linux 2.4 kernel was introduced in January 2001 that Linux took dead aim at moving from Web servers and branch file and print servers to running the enterprise. Yes, it added some desktop-friendly features, better device support in general and USB support that really worked, but its improved support for clustering, multiple processors and up to 64GBs of memory is what paved its way to being an enterprise server powerhouse.

2001: The Mixed Blessing of Proprietary Drivers

With Linux 2.4's new driver model, it became possible for vendors to support Linux with proprietary drivers. NVIDIA's 32-bit 3D graphics drivers were followed in 2002 by 64-bit drivers, the first proprietary software/hardware company to take advantage of the new model. The good news is this model let people use proprietary software and firmware-based graphic and Wi-Fi devices on Linux. The bad news is that you have to use proprietary software even now to get the most from some devices.

Since then, the fight has expanded into software with Adobe Flash on Linux and Novell's Mono, a clone of Microsoft's .NET environment, which has garnered both praise and criticism. The fight over should proprietary software be allowed in open-source Linux distributions is hotter than ever, and I don't see it ever getting resolved. Some vendors will never open their code, and some users will be willing to put up with that to get access to that program's or device's features. Meanwhile, some Linux users, such as the ones at Boycott Novell and the Free Software Foundation, won't have a thing to do with these distributions.

2002–2004: Red Hat embraces the enterprise, leaving individual users behind

Red Hat is Linux's glowing success story. If Red Hat's revenue keeps growing the way it has been, by this time next year, I may be writing about Red Hat being the first billion-dollar Linux company. Red Hat was already an established Linux company by 2002, but what transformed it were two related moves. First, in 2002, Red Hat released RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) 2.1, which was its first Linux meant exclusively for business IT. Then, Red Hat ticked off its fan base by abandoning the personal box Linux distribution in 2004.

Users at the time hated Red Hat's move, but in the long run, it was the right business move. The Fedora Project, which was started in 2003, gradually won the fans back.

2003: Novell Buys SUSE

One of the great ironies of Linux business history is that Novell, not Red Hat, could have been the first great Linux company. In the early 90s, Novell was working on its own in-house Linux, but with a change in management, the company abandoned its early Linux plans. So, in 1994, that project's leaders, Bryan Sparks and Ransom Love, left Novell to form a new Linux company, Caldera. Fast-forward to 2003, and Novell, which had changed management again, realized that sticking with its rapidly aging NetWare had been a fool's move — so it bought SUSE.

Since then, Novell has played second fiddle to Red Hat and has continued to struggle financially. Still, despite that and making an alliance with Microsoft, which has earned them both affection from companies that want to combine their Windows and Linux infrastructure and hatred from free software fans, SUSE Enterprise Linux and its community version, openSUSE, are still major Linux distributions.

2003: Caldera/SCO's IBM anti-Linux lawsuits

When Linux vendor Caldera bought SCO and, it thought, Unix's intellectual property in 2002, it sounded like a perfect match. No one would have guessed that Caldera's owners would fire its pro-Linux management and devote all its time and energy to suing first IBM and then other companies over the patently stupid idea that Linux's source code was stolen from Unix.

Even now, like an unkillable zombie from a bad horror flick, the last remnants of SCO's cases linger on. Thanks to SCO's kamikaze attacks on Linux, many close Linux watchers are as familiar with IP (intellectual property) law as they are with programming code. Because of all these attacks, which are detailed in Pamela Jones' brilliant Groklaw Web site, Linux's IP has been shown to be cleaner of legal entanglements than that of Microsoft Office. If anyone tells you today that their company can't use Linux because they're unsure of its IP legal implications, they're simply ignorant of the facts.

2004: Ubuntu — The Linux Community for Everyone

Debian, which dates back to 1994, was the first community Linux, but its descendant, Ubuntu, was the first Linux to reach beyond IT and hard-core techies to the larger community of PC users. Its founder, Mark Shuttleworth, wanted to create in Ubuntu "a new Linux distribution that brings together the extraordinary breadth of Debian with a fast and easy install, regular releases (every six months), a tight selection of excellent packages installed by default and a commitment to security updates with 18 months of security and technical support for every release."

The result has become the most popular of all the community and desktop Linux distributions. Thanks to Ubuntu's groundbreaking partnership with Dell, which marked the first time a major PC vendor offered pre-installed desktop Linux to the mass market, Linux took a giant step forward on the desktop.

2007: The Netbook arrives

Perhaps it wasn't too surprising that Dell was followed by Asus, which introduced a new kind of laptop: the Linux-powered netbook. Netbooks quickly became wildly popular, which caught everyone by a surprise — no one more so than Microsoft, which was forced to bring XP Home out of retirement to compete with Linux.

Today, despite Microsoft's claims that Windows has beaten Linux out of the low-end netbook space, Linux is holding its own on the global market. Indeed, the entire netbook and desktop Linux market may be in for a complete revolution thanks to the arrival of the most recent desktop Linux player: Google.

2009: Google Chrome OS

Google, one of the only companies in the world that's big enough to go head-to-head with Microsoft, has thrown its hat into the desktop OS ring with the announcement of the 2010 arrival of the Chrome operating system. What I think makes this move both especially interesting, and more likely to succeed, is that Google isn't taking on Windows 7 on all desktops. No -- what Google is doing is claiming that its Internet-based, Linux-powered Chrome OS is all the 'desktop' people will need on low-end systems like netbooks.

By sidestepping Windows on the high end, Google is changing the rules of the desktop game. I foresee Google Chrome OS not beating Microsoft on the desktop, but winning the new world of highly mobile, lightweight desktop computing.

2010 and Beyond

Where do we go from here? What will Linux look like in 2019? That's a tale I'll tell in my next blog.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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