This month, January 2019, there was an I.T. conference held at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. Although it is by name an Australian conference, it was attended by 600+ professionals and hobbyists from all over the planet, and included some of the world’s most influential people in the world of computer hardware and software. It hosted keynote speakers who have made technical, scientific, and even medical breakthroughs of global impact. In attendance was a man who arguably has more influence over the daily computing of millions than either Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Despite these things, it received no press or media coverage. I am of course referring to Linux.conf.au, and Linus Torvalds.
Linux, for the uninitiated, is a free operating system, originally invented by one Linus Torvalds in the early 1990s. Torvalds released his new operating system under the GNU licensing model. To paraphrase, that means you can’t sell it, the code is open (leading to the coining of the term Open Source), and if you modify or improve the code it is expected you will share your improvements in the same manner. Prior to the advent of the World Wide Web, such collaboration was only possible for people of means and large corporates. However, as we all know, today the Internet grants the power to connect you to whomever and whatever you like, thus giving any would-be philanthropist the ability to change the world together with others of like mind.
This has lead to the creation and sharing of Free and Open Source Software (known as FOSS). Many of these programs have been converted (“ported”) to Mac and Windows. This means that aside from your OS (unless you’re running Linux, which is free), you can do everything else at no cost to yourself. Here are just a few examples:
- GIMP (Photoshop alternative)
- Firefox (web browser)
- Filezilla (FTP)
- Audacity (audio editing)
- Kdenlive (video editing)
- Libre Office (Office suite)
Like it’s inventor, Linux has a quietly dominant influence. While it can be run as a desktop and comes in many “flavours” (distributions) for any device you can name, its stronghold is in the server farms of the world. It runs on twice as many web servers as Windows, and in the arena of supercomputers, the top 500 machines in the world are all running Linux – without exception.
In the corporate I.T. world, it has also produced productivity suites to rival or surpass its competitors. Ansible enables you to automate server builds in large numbers at speed, and Puppet can manage your desktop fleet and software deployments.
So how does anyone make any money by giving stuff away for free? Well, the earliest example I know of is that of Red Hat, who supplied their flavour of Linux free, but charged for enterprise-level support contracts. The success of the Red Hat model has lead to the company being recently aquired by IBM for a multi-billion dollar price tag.
Another significant example of Linux in the corporate world was that of the city council in Munich, Germany. In 2003, they engaged in what would be a decade-long project to transition all of their operations to Linux desktops, and as such were a beacon of light to the Open Source community. Opinion is divided on how successful this was (Don’t believe everything you hear about ‘incompatibility’ issues), and after 14 years, they opted to return to Windows by 2020. However, during the period of their project the use of open source software within corporates has risen dramatically worldwide.
This in turn has lead to such individuals like Dave Lane (obligatory mention since I have quoted him several times in this article!) and the NZ Open Source Society promoting the concept of Open Education, where people can study online and achieve recognised and transferrable credits, making higher education both open source and, most significantly, accessible to all people, everywhere. The implications of this cannot be underestimated.
Despite all of this, and perhaps because of its ability to tick along silently in the background, Linux is not a household name such as Apple or Microsoft. The name is not attached to the latest gadgets, and you won’t find its inventor trying to sell you a smartphone. He was wandering nonchalantly around the University of Canterbury last week with the rest of the delegates, enjoying the discussions about the futuristic developments he directly and indirectly helped inspire.
And pretty much nobody noticed.