Jim Zemlin on 20 Years of Linux

Jim Zemlin, executive director of the non-profit Linux Foundation, has been using Linux for about as long as I have, which is roughly half the time that Linux has been around. I recently spoke with Jim about the Linux Foundation’s upcoming LinuxCon, the history of Linux, and what might be in store for the next twenty years.

If you look at the history of computing, we see big established players dominating in their respective spaces, and then slowly wither and in some cases die altogether. 40 years ago computing was all mainframes and UNIX. Then the personal computer era began and desktop operating systems like Microsoft Windows ruled the roost — UNIX and mainframes were still around, but failed to adapt to the sea change in the primary nature of computing. In the last decase, we’ve seen an absolute explosion in mobile computing — Microsoft is still a contender but there’s no denying that they’ve been slow to react to the change in how people use computing devices.

Linux, on the other hand, has thrived across all of these platforms. There are many reasons for this, but the fundamental reason for Linux’s longevity is without a doubt its open source roots. Linus Torvalds released Linux under the GNU Public License, allowing people to use it and extend it as they needed, provided they shared their work with the rest of the world.

Zemlin digs a little deeper into the long-term value of Linux’s open source nature. According to him, it permits self-forming communities to arise to scratch their own itches. The work of these self-forming communities, and the cross-pollination between them, has given rise to unexpected benefits, where work on X has demonstrably benefitted Y. For example, work on power management in the Linux kernel for embedded devices has demonstrably improved mainframe Linux, where power consumption is a primary cost consideration.

In this way, interested parties have been able to build Linux for every conceivable computing platform: from mainframes to desktop computers to telephones to embedded devices inside televisions and automobiles. There may be no incentive for the mainframe Linux folks to work on embedded Linux, but neither is there anything inherent in Linux or its development model that precludes simultaneous development across mulitple hardware platforms.

Zemlin had many ready examples of Linux’s adaptability, all of which help ensure it’s relevance today and into the future. Playing devil’s advocate, I suggested to Zemlin that Linux was largely a reactive effort, responding to needs rather than anticipating them and forging new solutions. Zemlin was quick to counter that Linux’s development is absolutely innovative. One needs only look at the phenomenal work in the High Performance Computing market to see examples. Linux dominates 90% of the HPC market, and researchers are constantly finding new ways to make Linux excel in that space. The same holds true for embedded devices, where Linux is the de facto choice.

Linux users used to joke about “Linux world domination”. There were all manner of clever and ironic poster images of a gigantic Tux the Penguin looming over Microsoft’s corporate headquarters. These days, Linus Torvalds no longer makes those jokes. According to Zemlin, Linux is “an unstoppable force”: so much of every day life is influenced — directly or indirectly — by Linux. As Zemlin puts it, “Unless you’re Microsoft, Appe or RIM, you’re using Linux.” World domination, indeed.

It was suggested that the Linux kernel could be a good predictor of coming technologies. The Linux kernel itself gets new features much more quickly than the various Linux distributions make available. So what’s in the core kernel today will make its way to mainstream distribution in a couple months, as vendors test these new features with the rest of their stack’s components. So if you watch the kernel commits, you’ll get a good idea of where the bulk of Linux computing is headed.

Zemlin joked that he expected a number of visible mid-life crises to be on display at this year’s LinuxCon. After all, many of the major names in the open source community have literally grown up with Linux. The Linux Foundation has been working hard to ensure the next generation of innovators are ready to pick up the mantle. This year’s LinuxCon features a student program, including training scholarships for five lucky winners, allowing students the opportunity to learn development methods adn techniques directly from the major luminaries of the open source world.

More than just a big group hug to celebrate one another’s achievements, LinuxCon is an opportunity to continually advance Linux development. What might take six months of mailing list back-and-forth can be resolved in person with a five minute chat. Folks can meet like-minded developers working on similar problems to expedite problem solving, share experiences, and improve the overall state of the Linux community, which is every bit as important as the work produced by that community.

I’ll be at LinuxCon this year, speaking with developers and executives alike about the past, present and future of Linux. I’ll also be participating in the media panel where other journalists and bloggers will share their perspective on the changing nature of media coverage of Linux over the years.

If you’ll be there — or just live in Vancouver — send an email to scottm@beta.techcrunch.com to let me know. I’d love to chat with you.