Linux 20 years on

Is the open source operating system still relevant?

By - August 27, 2011
Linux - Tux on blocks

It has been 20 years since Linus Torvalds first announced his new operating system. At the time he said that Linux was not much to get excited about, just a hobby that might appeal to a few like-minded developers. As it turned out Linux became a lot more than Torvalds could ever have imagined and far from being a hobby for a handful, Linux is now at the heart of most of the world’s IT.

Over the 20 years of Linux’s existence many have imagined a world in which Linux became the default operating system for the majority of users, unseating Microsoft in the process. In South Africa the government at one point put a great deal of stock in the potential of open source in general and Linux in particular, to deliver the benefits of technology to all citizens. One of South Africa’s best-known IT millionaires, Mark Shuttleworth, followed his initial success with a project to equip schools throughout the country with Linux-based computer labs. Shortly after that, he launched Ubuntu, a new, user-friendly version of Linux that catered for every user.

Around the world the momentum around Linux grew, sometimes on the desktop though mostly in other environments. Despite the ambitions of many there is yet to be a “year of the Linux desktop”. Linux is still only used on a fraction of a percent of the world’s computer desktops. Even Apple has more market share on the desktop OS front. There probably never will be a year of the Linux desktop; the truth is that the Linux desktop remains the domain of geeks, developers and hobbyists and the entrenched weight of Microsoft is simply too big a hurdle for an open source project to overcome. Besides, the era of the standalone desktop operating system is fading fast as users migrate online to web applications and cloud services that are equally accessible irrespective of the device used.

On servers, however, Linux tells a completely different story. Take for example the bi-annual list of the world’s top 500 supercomputers. In 1998 there was just one top-500 supercomputer that ran Linux. Today 456 of the world’s biggest supercomputers run a variant of Linux.

Linux also underpins many of the world’s largest networks including the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, eBay and Google. Linux is also most often the choice of platform for technology start-ups as its capabilities versus its costs are exceptionally appealing.

If Linux is big in the server room it’s nothing to what it is likely to be in the mobile space. The rise of smartphones has created new and exciting opportunities for developers and many are already putting Linux to work. Google in particular is driving the Linux mobile train with its Android operating system. Already Android dominates the smartphone market with more than 40% market share, and has decimated Nokia’s Symbian which was the clear leader just a year ago. The future for Linux-based Android in the mobile space, including the new tablet PC market, is looking particularly promising.

Twenty years on, is Linux still relevant? The answer has to be yes, but not because it stands any chance of supplanting Windows or Mac OS X, but because it will dominate just about everything else. From set-top boxes, to cloud servers, to social networks, to tablet PCs and to mobile phones, Linux is becoming the base on which all else is built. Users may not actually go out and buy a copy of Linux (or download one) but most of us will be using Linux in one form or another in the coming years.

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