The past year has been an interesting one in the progress of open source software, even if it wasn’t the most exciting year for community-developed software.
Unlike in previous years where each new release of a Linux distribution or an application was met with expectations of it being the killer app, this years OSS developments were more low-key, more circumspect. The idea that Linux is suddenly going to hit a critical mass and turn into the Microsoft-killer is fading, to be replaced with a more rationale view that Linux, Mac OS X and Windows will co-exist, even if uncomfortably, for many years to come. Linux is not going to wipe out Microsoft’s dominance any time soon, just as Mac OS X is unlikely to turn the tables on Windows in the coming year.
And yet, there was much progress in 2009 that open source fans can celebrate. It was a year in which open source software became even more deeply entrenched, even if users weren’t completely aware of the change. Even Microsoft started embracing open source software, albeit cautiously, with a few carefully thought out moves.
Microsoft and OSS
In July Microsoft released its first piece of software under the open source-friendly licence. The first was 20 000 lines of Hyper-V code for the Linux kernel and the second a Moodle plugin. Interestingly both pieces of software were released under a GNU GPL2 licence, the licence most often used by the open source community.
The move was significant not just for the software released but rather for the fact that Microsoft has consistently avoided embracing the popular open source licence over the years. By establishing its own open source licence rather than adopting the popular GPL licence, Microsoft had avoided legitimising the GPL as a licensing scheme. Now, however, Microsoft had made an important move that gave additional weight to open source licensing.
One of the areas in which Linux, and open source, made some headway in 2009 was in the ultra-portable netbook market. In mid-2009 it looked as if Microsoft Windows had entrenched itself in the netbook market but by the close of the year the tide looks to be turning.
According to a recent survey by ABI Research Linux is now installed on 32% of all netbooks sold globally. That translates, according to ABI’s Jeff Orr, to 11 million Linux-based netbooks sold this year. It’s a number that Microsoft won’t be happy to hear, especially as earlier this year it was trumpeting a comment from netbook maker MSI that the customer return rate for Linux-based netbooks was as much as four times as much as for Windows-based ones.
When netbooks were first released a couple of years ago, Microsoft completely missed the boat. It was in the process of phasing out Windows XP and urging customers to upgrade to Vista. The newer operating system, however, was far too cumbersome for the first lightweight – and low-power – netbooks, with the result that most early netbooks shipped with a version of Linux. Quickly realising the potential damage that could be done, Microsoft pushed back the end of life for XP and urged makers to install that on their netbook range. The result was that Microsoft quickly reclaimed its dominance in the netbook market.
But now it seems Linux is making steady inroads into this market and many commentators are predicting a 50% market share for Linux in the very near future.
Perhaps the biggest open source success stories for 2009 came in the mobile arena. Leading the shift to open source mobile operating systems was Google’s Android. The open source operating burst onto the scene this year and quickly gathered fans. In the latter half of 2009 Android popped up on a number of HTC phones, helped Motorola with its return, showed up on Samsung phones and is set to appear on many more in the coming year.
But it wasn’t only Android making waves, as Nokia unveiled its N900 tablet phone in the closing months of 2009. The N900 is a successor to the N810 tablet and runs the Linux-based Maemo operating system, prompting many to speculate that Linux was going to be a bigger part of Nokia’s future than the Symbian operating system.
IT analyst heavyweight Gartner is predicting that open source mobile phone operating systems will account for more than 60% of the market by 2012. It’s not that far-fetched to believe as Android is gaining traction, Nokia is working on Linux-based phones and its Symbian operating system, the most used mobile phone OS, is also open source.