How openness and collaboration helps Linux flourish
2nd Sep 2012 | 07:00
Linux has more to do with the theory of evolution than political thinking
We're often told that Linux is a kind of democracy, but if it is, it's a strange one. It doesn't have an elected government, there are no official leaders, and any policy appears after the fact, rather than being drawn up beforehand and then ignored.
More importantly, voting rights are mostly exclusive to an elite group of developers rather than the wider community of users, and there's very little non-technical folk can do to change things, other than start a new distribution.
Maybe this is all because, in most ways, Linux has more in common with the theory of evolution and very little to do with political thinking, despite what Steve Ballmer used to think.
The Linux kernel is the DNA, and as with biological evolution, it's not necessarily the good ideas that flourish - it's the most attractive ones. It's the ones that guarantee their own survival by helping themselves get reproduced into each successive version of the operating system. The ugly ones are tolerated, but only if they provide some type of essential service, like the average filesystem.
Google loves Linux
Let's take Google as an example. It's a major proponent of Linux and free software. It uses Linux to grow server farms and plot smartphone hegemony. Without Linux, it would need to buy into or develop its own platform, which might be feasible now (and it kind of did with Android), but wasn't in 1998.
You only have to look at its first server assembly, currently held in the Computer History Museum at Mountain View in California, to see how fragile that initial spark was. This old rack consists of 80 PCs and two routers, tied together by a web of Ethernet cables.
But Google never needed anyone's permission to use Linux. It doesn't need special consent when building its own versions, and it wouldn't be affected if Linus Torvalds didn't add its patches to the mainline kernel. This is what free software is all about.
In terms of evolution, Google's various internal uses of Linux could be considered analogous to the various finches found in the Galápagos Islands - distinct from other breeds. It's only recently, for instance, that Android has been re-merged into the Linux kernel - or, more accurately, the 'staging area' of its Git repository - after a hiatus of several years. Some branches live on; some die on the vine.
Even Microsoft has become part of the show. It became the 17th biggest corporate contributor to the Linux kernel in 2011, according to the Linux Foundation's latest annual development report. Presumably because Microsoft has decided that if no one else is going to help Linux behave itself while playing with Azure, it will have to do the work itself.
And it can, because the only barriers are technical ones, unlike the world of politics where the party line must be toed at all times, regardless of whether there's any merit in an idea from the opposition. Linux isn't different because lots of people contributed - it's different because it effectively belongs to no one.
Linus Torvalds gets final say on what does and doesn't make it into the official kernel, but anyone else is completely free to construct their own kernels, whether that's Google, Microsoft or Red Hat. Like evolution, and unlike politics, it's about solving problems, and openness and collaboration are the path of least resistance for ideas to flourish.
This idea is perhaps most evident at events like the Open-Data Cities Conference, recently held in the UK for the first time. Open-Data Cities is where the problem-solving attitude of open source communities combines with publicly funded organisations to create a better, more open future for everyone, regardless of whether they have the developer's vote or not. This is what making public data more visible is all about.
This year's event focused on democratically accountable public services, as well as improving the semantic web, and it helps to illustrate that those old divisions or personalities needn't get in the way of progress.
As Tom Steinberg, the founder of MySociety.org, put it at the conference, "Open data is like free speech. It's hard to quantify the benefits, but if you go to a country where it doesn't exist, the difference is obvious."
All of this is a long way of explaining that when Linus Torvalds claims that Linux succeeds thanks to selfishness and trust, or that Nvidia is the worst company he's ever dealt with (complete with accompanying hand gesture), or that the Gnome desktop is beyond hope - all of which has been said by him in the last few weeks, it doesn't mean the same as if Steve Ballmer had said it, or Tim Cook, or David Cameron.
This is simply the opinion of the person responsible for creating and maintaining the kernel, and like any of the patches contained within, we're all free to choose whether we take it or leave it. You can't do the same with other operating systems, or chief executives, or their walled gardens, or your local councillor. This is what makes open source software unique.