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At its best, is open source unbeatable?

Open-source development, when it works, perhaps works so well and at such a frenetic pace that no proprietary vendor can hope to compete.

When an open-source project is working optimally, can proprietary-software companies hope to compete?

Eat my dust, proprietary sloths

Greg Kroah-Hartman, a prominent Linux kernel developer and Novell fellow, suggests that the answer is no. Speaking to the How Software Is Built blog, Kroah-Hartman makes the case that the pace of Linux development leaves competition in the dust:

[The Linux kernel development team adds] 11,000 lines, remove[s] 5,500 lines, and modif[ies] 2,200 lines [of code] every single day.

People ask whether we can keep that up, and I have to tell you that every single year, I say there's no way we can go any faster than this. And then we do. We keep growing, and I don't see that slowing down at all anywhere.

I mean, the giant server guys love us, the embedded guys love us, and there are entire processor families that only run Linux, so they rely on us. The fact that we're out there everywhere in the world these days is actually pretty scary, from an engineering standpoint. And even at that rate of change, we maintain a stable kernel.

It's something that no one company can keep up with. It would actually be impossible at this point to create an operating system to compete against us. You can't sustain that rate of change on your own.

Microsoft might beg to differ, as would Apple, but the reality is that neither is updated as often or as extensively as Linux is, which supports a far broader hardware portfolio than any other operating system in existence.

Linux is pretty incredible. But it's not alone. Mozilla Firefox, Eclipse, and other projects produce best-in-class software at an almost frightening pace.

Can anyone compete with an open-source project at the top of its game?

The answer might well be no, as the top open-source projects are collaborative efforts between multiple companies that pool resources and expertise to drive development. And while it might seem reasonable that a single corporation could best open source's seeming "development by committee" approach, the reality is that well-managed open-source projects have none of the inertia that one might expect from a communal approach.

Quite the opposite.

Having said that, very few open-source projects actually meet the criteria that enable Linux's success. Most appeal to a too-narrow and too-small population of developers (i.e., single-company projects) to glean the benefits and scale of Linux-like development.

As such, the proprietary-software companies probably won't have to worry about competing with indomitable open-source competitors. Not most of the time, anyway.

For those that do, however, better stock up on the pumpkin pie. It may be the only thing to be grateful for this Thanksgiving season.

Greg Kroah-Hartman interview discovered via @glynmoody's ComputerWorld blog.