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Zemlin: 'Industry transformation depends on Linux' (Q&A)

Linux is not simply a great way to lower costs for enterprises: Linux Foundation exec Jim Zemlin says it is the critical component for transforming the technology industry.

Most businesses would die without centralized marketing and operations. The Linux kernel, however, thrives under this model.

The closest thing to a CEO in Linux land is Jim Zemlin, executive director of The Linux Foundation. While Zemlin doesn't steer the Linux ship, he does a great deal to corral its competing interests--vendors, developers, customers--to guide Linux to the impressive market position it holds today.

Jim Zemlin ZDNet

I caught up with Zemlin late last week to get a pulse on the state of Linux in the market. As ever, Zemlin didn't disappoint.

Q: Nearly a whole decade has gone by since the original tech bubble burst, and Linux has done quite well. How does the current recession compare to the hit that tech took ten years ago and how does it position Linux for the next decade?
Zemlin: IDC says the largest increase in Linux adoption took place in 2001/2002 during that bust. Since then, it has become mainstream and is being used everywhere.

Today's recession is quite different than the bubble and bust we experienced nearly a decade ago, since it has reached every corner of every market around the world. IDC already restated their growth forecast upwards for Linux due to the recession and I would expect analyst research to surface an even greater growth spurt for Linux over the last couple years as they get better at accounting for unpaid Linux and open source use.

Linux provides better value than Windows, and in tough times this difference makes all the difference.

But the recession isn't what's positioning Linux for growth in the coming decade. With or without the current economic climate, Linux is the only operating system (OS) that can help OEMs achieve any margin at all from devices that will soon be free.

The PC industry is moving towards a services business, much like the one we see in telecom. The OS must be free or nearly free or OEMs can't compete. This is why Microsoft is investing so much in search and other initiatives; it knows the business model for its former cash cow, Windows, is slowly dying.

There has been a lot of consolidation in the market. For example VMWare's Springsource acquisition and now the E.U. is saying they are concerned about Oracle's acquisition of Sun because of MySQL. Is this good for open source?
Zemlin: Industry consolidation is not something that will stop open source. Open-source licenses and particularly the GPL prevent this from happening. I agree with Eben Moglen and others who have pointed out that:

All scenarios likely to result from Oracle's (MySQL) acquisition of the (MySQL) copyrights, whatever Oracle's business intentions may be, are tolerable from the point of view of securing the freedom of the codebase.

Open-source licenses enable competition rather than restrict it no matter which direction the winds of the M and A market blow.

How does Linux compete with entrenched Microsoft on Netbooks and with innovative Apple on smartphones?
Zemlin: First off, the death of Linux in the Netbook market is greatly exaggerated. ABI research has shown that Linux actually has more like 32 percent share in Netbook shipments and that XP will be outsold in the Netbook market by 2012. The battle for the Netbook market isn't a sprint; it will be a marathon.

Microsoft has market share today and brand awareness, but that will only go so far when you're in a market where cost is paramount. Netbooks sell for as little as $199. OEMs can't afford to license Windows and still keep their margins in check. Linux will increasingly be used on Netbooks and other devices for that matter. Consider the Moblin project and what impact that will have on infotainment systems, phones, printers--any device!

In the smartphone market, when the industry got a competitive wake-up call from the iPhone almost three years ago, it turned to Linux. Every credible iPhone competitor is Linux-based: Motorola's Droid, Nokia's N900, and Palm's Pre are all based on Linux.

Apple will be in smart phones what it is in the PC market: the luxury penthouse suite. But, there is a huge market for affordable smartphones that have nearly all the functionalities of the iPhone. Linux ensures OEMs get their margins out of these devices as well.

Open source has taken some digs recently. Consider The New York Times piece that included sources saying that besides Red Hat, "everyone else is in trouble." As the lead Linux advocate, what do you say in response?
Zemlin: We have to get over this idea that open-source software will produce companies that look just like their proprietary counterparts. I owe much of my career to venture capitalists, but if they are expecting the same returns from the proprietary software portfolio's that they had in the 1990s they are crazy.

I would add that this has nothing to do with open source and it is a mischaracterization to say, "everyone else is in trouble" in the open-source industry.

The real value of Linux and open source is its ability to enable technology advancement and to make technologies accessible. Without Linux, would Google or IBM be what they are today? Would Google exist if it were written using Microsoft .NET? The answer is simple: no. And, the same can be said for a variety of companies.

Linux has contributed over $10 billion in R&D value to the world. It runs every major financial trading platform in the world. It the only way the mobile industry could respond to the iPhone. It has over a $50 billion economy just in enterprise computing alone. It runs 90 percent of the world's fastest supercomputers. It powers Sony cameras, Samsung televisions, your DVR, your GPS system and most of the major Web sites in the world. How on earth does this spell "trouble" for open source?

This year's biggest, most strategic technology initiatives, such as Moblin and Android, are being propelled into the future with Linux and open-source software. These projects would take decades longer to see to fruition without the low cost and collaborative methodologies (including fast development/time to market) inherent in open source.

You've said that patents will get tougher to get and more controversial to wield. Why?
Zemlin: First, Dave Kappos is the new head of the USPTO [United States Patent and Trademark Office]. This is a guy who was a development engineer at IBM and has an in-depth understanding of software technology and markets. It is highly unlikely under his leadership that software patents will get easier to obtain. Better tools for discovering prior art, better examiners, and perhaps even a shot at regulatory reform, will happen in 2010.

In addition, companies that wield their patent portfolios to stifle innovation, lock people out of markets, and tax an entire industry will simply be ignored. Developers are the lifeblood of any computing platform and I rarely talk to an engineer that wants to create interesting new technology on a platform that will tax him to death with patent litigation or arduous licensing.

What are you anticipating as the most significant Linux and open source milestones for 2010?
Zemlin: Linux is accelerating a major industry transition that is already well underway--an industry in which we pay for software and hardware to one in which we pay for neither.

Today I can walk into a wireless store in London or New York, sign up for a data plan and get a laptop completely for free. In fact, today it is cheaper to build an average Netbook than it is to build an iPhone ushering in carrier subsidies and essentially free hardware.

PC and smartphone makers are countering this trend by moving towards services. Apple has iTunes and Nokia has Ovi; expect other consumer device markets to move towards these services in an effort to maintain the profitability of their companies that face increasing margin pressure from the "free hardware" trend. And don't even get me started about Google.

The same applies in the enterprise space. New Web companies are built with free software and hosted on virtual machines on Amazon's cloud. Hot Web start-ups today don't buy software or hardware. and most major software as a service offerings remove the request to buy software or hardware.

Today a company can get free Netbooks from T-Mobile, sign up for a account and pay a monthly fee for a full blown enterprise CRM solution they can access anywhere. Expect interesting new bundling to take place in this area.

If Linux didn't already exist, companies would be scrambling to build their own OSes just to afford to compete in today's market. And, it would be a compatibility nightmare. But Linux does exist, and this industry transformation is depending on it.