Before the dot-com era, there was no such thing as a "Linux company." Afterwards it was hard to find a major company in computing that didn't run Linux or sell goods that ran on the OS. In between, venture-funded Linux companies added a lot of life to the software ecosystem.
The biggest word in today's Wall Street Journal is "LINUX". Actually, LINUX is tied with UNIX, WINDOWS, CHECKBOOKS, ROCKS and DB2. All are in the headline of a full page ad by IBM on page B3 -- the first page that accepts advertising -- in the Marketplace section of the newspaper.
This afternoon (I'm writing this in late May) Hewlett-Packard is announcing a deal with Reuters to move that company's Market Data Systems to HP ProLiant servers, running Linux. The deal spans three to five years and could exceed $200 million.
HP says it won that piece of business over IBM and Sun, both of which are also growing Linux providers. IBM has all but embarrassed itself in publicly declaring its love for Linux, getting busted last year for scrawling Linux graffiti on public property. Sun, meanwhile, has been struggling to find a way to be pro-Linux without hurting its high-end Solaris business.
So it would understate the matter to say Linux is a hit with big systems OEMs. And the trend hardly stops there. A year ago Linux was big in just one obvious category: Web servers. Now it's spreading out. HP says its latest sale "demonstrates the growing presence of Linux in the financial services market". This is a market that used to be synonymous with highly proprietary software and hardware. HP pointedly adds, "This also places HP in a strategic position as the financial services market moves from Sun Solaris to Linux."
Proprietary UNIXes aren't the only threatened ones. Earlier this year Microsoft President Steve Ballmer called Linux the "number one threat" to Windows. Yes, Windows is still a monopoly, but for how long? Several years ago that would be a ridiculous question. Now it's not. Microsoft seems to have declared war on Linux and open source software -- a strategy that is backfiring terribly. Today's papers bring news that Microsoft has reportedly been trying to convince the U.S. Department of Defense that open source software poses both a threat to security and to the company's intellectual property. Meanwhile the DOD had a report prepared by MITRE Corp. that identified two hundred and forty-nine uses of open source systems and tools, including Defense Intelligence Agency Web portal, and network security sotware for the U.S. Army and Air Force. MITRE itself maintains a library of open source products, including moble mesh networks and CVW, a Collaborative Virtual Workspace. MITRE even maintains some of its open source software on SourceForge.
Even where Linux isn't the operating system of choice, it has opened the door for other free and open forms of UNIX, such as BSD, which was adopted into Darwin, the open source foundation of Apple's OS X. This has vastly increased the population of the world's Linux-friendly PCs and servers. Last week I asked Steve Jobs if it was true that the company's new rack-mounted xServers were expected to augment, rather than replace, existing UNIX systems. He said yes. After I asked him what other kinds of UNIX crops prevailed in potential customers' server farms, he started his list with Linux.
It's not surpirsing. Here's a rundown of Google results for a variety of operating systems and related topics:
This is a far cry from 1993, when Phil Hughes included me in an email list that explored opportunities for a free software magazine. After batting ideas around for awhile, Phil suddenly announced that his little company, SSC, was going to start a magazine for Linux, the brainchild of a 21-year-old guy from Finland.
I thought Phil was nuts. But Phil is very instinctive about stuff other people don't see. A few years later, visiting at my house, Phil showed me KDE running office applications that looked remarkably like what one normally sees on Windows. Yet everything he showed me was free and open. It blew my mind so much that I took him up on his offer to join the masthead. This was in early '99, when the venture capital was still flowing like Niagra and Linux had an effect on investors that was something like Viagra. By the end of that year, three of the biggest IPOs in the history of Amercican business were for companies strongly identified with Linux: Red Hat, Cobalt, Andover and VA Linux. VA's IPO in December flew to over $300 per share on Day One before settling at over $200. For a few months there was no shortage of Linux billionaires.
I recently purged my pile of business cards, and took a picture before tossing the stack into recycling. They told an interesting story.
The big winner is a company with no cards in my pile: Red Hat, whichstill proudly flies the penguin flag, and remains by far the leading Linux distribution. (We modestly point out the name of the editor atop our first issue's masthead was none other than Red Hat founder Bob Young. Coincidence?)
It's easy to put down all the dot-com enthusiasm, and to damn Linux with the failure of the whole dot-com, um, "model". The phenomenon had its upside as well. It helped make Linux a household word and funded a variety of projects that thrive today. One example is SourceForge, which hosts over 40,000 projects and 430,000 registered users.
Here at Linux Journal, we've been through the hard times along with the rest of the surviving Linux companies . But what's kept us going is the steady march of Linux toward what Linus Torvalds half-jokingly called world domination.
After 100 issues, Linux Journal has become the leading Linux how-to magazine for countless technologists -- in software and hardware companies, government organizations, medical and scientific institutions, and ithird world economies that need maximum productivity with minimal cost. We're in great shape.
And so is the world Linux now dominates: operating systems.
Linux has finally done what UNIX devotees have wanted for decades: it has driven the OS to ubiquity. Today the only UNIXes with any future are free, open and ready for improvement by anybody who wants to jump in and help.
That's one heck of a success story.
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.