For enterprises wondering how much contribution is fair to the open source projects they use most, if Linux can be seen as an example, the answer is: as much or as little as you want.
On the other hand, Linux isn't hurting for contributors. In 1992, 100 developers were working on the kernel. By the end of 2010, 1,000 were.
Zemlin says that Linux is a success because the people building it don't plan.
"We have been a part of something that wasn't exactly a master plan. Linux has jumped from one form of computing to another somewhat seamlessly because self forming communities pop up," he says. Linux has moved from high performance computing and servers to embedded to mobile because someone has grabbed the code, started a project and attracted the committers it needed. Neither the Linux Foundation nor the kernel developers controlled that.
Indeed, Linus Torvalds told attendees at LinuxCon in August that he can't predict what's next and doesn't think of himself as a visionary kind of guy. He is focused on the changes to the next release and perhaps the one after that. As the kernel team issues a new release about every three months, that's a mere six months of insight at a time.
It is this lack of planning that could make Linux the first operating system not to be killed off by the Next Big Thing, Zemlin believes. Unix hit its rockslide by missing the desktop, he says. Microsoft hit the desktop but, so far, is struggling with mobile. "Linux, because it has these self-forming communities, hits it. Nobody is predicting and trying to shift course, it just naturally happens."
Trouble is, it can be hard for enterprises to create three- to five-year master plans and secure budgets for them when the technology leaders of their chosen platform are neither visionaries nor planners. The battle between open source virtualization platforms Xen and KVM is one example. Xen has more users, but KVM was the first to be accepted into the mainline kernel. Until Xen also made it into the kernel this summer, many in the Linux community questioned its survival and its users were left wondering if they should migrate or not.
Maybe the plans of Linux's leaders, even Torvalds, are immaterial because the people themselves are optional.
When asked if Linux without Linus would be better off than Apple without Steve Jobs, Zemlin's response is, "Unquestionably. Regardless of the hierarchy in Linux, there's a clear, collaborative spirit and structure. There's much more of a democratic nature even though there has to be someone at the end of the day that makes a call." Does "command-and-control" work better than "decentralized development"? "History will be the judge and I don't know," Zemlin says.
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