But Al Gillen, program vice president for system software and an analyst at IDC specializing in operating environments, questions the value proposition of such total freedom going forward. "Linux is open source, and as such, anybody can fork off code and turn it into something else. However, the industry has shown that forks without value go away, and there is great value associated with staying close to main line code."
Android users have experienced this most directly with the fragmentation that exists between different editions of the OS. None of that is, strictly speaking, Linux's fault, but as with the myriad desktop distributions before it, Android fragmentation illustrates the tension that arises between allowing the freedom to change the product and the fallout of inconsistency of implementation.
Ironically, that might mean the best thing for Linux, going forward, is to double down on Linux as raw material.
Eric Sammer, engineering manager at Cloudera, doesn't see Linux alone as having users "the same way as something like Firefox or the Apache Web server." Linux "is targeted toward operating system builders, not the end-user," and so it needs "tons of other software -- much of it tightly coupled, from a user's perspective (such as a boot loader) -- to form a complete system." As Torvalds himself noted in the release notes for the very first Linux kernel, "A kernel by itself gets you nowhere."
Both Gillen's and Sammer's words are echoed by how Linux's biggest uptake with users has been, again, Android, with all its attendant value added by Google and the app ecosystem developed for the OS. The malleability of Linux is only a first step toward an actual product -- as its most successful advocates understand.
Corporate contributors: Asset or obstacle?
Another of Linux's hallmarks is that it's a collaborative effort; out of the contributions of many come one. But where are those collaborators coming from?
Answer: Corporations -- mainly, those who stand to benefit themselves from supporting Linux for their own future endeavors. Aside from Red Hat (apart from Canonical, the most widely recognized corporate vendor of Linux solutions), top contributors include Intel, IBM, Texas Instruments, and even Microsoft.
Much of Linux's flexibility is due to such contributions, which expand Linux's ability to run on multiple platforms and on a broad spectrum of devices. Enlightened self-interest is the main motive here: Microsoft's own kernel additions, for instance, largely revolve around allowing Linux to run well under Hyper-V.
Sammer believes the prevalence of corporate-backed contributors is "due to the barrier of entry to any project as complex and critical as the Linux kernel. Your average C hacker doesn't have the time to get up to speed, build the credibility with the community, and contribute meaningful patches in their spare time, without significant backing." In his view, corporations most often have the resources to support such endeavors, with universities and research organizations being further behind.
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