Open Source Software and Linux

I am a fan of open source software and particularly Linux.  Open source software is computer software, where the owner “grants users the rights to use, study, change, and distribute the software and its source code to anyone and for any purpose”.  Linux or the Linux kernel is probably the most well known example of open source software.  Linux is the software that makes a foundation or the kernel of an operating system.  A Linux distribution, of which there are many, is what most people would consider the operating system.  A Linux distribution is a full operating system,  like Windows 10 or Mac OS X.

Linux was started 30 years ago by Linus Tovalds.  The internet was just getting going from being a research project to what it is today.  It was perfect timing for this hobby project to take off and become more than a hobby.  I remember reading the initial announcement of the Linux kernel.  There was immediately tremendous interest in Linux, and it quickly became a group project that programmers from all over the world were writing code for.

Soon after that, Microsoft realized Linux’s potential and a potential impact on Microsoft’s bottom line, so  Microsoft began to actively discourage the use of Linux.  Microsoft used fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) to discourage its use.  Linux was even called a “cancer” in 2001 by then Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.  

Move forward 20 years and in a completely different sense Linux has spread like a cancer.  I just installed the “Windows Subsystem Linux (version 2)” on my Windows 10 Home laptop.  This program is a Microsoft developed and approved piece of software.  I am running the Linux kernel and operating system inside Microsoft’s Windows 10 Home with Microsoft’s blessing.  What happened and why is Microsoft now supporting Linux?

It turns out that using the collaborative methods of making open source software produces software better than the proprietary methods (in most cases).  Using collaborative open source methods means that people from all over the world are working on improving the software and correcting any bugs in that software.  There tend to be more people working on open source software than if it were proprietary software.  

My experience with open source software illustrates the point in a small way.  Some of the weather radar processing software that we used was very old.  A friend wrote a program to easily view weather radar files.   He built it on top of some other open source code.  I wanted to have some editing capabilities so I added that capability.  My editing code barely worked.  Another friend added some stuff he wanted in it.  Then someone from Europe, who no one knew, saw the code on Github and he cleaned up the code, made it faster, and he added more capabilities to the code.  Now the program works great and is being used by many people.  The open source code made collaboration easy and improved the software.

Microsoft learned that lesson and decided to give its users/developers what they wanted. Microsoft went into open source software in a big way. Microsoft has open sourced a lot of their software, and Microsoft bought Github, the main collaborative open source software website.   (However their crown jewels, Windows and Office, remain closed source.)  Microsoft has changed from 20 years ago.

Was Microsoft right to be concerned 20+ years ago? Yes, they were, but Microsoft should have embraced the change sooner, instead of fighting it for many years.  Today most web servers, all the top 500 supercomputers, and all non-Apple (android) smartphones run on Linux.  Linux is everywhere, and because of android phones Linux is the number one operating system kernel in the world.  Only on the desktop is Linux missing a significant presence with about a 4.7% presence.  (About half of that 4.7% is Chrome OS (Chromebooks) which has Linux underneath.)   This is the case even though many Linux distributions (e.g. Ubuntu Linux) are as easy to use as Windows or Mac OS X.  Several years ago, after our Windows XP laptop got infected twice, I put Linux on it and for the next several years Gail and I used that Linux laptop to surf the web and do our various computer tasks until we got a Windows 10 laptop.  It was as easy to use as Windows and much more secure than Windows XP.

Open source software is what runs the Internet, and underneath this web page is open source software, the very popular WordPress and the operating system Linux.  Even your web browser is mostly open source. (The Firefox browser is 100% open source.)  Open source software has revolutionized the software industry and it is here to stay.  And I think Linux is the best example of the potential of open source software.

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