|A short while ago, Karlin Lillington, approached the webmaster team asking if
we would be interested in the transcript of an email interview with Alan Cox
which she used parts of for a number of articles. Would we be interested?
Of course we would! Thanks Karlin!
1) Is Linux heading towards a major rather than minor computing role, or is it
still too early to tell how things will unfold?
I think it is still hard to predict. The market is changing so fast.
Not only do we have the shift from the desktop to servers and thin client
machines happening - and it is happening at least in consumer spaces with
things like NTL's TV set internet stuff and the ongoing projects from other
big vendors. We also have the exploding mobile market, the phone/PC
fusion and more. So it's hard to guess.
Linux does well as a server OS, it does extremely well on the thin client and
embedded environments too. The configurability and the fact that it isnt owned
by a competitor to the companies using it make it a big win for them.
The desktop will be the hardest battle. The Microsoft lawsuit might help there
if there is enough will in the US Government to split Microsoft and force the
units to act alone. We now have most of the GUI environment we need for end
2) What do you think has been most integral to Linux's growing success and
visibility in the past 18 months?
a) In terms of the OS itself (eg, why is Linux such a contender?) and
b) In terms of marketing success (eg commercial deals, product announcements,
backing of big name players, etc).
The biggest thing of all has been the rest of the world seeing free software
going from a crazy concept to a marketed advantage and marketed in a way that
the business community understands. The stock market flotations also gave it a
definite air of reality.
You can get news out of hype, and there has been a lot of Linux hype from
companies either because they sell Linux products or because they see it as a
stick to bash Bill Gates with (or both). Hype doesn't actually create
a large user base and sustained deployment which Linux unlike Java is getting.
In terms of Linux itself I think the Gnome and KDE desktops have been the big
shift in thinking. Linux has picked up people who believe in OpenSource and
who want Linux to be part of a bigger community than just the
3) Where would you like to see Linux go today?
a) what could be done to most enhance the OS itself and why would that
element be important (user interface, killer app, or whatever) and
b) in terms of commercial success.
Is total world domination (in the commercial space) important?
The big step is the desktop. There are vendors with clear interests in this
sort of area - Helixcode and Eazel for example who are doing real money work
on the GNOME desktop. The other big area to deal with is high
availability clustering. Wensong Zhang did the first free Linux clustering for
web server failover and the like but that is only the baby steps. To do full
clustering and to be able to position Linux to replace things like VMS
as a highly available (and here we are talking minutes of downtime a year)
clustering solution is no small job.
I personally think the desktop or at least the thin client end of the desktop
is the most important. Linux has good security features which makes it ideal
for things like call centre environments, although perhaps less so
for their staff. Building a thin client Linux environment with hotdesking,
sensible shared file store and good network efficiency is a golden opportunity.
Total domination is bad. The Microsoft dominance already badly misled people
about how to choose systems. Instead of 'what tool do I use for the job' it's
'well it was shipped with the box'. Linux is a tool, Windows is a tool and so
are numerous other systems. It's really important people go back to looking
for the right tool for the job. That will never always be Linux. No single
tool can do everything well.
4) If it's important, or if you think that Linux is going to take a larger
role in the commercial world anyway, where do you think it will have its
greatest success, and how might that change the computing industry?
example: at first, Linux seemed a desktop OS for enthusiasts, then began to
sneak onto servers and has staked out some serious web server territory, of
course. But IBM is eyeing it, for example, as being as important to
applications as TCP/IP is to the internet. Software companies will port to
Linux, they say, because it's easier than porting to Unix flavours or
That benefits hardware companies and big app companies like SAP, according to
that view. I'm interested how you think things might develop; if
you'd agree with the IBM scenario, for example.
Linux is the sum of contributions so it will go where the contributors take
it. Right now that is everything from IBM mainframes to pocket computers. Some
of it is through investment and funding and a lot of it is because
someone just thought it would be neat if Linux did XYZ and had fun working on
I can see Linux becoming the generic OS for embedded applications and servers.
Where people will pick Linux unless they need some given feature that favours
another system. I don't know what will happen on the
Only time will tell.
5) There's much talk now of Linux fragmenting into flavours. Do you think this
The ISVs don't and won't stand for it. The customers won't stand for it and
the community definitely wouldn't. There is a lot of work right now to get
definitive standards via the Linux standards base (linuxbase.org). That has real big vendor
backing because the vendors want to ship 'Foo for Linux' not 'Foo for Red
Hat', 'Foo for Mandrake' etc. Also non-Linux people are quite interested in
this too. We may end up creating a common interface for applications on the PC
in any Unixlike environment. That is definitely good for customers.
Ultimately nobody who wants to build the Linux space either commercially or
for fun has any business or technical reason for creating an incompatible
variant. In fact the pressure is entirely to improve compatibility.
6) Can Linux and the open source attitudes of the developer community
surrounding it co-exist with Linux's commercial success?
Do you see strains
arising out of these developments?
The developer community on the whole seems not to care too much.
Certainly the developers I work with both in and outside Red Hat are more
loyal to Linux than to their companies. There are certainly marketing people
who see other vendors as the enemy. Programmers never cared for marketing
peoples' views anyway ;)
7) Linux companies hit celestial IPO heights recently then have crashed since
then. Is this a 'correction'?
A failure of Linux to meet expectations in the commercial world?
pointer that an open source OS won't make anybody money?
I think there is plenty of scope to make money, as it seems to do a lot of
people. Its certainly not going to make Microsoft like profits and that's
probably a good thing for everyone long term. It is about time people
got fair prices.
The stock valuations just remind me that the US technology stock market is
basically a gambling den. It seems to be based on riding hype to the highest
value you dare then trying not to be the last one to sell. In time I imagine
the Linux valuations will settle down.
8) Finally, what motivated your own involvement with Linux and why does it
remain so central to your life?
Well I got into it by accident. I wanted an OS to debug my multi-user game on
and Linux hacking became a sort of hobby.
Now I'm paid to give away code
and watch it empower people all over the world - especially developing
countries. I don't know many jobs to compete with that one.
Parts of this interview was used for the article "Linux's
perilous victory" as published on the Guardian Unlimited website.
This is a slightly edited version of the original
email interview which is
also available for you to read on this website.
Michael Monty Widenius
About the author, Karlin Lillington.