Linux Foundation chief talks about Torvalds' leadership, HTML5 and mobile's future

Jim Zemlin says Linux's desktop failure doesn't matter, MeeGo lives and HTML5 is the future

As the executive director of the Linux Foundation, Jim Zemlin is frequently asked to forecast the future of the IT industry. While he's happy to do so, he's the first to admit that he could be wrong. He joked in his opening remarks at LinuxCon 2011 held recently in Vancouver, British Columbia, that he has been wrongly predicting the Year of the Linux Desktop for many years now. He doesn't need to know the future, he says, because open source projects don't need a master plan.

MORE: Linux Foundation chief: 'You are an idiot if you don't' contribute back to open source

During LinuxCon in Vancouver, Zemlin sat down with Network World editors Julie Bort and Jon Brodkin to discuss this concept. He explained why Linux's success is different from other operating systems; why its ability to capture the desktop might never matter; that MeeGo may not be as dead as it looks and that the next big thing is HTML5. Here is an edited transcript of the interview.

Linux is celebrating its 20th anniversary. What's changed for the Linux Foundation since the early days?

I've been with the foundation almost eight years. One thing hasn't changed: I still work by and large out of my home because we do everything virtually in the organization. Jenifer [Cloer] lives in Portland, Linus lives there. We have developers in Moscow, Germany, Austin, Texas. We have an office in Japan, people all over the world. So that part hasn't changed.

Let me tell you how we decide what we do every day. You basically ask three questions. One: Is this going to help move the needle on Linux? Is this going to help grow Linux from a commercial sense, from a community sense and so forth? Two: Is there anybody else doing this? Because if there is, we don't want to do it. Three: Can we get the resources together to actually make this happen? Bringing together members or raising money or bringing together technical members to do it. If the answer to each of those questions is yes, then we do it.

We've asked those questions every day over eight years, 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. You're in high performance computing and servers and all of a sudden the embedded industry says, "We want to use this stuff." And then the mobile guys say, "We want to use this stuff." And what we get to do is kind of be at the front end of that and say, how can we make it happen faster? These events are an example of that. We bring together mini-summits, the KVM Summit, the Wireless Summit, the USB Summit.

It's gotten bigger. It's grown into different industries ... but the fundamental truth of what we do is that we're part of the world's largest collaborative development process. The fundamentals of that -- the principles of transparent governance, access to source code and equal participation of by all the members in the process -- has not changed. But that has enabled all kinds of cool things to happen.

Has the type of person involved changed since the early days?

There are new people coming in from different perspectives that make it a lot more fun. The guys have mellowed a little bit. It's not as sharp-edged.

Are there more women involved?

I wish I could say that was the case. There are more, but we need a lot more. That's something that we do promote.

What other changes have you noticed between the early days and now?

It's gotten a lot more serious. Linus and the others as they were releasing the kernel 20 years ago, they would affect a small group of people who were maybe hacking online. Today, when they make decisions it is something that can impact thousands of systems worldwide. That doesn't necessarily change how people develop, but I think it drives everyone to think harder and have a greater sense of responsibility of how the world has changed. The good news is that these guys are the best at what they do. Linux started from just Linus and a few people to attracting the Rembrandts and Picassos of the software world -- the finest artists of their craft. That they get together and work together and release a new kernel every three months is incredible.

Do you remember a big aha! moment when you were realized how big Linux would be?

I have a lot of them. When IBM decided to jump in that was a huge moment; when Oracle released their database that was a huge moment; when the NYSE and the Toyko stock exchange chose Linux that was a huge moment. When I fired up a Linux desktop and didn't need to drop into the command line for the first time -- that was a pretty big aha! moment. When I used the first cellphone from Motorola that was an aha! back in the early 2000s [the Motorola A760], and when I used Android for the first time.

Here was an interesting aha! moment for me based on my career. I worked at a startup called Corio, an ASP. We went public in the summer of 2000. After Corio went public, I thought I was retired but it turned out I had to work again. I went to work at an open source company called Covalent Technologies. What I realized is at Corio the No. 1 risk statement in our S-1 was that we don't own the software we host. We were hosting Peoplesoft, SAP, things like that. If we had built our own software on open source and hosted our own stuff on Linux, our margins would have been better, we would have had no IP issues. It was just like, aha! If the industry is moving toward a service-based economy -- things like and services like Google's Adsense -- it's a slam dunk for open source. Technically it's good, but more importantly, the licensing enables that business model, where Windows and Unix do not. Google could not be the company it is today if they had written Google Search on .Net. I had come from that hosted software background and it is clear that open source is going to be a central component of that.

So the soft spot in all of Linux's good news is Linux on the desktop --

I acknowledge that ...

But why is this important? Does Linux need to be a market leader on the desktop?

There is an argument you can make the desktop doesn't matter anymore. The fact is that the desktop is diminishing in its relevance as things like smartphones and connected televisions and in-vehicle infotainment grow. People are accessing the Internet in different forms than the traditional desktop and Web browser. If I look at the history of computing though, operating system software goes in these big waves. Unix goes up with mainframes and mini-mainframes -- they totally miss the PC revolution. Microsoft totally hits it and they have their run. The reason that previous operating systems have missed those waves of change is that they were generally command/control. For as smart as those Microsoft guys are, they can't predict the future so they miss it, same as the Unix guys.

Linux, because it has these self-forming communities, hits it. Nobody is predicting and trying to shift course, it just naturally happens. It's this organic movement.

So Linux has gone from server to HPC, to embedded devices to mobile devices and there's a clear and compelling desktop use case for Linux and very competitive Linux desktops out there from a functional perspective. What needs to happen is that waves need to grow slowly and change slowly and have a world where the devices are different and that causes change. Maybe it's a world where the device is different and that causes people to go to Linux and maybe [when it comes to] Windows, no one cares about it anymore. Or maybe everyone is accessing just through a Web browser and Chrome is the desktop du jour. The Google Chromebook is a great idea -- it's too expensive, what is it, $500? At $100 I think it makes a ton of sense. I think you'll see that [price point], by the way.

Who knows, maybe that will be the future desktop and I would be completely remiss if I didn't predict the Year of the Desktop every single year.

So the desktop is important because Windows on the desktop is what's allowing Microsoft to keep its chokehold (and cause trouble with Android patent licenses and threats of lawsuits)?

Note in their last earnings call Microsoft said Windows on the desktop sales declined 2% year-over-year. Where they make all of their money is Microsoft Office and Xbox. The bitter reality for Microsoft is that the reason Windows has been so strong is that everybody has been developing applications for the Windows APIs. These days developers are probably writing HTML apps or they are writing apps for Android or iOS. I can tell you this because my brother is a developer for a gaming company and I can tell you they ain't working on Windows games -- no money. They work on Apple games and they work on HTML5 apps.

I think HTML5 will be a big part of the future because -- and this is one of the things I didn't predict correctly -- I never thought that client/server apps would have the resurgence that they have had. I never would have predicted the Apple phenomena of C applications running on all sorts of devices. Programmers are rushing back to learn Objective C. Even Android apps -- most of the games are written in NDK. The client/server [popularity] I didn't see because at Corio, client/server sucked. Our big problem was maintaining the client/server apps. You had to maintain every client on everybody's desktop. You had to patch the security -- it was really expensive and hard to maintain. So when you see these things like and all these second-generation hosted software companies, they are all Web apps because they are all multi-tenant, easy to maintain, they scale. It's so much better.

As HTML becomes more functional, as more tools become available for HTML5, I think you'll see more apps, particularly enterprise apps that people will be using on an Android or iPhone. I think you'll see a lot more HTML5 and a decline, aside from gaming, in C apps.

Do you think enterprise IT folks are a help or a hindrance in open source software adoption?

They are a help. There is the classic stalwart on Sun Solaris who thinks, "My career is made on Solaris," and they are not willing to move to Linux. I think we saw that, particularly about five years ago. I remember I said something about Jonathan Schwartz that was inappropriate, about new features in Solaris ... [The quote was: 'That's literally like noticing the view from a third-story building as it burns to the ground']. I got flamed by Solaris guys. We were worried, all this hate mail was coming in, it was crazy. But IT ops in general are pretty friendly to Linux.

With HTML5, IT guys are going to be our best friends because with client/server, the method of deploying applications -- that sucks. So HTML5 for IT operations is obviously desirable.

There's been some controversy that some companies, particularly software makers, use more open source than they contribute back to. From your point of view, do you see the big Linux distro makers giving back equally either in code contributions or financially?

It doesn't matter. I don't care if anyone contributes back. I used to think that [it was important]. I used to say, "You've got to contribute back because it's the right thing to do." It's not the right thing to do because of some moral issue or because we say you should do it. It's because you are an idiot if you don't. You're not an idiot because you are making some moral judgment or that you are taking but not giving back. You're an idiot because the whole reason you're using open source is to collectively share in development and collectively maintain the software. Let me tell you, maintaining your own version of Linux ain't cheap, and it ain't easy and so look at all the distributions. Red Hat gives a ton back -- a ton -- and they are really the most successful Linux distro out there. So if some aren't giving back as much as others today, I just think it will naturally happen over time. It always is in their business interest to do so. And you know, some companies aren't as big as others and maybe they just don't have the resources. They'll get them, they'll get there.

Canonical argues that their contribution is the popularizing of Linux.

Absolutely. And I assure you, Canonical, as they grow, they'll get there because it is in their business interests to do so. Just to be clear, Canonical staff, engineers, management are not idiots. They get open source well and as they grow, I think it will be in their business interests to give back. I don't keep track of it. I don't think it's that important.

There's also this concern that there's too much depending on Linus. Who's the vice president of Linux? What happens if Torvalds gets tired, sick or wants to retire?

The reality is that the ingredients that make these projects successful are a good collaborative model and the Internet, the ability to work on this stuff over a medium that makes collaboration easy. But that doesn't diminish the need for dynamic and charismatic leadership. It's clear that Linus is a unique individual that provides for a very effective role of shepherding.

So technologically Linux would be OK, but ...

You've got these 100 guys that are at the Linux kernel summit every year -- the best programmers in the world. They, over 20 years, have formed a trust relationship among themselves and continue to expand those trust relationships as people come in. I suspect the relationship they have set up is somewhat resilient, even without Linus.

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