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Top Linux and Open Source News of 2010

Artwork: Chip TaylorThe story behind the story is that Linux has become totally mainstream.
You may not have a Linux desktop in front of you the way I do, but if you spend most of your
day visiting Google, Facebook or Twitter, you're using Linux. That Android phone in your
pocket? Linux. Your DVR? Probably Linux. Do you use a NAS (network attached storage)
device for extra storage? Almost certainly Linux. Trade stocks? Yes, Linux again. You get the
idea. Linux may be invisible, but it's also everywhere.

Still don't believe me? Look at the numbers and my first story of the year:

1. Red Hat, the billion-dollar open-source company

I predicted a few months ago that Red Hat would be the first billion-dollar open-source
company. Though I was wrong with the timing -- I thought it might take more than a year -- it
looks like Red Hat will become the first billion-dollar Linux company in 2011.

The new Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 6 is already getting customers, and the company
continues to push the boundaries of Linux with its new Fedora community Linux. Red Hat is
living proof that open-source companies can be as successful and profitable as any proprietary
software firm.

2. The decline of Sun open-source software under Oracle

Someone recently asked me if I were sorry that Oracle had bought Sun. I'm not. What am I sorry
about is the way Oracle has forced out so many of Sun's outstanding open-source projects and
developers. In place of spin of their RHEL clone: OpenSolaris, Oracle gave us another pointless
Oracle Unbreakable Enterprise Kernel. Then there's how Oracle is handling -- or perhaps I
should say, mis-handling -- Java. I could go on and on, but what's the point?

It's not that Oracle is anti-open source. Larry Ellison and company likes open source, so long as
it directly benefits Oracle. When it doesn't -- and most of Sun's open-source projects didn't --
they're history. It makes business sense, but it's not how open-source development is meant to
work.

3. Attachmate (Attachmate!?) buys Novell

If you believe Attachmate is really behind the buyout of Novell, I have a slightly used bridge
between Manhattan and Brooklyn you might want to buy. At the end of the day, Microsoft ended
up calling the shots in this acquisition. I expect SUSE Linux to stick around, and Attachmate has
said that openSUSE will continue, but in what form? I just don't know. I'm going to be watching
this deal closely to see how it all comes out in the end -- but I don't have a good feeling about it.
4. Where oh where are the Android tablets and Google Chrome?

I really expected a small horde of Android tablets to have arrived by now to challenge the might
Apple iPad. I was wrong. Android's developers ended up burning most of their energy on
updating their operating system for smartphones and not for the wider screens of tablets. That's
not to say that Android tablets won't show up at lower prices points. They will. It's just that the
first models, like the Augen GenTouch78, were awful. But Android-powered e-readers, like the
Nook Color, may actually be the first successful Android tablets.

Hey, Google: what about Chrome OS? You know, the Linux-based Web-browser as operating
system that Google was working on? That project is taking a lot longer than Google first thought
it would. In fact, don't look for Chrome OS now until 2011. And I'd been looking forward to it.

5) Ubuntu recommits to the desktop

For a while there, Canonical, Ubuntu Linux's parent company, was focusing on the server and
the cloud. Ubuntu would love to give RHEL some competition, but the backers of this popular
Linux distribution have also refocused on the desktop with the introduction of Unity as its
primary desktop interface.

I'm excited by this development. I think Unity, which will also be Ubuntu's gateway into
smartphones and tablets, will make a great way for users who don't know Linux to finally start
using Linux. Unity may never be my favorite interface, but I'm an old guy who remembers the
first interface wars as being between the Bourne shell and the C shell, not this new-fangled
GNOME vs. KDE stuff. For people who don't care about Linux internals and never will, Unity
may be just the desktop they need.

That's my list for 2010. For 2011, you'll need to visit me at my new Linux and open-source home
over at ZDNet, though I'll still be doing a monthly column for Computerworld plus the
occasional Computerworld feature and review. I look forward to 'seeing' you at both my Web
homes.

Red Hat At $1 Billion


Based on the run rates of the current quarter, Red Hat will likely reach $1 billion in annual
revenue in 2011. Only a handful of companies, probably less than 20 software firms, have ever
hit this milestone. Red Hat will be the first open source-focused company to break the billion
dollar barrier. Certainly Richard Stallman did not envision this when he created the paradigm of
Free Software. Such an event may be more in tune with what Eric Raymond, Tim O’Reilly, and
others had in mind when they reframed Free Software as Open Source.
It is easy to forget how important open source is now. Open source touches us every day more
than we realize. SAP likes to point out that a huge percentage of the world’s commerce is tracked
by their software. It’s a defensible claim because SAP knows its customers. Open source is
harder to quantify. You can track downloads but that does not accurately reflect use. For web
servers, it is possible to quantify use. The September Netcraft survey puts the open source
Apache share of web servers at 57 percent. Estimates of operating system market share,
including both servers and desktops, put Linux at 1 percent or so.

But the lack of a strong link to a reported commercial transaction makes estimates of market size
from companies like IDC problematic. When IDC identifies a company like VMware as the
market leader for virtualization, it means that companies spent the most on VMware products.
But if you take into account the use of open source products like Xen and KVM in massive data
centers, web server farms, and by web application providers like Google and Salesforce.com, the
CPUs running open source virtualization likely dwarfs the commercial market. Open source has
an unacknowledged footprint in many other markets as well.

The biggest way that open source touches each of us is through web-based applications. Every
click on the Internet is processed in some way by open source. Now imagine that open source
didn’t exist, and instead, Google, Twitter, NetSuite, and dozens of startups had to pay for the
open source they used. We wouldn’t have such a panoply of free or advertising-supported
services. Startups would require much more capital. Microsoft would be a much bigger
company; Sun would have remained independent.

Red Hat’s growth reflects IT’s embrace of open source. Red Hat has made it to a billion my
selling a subscription service that provides a stable, supported, distribution of the Linux
operating system. The company’s premier product is called Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Red Hat’s
success shows that it is not just Silicon Valley startups and cutting-edge innovators who use open
source. The FUD that opponents used to spread liberally is gone. The SCO lawsuit seems like a
bad joke.

Red Hat makes money because companies want experts to provide support. IT executives also
want to buy products, not raw materials. In Open Source for the Enterprise, I argue that to make
effective use of open source, companies must close the productization gap, that is, the lack of
documentation, installation, administration tools, and support in most open source. Red Hat is
the most popular strategy for closing the productization gap.

The success of Linux also shows that bizarre hybrid governance models can be successful if
everyone is motivated and aligned. IBM, Intel, Hitachi, Fujitsu, Oracle, NEC and others
collectively pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into developing Linux. Linus Torvalds sits at
the center, not all powerful, but a major factor. Powerful players used to getting their own way
must get along. The culture of development is still very community-based. IBM cannot just force
developers on the project and have them accepted as committers. Red Hat and other participants
provide the equivalent of product management, collecting requirements and feeding them into
the process. If you designed this model and proposed that one of the most important layers of
software on the planet would be created and managed this way, nobody would believe it would
work. But it does.
One of attractions of open source to entrepreneurs is the marketing model. Commercial open
source companies allow their products to be downloaded and used. Then, when a someone using
the software wants support or features for connecting the product to the world of commercial IT,
a license is required. In other words, open source is bought, not sold. The expensive sales and
marketing process for commercial software is replaced by the ability to download and try the
software out.

But to keep growing beyond a billion, Red Hat is going to be sold as well as bought. When I
spoke to Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat’s CEO, earlier this year, he described how he was
institutionalizing the sales of Red Hat. Every time an SAP or Oracle application was sold, every
time a server was sold by Dell or Hewlett Packard, every time a major consulting product was
sold by IBM, Accenture, or Capgemini, Whitehurst wants Red Hat Enterprise Linux and its other
products in the mix. The company is building the sales organization to support this sort of
institutionalized expansion.

Could there be another Red Hat, an open source company that makes it to $1 billion in software-
related revenues? Probably not. Companies like Spike Source and SourceLabs tried to put
together subscription-based models for productizing the open source stack. Both companies were
attempting to combine many different open source projects into one productized offering.
Neither worked out, probably because the open source software stack is not as generic and
interchangable as the operating system. Commercial open source companies like MySQL
haven’t come close to $1 billion. When it was purchased, MySQL was probably running at less
than $50 million in annual revenue. The largest of the commercial open source application
companies like Alfresco, the enterprise content management vendor, are smaller than that.

The problem is generality. Linux is used in dozens of domains. Very few other parts of the
software stack are that widely used. Red Hat has focused on Linux and has taken its skills in
productization and applied them to other open source projects such as JBoss for Java
development and now KVM, a virtualization technology. But no other open source project, at
Red Hat or anywhere else, will ever be as large a source of revenue as Linux.

To me, the implication of Red Hat’s success is not that there is big money in selling open source,
but that there is a huge payoff for being able to use open source. Red Hat is probably one of a
kind. If you look at the companies generating the largest amount of revenue using open source
(Google, Facebook, Twitter, Etsy), they are the ones who are the best at taking advantage of
what open source has to offer.