This story was originally published on April 29, 2011, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.
Well, well, well, so Linux has turned 20 at last.
While we were reading about the inroads Android is making into the mobile market and weeping over the news that Groklaw is about to pack its bags and move on, we began wondering: Just what would the world have been like if Linus Torvalds hadn’t sat down and written Linux?
For one thing, Microsoft would be poorer. It’s raking in the shekels on Linux patents and filing suit against various companies over Android, a Linux variant.
Apple would rule the mobile world, and we’d all just be better off turning our paychecks over to Cupertino, which would be able to charge what it likes.
Businesses would still be paying through the nose for high-end Unix servers, we’d never have Google search, and the movie “The Social Network” would not have existed.
All Your Operating Systems Are Belong to Us
Microsoft, which once did its level best to kill off Linux and open software, now guards Linux like a proud daddy scoping out his teenage daughters’ boyfriends on Saturday night.
It’s demanding royalties from any other company that puts its grubby little paws on Linux — by, for example, using Android.
In March, Microsoft filed suit against Barnes & Noble, Foxconn and Inventec for patent infringement by Android devices, namely Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader and the Nook Color tablet.
Smartphone maker HTC has coughed up royalties under Microsoft’s patent licensing program for Android device manufacturers, Redmond’s legal eagles point out.
Microsoft’s patents cover various functionalities that are essential to the user experience, including tabbing through screens, faster Web surfing, and interacting with documents and e-books, according to Redmond.
Microsoft representative Tricia Payer declined to answer questions about the patents.
Redmond’s Secret Partner
Linux may have benefited Redmond in other ways, too.
“I think that Linux gave Microsoft an enemy to focus on and spurred it to innovate more than it might have otherwise,” opined Carl Howe, director of anywhere research at the Yankee Group.
“Even with Linux in the market, it still took Microsoft nearly 10 years to develop a successor to Windows XP,” Howe told LinuxInsider.
“Linux probably did more damage to Microsoft’s competitors financially than Microsoft itself ever did, and it clearly cut into Microsoft’s profits as well,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told LinuxInsider.
An Alternate Reality
The iPhone rocked the world of mobile telephony when it hit retail shelves in June 2007, and consumers just couldn’t get enough of it. Sales skyrocketed — and continued to do so until Android was released in November of 2009.
Android’s growing fast as a smartphone operating system, but it’s really expected to challenge Apple in the tablets market. Sure, Apple is still the leader, but by 2015 Apple’s global tablet market share will slip from today’s 69 percent to 47 percent, according to Gartner.
Meanwhile, Android’s market share will surge from today’s 20 percent to 39 percent.
Torvalds, the world owes you a big one. Any time a vendor can dominate a market, it can name its own price, and Apple’s never been shy about slapping whacking great price tags on its products as it is. You may have saved us from runaway Apple pricing.
The Unix Slayer
Back in the early 1990s, when client-server was coming into its own, companies downsized from their mainframes to Unix servers. These were expensive, and Microsoft began making inroads there by offering Windows servers at far lower prices.
Then came the Linux explosion, and things changed.
“The impact of Linux on the server has been astounding,” Al Hilwa, a practice director at IDC, told LinuxInsider. “Between Linux and Windows Server, high-end Unix servers were increasingly pushed into a narrower space over the years,” he added.
The Web, FOSS and More
The advent of Linux sparked the shift to Web architectures and catalyzed the entire open source movement, IDC’s Hilwa said.
In other words, no Linux would’ve meant we wouldn’t have been able to while away our idle hours with Google searches, sites like “Am I Hot or Not” would never have seen the light of day, and the Facebook phenomenon would never have existed.
“Without Linux, Google wouldn’t have emerged as an even scarier evil empire than Microsoft was,” Enderle suggested. “I’m still not sure if that was progress.
“The entire concept of companies exchanging access to personal information they didn’t own in exchange for poorly supported software and services probably wouldn’t have taken off,” Enderle growled.
“And we wouldn’t now be wondering where our privacy and much of our software profits went,” he added.
Linux “forever changed how people develop computing platforms,” the Yankee Group’s Howe said.
“Before Linux, it wasn’t unusual to spend thousands of dollars on a mediocre operating system; after Linux, if you wanted to charge money for an OS, you had to be many times better than Linux, and that’s really hard to do,” Howe elaborated.
Some of the newer Web languages and features we have wouldn’t have existed without Linux. PHP is one such language.
“PHP is a server-side language and one of many great open source ideas that took hold and owe their roots to Linux,” IDC’s Hilwa said. “I would add to that the Apache Web server which allows PHP and other server-side back ends to run inexpensively.”
All change is painful, and the entire open source movement and, of course, Linux are part of a socio-technological change we’re going through now. We won’t know if it’s all really worth it for a while yet, but for now, you have to admit, Linux has made life a lot less boring.