Why Linux Succeeded - Resilience of a Movement
Thirty-one years ago, a small group of programmers created a product that Microsoft, even during its most aggressive embrace-and-extend phase, could not snuff out. That product was called Linux.
Linux was (and is) an operating system descended from Unix, but unlike proprietary Unix, its source code was publicly available. It was not a company, so it couldn’t be acquired or easily targeted. Instead, it was a loosely organized, fluid collection of skilled volunteer programmers. Its central figure, Linus Torvalds, was not a CEO but the lead developer—and, in essence, a community organizer. Companies sprang up around Linux to provide enterprise sales and support, but no single company owned Linux. It was anti-fragile and resilient to risks, like the mythical hydra with many heads: cut one off, and another would sprout in its place.
Linux did something its more traditionally organized counterparts did not: it bested Microsoft and proprietary Unix vendors to become the dominant server operating system on supercomputers and in the cloud worldwide. (As a side note, it’s worth saying that Microsoft has become much more of a team player in the developer community. 2020s Microsoft is not 1990s Microsoft. And there are still a lot of Windows servers, too.)
So, Linux is resilient. Why should I care?
Linux is a model for change that benefits most stakeholders. For example, its open-source approach reduced the risk of source code compromise: if everyone could download and view the source at any time, the source code by definition couldn’t be stolen. And the pressure of countless hackers hammering on the code base likely made it stronger. To some degree, Linux reduced the risk of vendor lock-in, too: many different companies offered enterprise Linux support.
But the main takeaway—why Linux succeeded where many operating-system startups and projects failed—is: Too much organization leads to fragility. Too little organization leads to ineffectiveness. But the right level of grassroots, distributed community organizing can become unstoppable.
Linux’s rise was a largely peaceful and gradual takeover. Its supporters weren’t known for committing violent acts (though there was at least one protest at Microsoft’s Palo Alto office!). Linux users simply uninstalled proprietary operating systems and put their focus on a system they could support instead. And they set up an infrastructure to help other people figure out how to do the same thing, establishing Linux User Groups (LUGs) worldwide to help people install and start using Linux. Over many years, one user at a time, one switch at a time from closed-source to open-source product, they succeeded.
Let’s break this down a little more.
Sure. A few key principles made Linux successful:
It was worldwide, so the endeavor couldn’t be stamped out by any single jurisdiction.
It tried to have a welcoming culture via Linux User Group (LUG) meetings. (Yes, we can argue how successful or inclusive LUGs truly were, but they were effective enough that more and more people installed and used Linux over time.)
It was modular at both the operating system and community levels. Different “flavors” of Linux proliferated, different modular packages flourished, and if one group disbanded, others would form. It’s no coincidence that a “family tree” of Linux distributions resembles the evolutionary maps for emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
There was a degree of central organization since the project leader, Linus Torvalds, approved kernel changes and set the philosophical tone, but Linux probably could have survived the removal of its leader. It was decentralized enough to have no single point of failure.
Each individual person made their choice to install Linux, to use one product instead of another, exercising basic free choice in the marketplace, supporting those whose products aligned with their values and needs.
As a result, Linux was resilient. Unstoppable. Sustainable over the long term.
It’s an interesting model for movements that aim to challenge power.
Three links from the depths of my bookmark archives; tangential extras for curious readers:
1. After seeing how gas stoves pollute homes, these researchers are ditching theirs - by Emily Chung in CBC News - research is accumulating about nitrogen dioxide, methane, and other pollutants from gas stoves.
2. The secret world beneath our feet is mind-blowing - and the key to our planet’s future by George Monbiot in The Guardian - a deep dive into the miracle of dirt.
3. Operating Systems: Three Easy Pieces - by Remzi H. Arpaci-Dusseau and Andrea C. Arpaci-Dusseau at the University of Wisconsin-Madison - famous and free book about how operating systems work.