The Linux operating system celebrated its 10th birthday this month, but even as that milestone was lauded here this week at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo, founder Linus Torvalds and other open-source gurus offered very different ideas of what will come next.
In a lively panel discussion Wednesday, Torvalds gathered with fellow Linux leaders before a packed crowd to debate the present state of the open-source movement. Today, Red Hat Inc. CEO and president Matthew Szulik offered a keynote speech that was tantamount to a call to arms, as he urged the open-source community to hit the streets to promote the benefits of what they have built.
The wide range of thinking about an operating system that in many ways is still emerging reflects what supporters say is an inherent benefit of the open-source model: bringing together many minds to work on a problem. But it also illustrates an inherent problem: no single person or entity is leading Linux or open-source development into the future.
For Torvalds, that's the way it should be. Developers should create code to suit only their own needs, while paying little attention to the rest of the world.
"There is no [one] thing that matters" in the future development of the Linux operating system, he said. "You should not think that we have a direction and that's where we want to go. That's what a company does."
Fellow panelist Dirk Hohndel, who this week announced his departure as CEO of Germany-based SuSE Linux AG, strongly disagreed. Whether as a community or as a company, he argued, developers must address the needs of users to build support for Linux and open-source software.
"If you don't like calling them customers, call them users, I don't care, if you are so scared of calling it a company," Hohndel said. "This is something that people on the outside need and want."
In his keynote today, Szulik said that the open-source community has used the past 10 years to help bring maturity to Linux and now must look outside itself and become a real option for users in a commercial world dominated by proprietary software.
What is critically needed, he said, is for open-source developers to begin to share the wonder and promise of open-source software with users clamoring for better and cheaper software. To do that, he said, open-source developers must walk away from their Internet connections and go out into their communities, evangelizing about the benefits of software that isn't tied down by restrictive licenses and burdensome technical requirements.
"It starts off by being an active voice in your community," he said. "There are young people who can gain from your extraordinary gifts."
A key place to begin, Szulik said, is in schools. He urged Linux fans to show poorer school districts how they can bring technology to their students by using the operating system and other free open-source software on older surplus hardware. Many school systems still don't have computers and many students have no access to PCs at home. That could leave a generation of children without the skills needed in today's competitive job market, he said.
Using free open-source software and surplus or cheap computers, schools could better provide needed technology for students, improving skills and test scores.
One problem, Szulik said, is that many districts can't afford the hardware and the frequent upgrade cycles now part of proprietary software.
"You travel outside the country and you see how fast these kinds of initiatives are being embraced," Szulik said.
Instead of just debating the future with each other in online discussion forums, open-source creators should take their cases to classrooms and onto the floor of Congress, he said, to galvanize support for open-source software.
"It's my belief that the open-source community across the country can help [others] gravitate to this," Szulik said. "We should see this as a wonderful opportunity."
To do this, Red Hat is exploring the possibility of creating a nonprofit foundation to promote open-source software use in schools, he said. The company has been talking with other nonprofits to gather ideas and potential funding sources.
"It just has to start with a spark," Szulik said.