Article from Issue 219/2019

It is getting harder to write this column. I used to have a ready supply of topics, with all the outrageous things that were happening to Linux: Microsoft's disinformation, SCO's lawsuit, patent licenses, the Novell/Microsoft pact – big things that threatened the very existence of the Linux community.

Dear Reader,

It is getting harder to write this column. I used to have a ready supply of topics, with all the outrageous things that were happening to Linux: Microsoft's disinformation, SCO's lawsuit, patent licenses, the Novell/Microsoft pact – big things that threatened the very existence of the Linux community.

I was trying to think up a new topic today, and it occurred to me that there used to be way more in the news on an average day that could rile up a Linux guy. That's the good news, because Linux is in a safer place and is no longer faced with the threat of imminent destruction. Microsoft is playing nice (sort of); SCO has collapsed under the weight of its own imagination deficit. But are we really walking on easy street now? Surely some other threats must be out there? Are there still factors that are threatening the livelihood of the Linux community, and if so, what are they?

That sounded like a good topic for a column, so I resolved to create my own list of the current top threats. One note on this list: Because these threats are not quite as dire as they used to be, they are also a little more arbitrary. This is my list – some of you might see different threats, but either way, the main point is that challenges still exist:

  • Fragmentation – the Linux desktop still isn't unified, and the recent controversy over the systemd init daemon is a reminder that the community does not always move in the same direction. The beauty of open source is that you can always fork the code, but if too many developers take the code in too many different directions, the project could lose the critical mass necessary to hold the mainstream, becoming a collection of smaller projects, like the BSDs, that will receive less attention from hardware vendors and, ultimately, users.
  • Irrelevance – will the general-purpose computer OS still be a thing in 10 years? Already, people are doing more with their cell phones and tablets. Linux is still running inside Android, but there are so many other things going on inside a smartphone that you can't exactly just hack on it like you can on a Linux system. Linux would still be running on toasters and washing machines (and on servers – see the next item), but it could recede into the background and be more under the control of hardware and cloud companies, rather than driven by a vibrant, independent community.
  • Cloud computing – According to Free Software Foundation president Richard Stallman, cloud servers "… wrest control from the users even more inexorably than proprietary software" [1]. Software running from within a proprietary portal maximizes the power of the vendor and minimizes the freedom of the user in ways that are antithetical to the spirit of Free Software. Also, the copyleft protection of the GPL, which forces the sharing of source code when changes are made to a program, is triggered when the software is distributed. As many have pointed out, cloud computing doesn't really distribute the software, so it falls in a gray area that is beyond the protection of Free Software licensing.
  • Re-emergence of a "friendlier" Microsoft – Microsoft is no longer bent on destroying Linux; in fact, they say they "love" Linux. But a little too much love from Microsoft could be a scary thing too. Many in the Linux community distrust Redmond's motives and wonder if some kind of assimilation might be taking place. The GPL offers some natural defenses against a single company gaining control, but could Microsoft use its cash stores and market clout to take Linux in a direction that the greater community doesn't want to go, and what would happen if they did?
  • Succession issues – Linux is still run by the same guy who created it 27 years ago. Linus Torvalds is still young and healthy, but he might not want to do this forever. Will Linux survive the handoff to a new generation of leaders?
  • Bad judges and politicians – Linux and open source licensing have survived several tests in the courts over patent law, copyright law, and other intellectual property issues, but the questions are complex and lots of politicians, business leaders, and jurists still don't exactly get what's going on with open source. Actually, I sometimes wonder if the open source community totally gets it. (Many voices in the community have called for a loosening of copyright laws to increase the freedom to consume music and movies, but actually, a strong copyright is the foundation on which the GPL is built, so you have to be very careful.) These issues are too vast and intricate to sort out in a one-page intro column, but suffice it to say, a few bad decisions from judges or regulators could bring back questions that we all thought were settled.

That's my list – at least for now. I'm not saying all this stuff is actually going to happen, but, as with any challenge, the best way to keep these dark threats in abeyance is to be aware and not get too complacent. As the old saying goes "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" [2].

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief


  1. "Who Does That Server Really Serve?" by Richard Stallman:
  2. No one is totally sure who said this first:

Buy this article as PDF

Express-Checkout as PDF
Price $2.95
(incl. VAT)

Buy Linux Magazine

Get it on Google Play

US / Canada

Get it on Google Play

UK / Australia

Related content

  • Welcome

    This article went to press one week before Richard Stallman abruptly resigned as head of the Free Software Foundation. Yikes! All is flux in the FOSS world. Still, the trend toward détente between Microsoft and the Free Software community is bound to continue, and these thoughts on Stallman’s recent visit to Redmond offer a glimpse into how real change happens – one small step at a time.

  • Welcome


  • Microsoft and Linux detente
  • Welcome

    We in the Linux community are steeped in the conventional wisdom that Linux is much more secure than Windows. It is, of course, and it always has been, but then, that isn't saying much.

  • Welcome

    A news story is breaking as we send this issue to press, and since this column is always the last thing I do, I find myself with a quiet moment to reflect.

comments powered by Disqus
Subscribe to our Linux Newsletters
Find Linux and Open Source Jobs
Subscribe to our ADMIN Newsletters

Support Our Work

Linux Magazine content is made possible with support from readers like you. Please consider contributing when you’ve found an article to be beneficial.

Learn More