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Linus Torvalds offers the secret to Linux’s long-term success (the answer won’t surprise you)

Open source projects that want to emulate Linux’s long-term success should heed wise counsel from Linux’s creator.


Linux’s creator Linus Torvalds

Image: Aalto University/YouTube

Linux has been around for 25 years and, according to its creator, Linus Torvalds, it’s likely to stay relevant for another 25 years. Why? Ironically, because there’s no particular plan to guide its future, just a development model that encourages evolution and innovation.

SEE: 20 quick tips to make Linux networking easier (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

No long-term plan for Linux

In a wide-ranging interview with Red Hat co-founder Bob Young, Linus Torvalds looked back on the history of Linux. Asked if he’d had any idea Linux would still be a big deal 25 years after its introduction to the world, Torvalds’ phlegmatic response is classic: “I’ve never really had a long-term plan for Linux, and I have taken things one day at a time rather than worry about something five or ten years down the line.”

That was then, this is now, right? After all, Linux is now the heart of pretty much every service we use on the web or in our day-to-day “offline” world. Torvalds could get away without having a long-term plan back in 1994, but in 2019? Torvalds’ answer is classic:

I used to think that some radical new and exciting OS would come around and supplant Linux some day…, but it’s not just that we’ve been doing this for a long time and are still doing very well, I’ve also come to realize that making a new operating system is just way harder than I ever thought. It really takes a lot of effort by a lot of people, and the strength of Linux—and open source in general, of course—is very much that you can build on top of the effort of all those other people.

So unless there is some absolutely enormous shift in the computing landscape, I think Linux will be doing quite well another quarter century from now. Not because of any particular detail of the code itself, but simply fundamentally, because of the development model and the problem space.

I may not be active at that point, and a lot of the code will have been updated and replaced, but I think the project will remain.

The heart of Linux’s genius isn’t code or some mastermind long-term planner: It’s the open source development model. While that model isn’t a guarantee of long-term success, it does offer a clear path for improving technology with the least amount of friction and the greatest chance for a broad-based community to steer the product where the industry, and not some single individual (no matter how talented), desires.

That’s powerful.

Open source sustainability

It’s also, perhaps, a great lesson for would-be Linux aspirants to emulate. There has been a great deal of talk in the past year about “open source sustainability.” While largely a canard deployed by open source vendors anxious to avoid competition from cloud vendors turning their projects into services, the message has resonated as (yet again) the industry frets over how to ensure long-term success of open source projects.

In Torvalds’ words, however, there’s a clear strategy: Open up.

SEE: Open source vs. proprietary software: A look at the pros and cons (Tech Pro Research)

It’s telling that those beating the open source sustainability drum loudest tend to be corporations. Their sustainability problem is that they block (either overtly or simply by virtue of their licensing arrangements) would-be contributors, forcing nearly all of the development burden onto their own shoulders. This model can work, but it makes the project wholly dependent on the well-being of one party versus the more resilient structure of a community-driven open source project like Linux.

Sure, not every project is Linux, with deep-rooted and far-flung support from enterprises and individuals alike, but it’s also emphatically true that no project becomes Linux-like under the tight control of a single company. Even the popular MySQL, which has managed to attract outside contributors despite its governance model, is dependent on Oracle, not a community, for its welfare.

So for those open source developers who hope to have the outsized influence that Linux has had, you’re going to need to do what Linus Torvalds did: Build a real community around your project. No, it’s not certain you’ll have 25 or even 2.5 years of success, but your odds of failure at “total world domination” as an open source project are roughly zero if you lock up the code.

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