Check out the new USENIX Web site. USENIX - Summaries

Linux: What It Is And Why It Is Significant

By Mark Balzern, Work group Solutions, and Tom Miller, X Engineering Software Systems

Summary by Jerry Peek

Mark Balzern compared the openness of the Linux operating system to closed, proprietary systems, especially Microsoft and their Windows NT.

Mark expects that Linux will gradually penetrate the marketplace, the way that PCs themselves gradually displaced mainframes during the 1980s. And UNIX (the base for Linux) is far from dead commercially: "UNIX still runs . . . 95% of the business transactions in the world," a number Mark attributed to the Gartner Group. Users see Microsoft OSs on their desktops and at home, but UNIX is often behind what they see.

History repeats itself, he believes: Microsoft will have the same problems that other vendors of closed systems have had. Users and OEMs will eventually resist Microsoft's buggy software and arm-twisting techniques to further increase their market share. Developing a new operating system is tremendously difficult, and making it reliable takes even more work. So vendors who want to compete with Microsoft are more likely to start with a robust code base (Linux) than to develop their own OS from scratch.

UNIX itself has become some of what it originally tried not to be: a proprietary operating system with features (and bugs) controlled by multiple vendors, under multiple names (Solaris, AIX, and so on). Linux is very unlikely to go the same route because the authors won't permit it: they don't want money; they want good free software.

Development of proprietary software, like NT, is driven by internal politics, by a rush to get product out the door, and by a want for money more than a want for perfection. But Linux is driven by an open development process with perfection as its goal. The software can have bugs at first, but they're found and fixed rapidly by the cooperative development process between the many Linux users.

The techies who work on Linux do it because they want good software; they usually aren't doing it for money. As UNIX has gotten more proprietary and closed, hackers have turned to Linux to keep doing the work they've done for more than a generation of UNIX software. Mark appreciates the good software produced in other free UNIX versions like FreeBSD (and says some of the BSDs' software is better than Linux). But the BSD projects have gotten bogged down in the same political problems that handicap software teams at companies like Microsoft: who gets credit, who's the boss, and so on. Hackers come to Linux because the development process is free of those problems. Linus Torvalds is a perfect leader for the community.

Mark worked at IBM when the PC was introduced. Until near the end of its life at IBM, the company never saw the PC as a strategic product. The PC needed years to be established, by users who brought PCs into their organizations, one by one, and proved they were useful in places the old mainframes weren't. He expects Linux will grow the same way-by stealth-driven by individuals who see what Linux can do and who work around the "sheep" who follow the herd and use the same software (Microsoft) that everyone else does. Most Fortune 2000 companies are already using some Linux, and Mark expects major announcements soon.

Technology doesn't change in steps. There aren't paradigm shifts. These apparent shifts happen because users look to the press for information. The press looks to manufacturers ("who throw big parties and place a lot of ads") for information. Manufacturers are listening to the users, who read the PR placed by the manufacturers. So the process snowballs: "this is the thing to do!" All of a sudden, the press catches onto something that a significant number of people have been doing (like using PCs or adapting Linux). That change doesn't happen overnight. But Mark believes it will happen with Linux as Microsoft tightens its screws on users and developers. Microsoft doesn't need to be broken up by antitrust actions; it will break itself up by peoples' reaction to strong-arm tactics like not allowing manufacturers to preload any other software along with Microsoft's.

You can read Mark's article, "Why Linux Is Significant," as well as his biography, on the Announcements page of the LinuxMall at The article is at

Originally published in ;login: Vol. 22, No.2, April 1997.
Last changed: May 28, 1997 pc
Summaries Index
Anaheim Index
Proceedings Index