Linux will get buried

Microsoft and Apple aren't sending Linux away, just underground to do the job it was made for

I’ve kept a practically subterranean profile since Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference a few weeks ago. I have so many venues at which to serve the many pots of content I’ve got bubbling upstairs that spreading it evenly and avoiding redundancy is the greatest challenge. The portion I’ll serve, in this space, is part of the sharpening outline of the shape that professional, commercial, and enterprise computing will assume by the end of the decade.

Apple’s UNIX (who knows what it’ll be called by then) will overtake commercial Linux in rate of revenue growth by the end of 2007. By mid-2008, Apple’s sales of systems with factory-installed Apple UNIX will exceed the total combined sales of x86 systems factory-shipped with commercial Linux. At the end of the decade, we’ll find that Apple UNIX has overtaken commercial Linux as the second most popular general client and server computing platform behind Windows.

[Do you agree with Tom's predictions? Talk back to us.]

Now before anybody goes nuts, understand what I’m saying: Apple isn’t going to win or even wage a religious war with Linux. The market will bring about the adjustments to which I’m referring. There will be more money than ever to be made with Linux, but sales won’t derive from a model fashioned to compete with Windows and OS X. Microsoft and Apple will be the top-seeded fighters in general client and server computing platforms. Linux doesn’t need or want to be the third man in that ring.

Despite the way most professional and commercial buyers see it, Linux is, as a colleague helpfully reminded me, a kernel, not an application platform. Linux is a backplane for device drivers, file systems, protocol stacks and low-level programming interfaces. It is a substructure for application services. The Linux kernel is mature, consistently implemented, commercial quality and familiar. It crosses architectural boundaries cleanly. It bulks up and strips down in the time it takes to recompile. Linux’s greatest strength is that no matter how many products use the trademark in their titles, there is exactly one Linux. It’s a standard. Where will Linux thrive? It’ll be the de facto choice for embedded solutions. By 2010, “embedded” will assume its appropriate meaning, which to my mind is “specialized.” I believe Big Software vendors such as IBM and Oracle will use Linux to give unwieldy enterprise solutions the George Jetson treatment: Push a button, you’ve got an enterprise database, configured, loaded with sample data and listening for connections. Want a J2EE server with that? Flip this switch, it’ll unpack itself, sniff out that database you installed and mate with it.

VMware refers to its take on this approach as the appliance, but that connotes an inflexibility I’d hope to avoid. I prefer to think of it in terms of a USB flash drive. Imagine that your server room has a bank of USB ports, and that every enterprise application you want to run exists, pre-installed on a stripped, standardized Linux, and in a freeze-dried state, on a flash drive. Plug in a drive, and within a few milliseconds you have a self-contained instance of an enterprise application. If you need more database instances, put in a blank flash drive and tell the existing database instance to replicate itself.

That’s not the entire future for every IT shop. Remember, at the opening of this story I had a lot to say about OS X’s rise to second place behind Windows. General purpose servers will still play a powerful role, one I’ll flesh out. But don’t get rankled by my prediction that Linux is going underground. It will thrive there.