Yet there are signs that relations between Redmond and the Linux community are softening. One of the more surprising aspects of the Microsoft-Novell partnership was that Microsoft agreed to purchase more than $250 million worth Suse Linux licenses, which it then resold to Microsoft customers. In July, Microsoft renewed the partnership with new Suse owner Attachmate and agreed to resell another $100 million in Suse licenses.
Microsoft's strangest gesture of all, however, was its cryptic video birthday card to Linux. In it, Microsoft admitted to "trying to scare Linux off" and went on to ponder a world in which Microsoft and Linux could coexist. As olive branches go, it wasn't particularly heartwarming. But the fact that Microsoft bothered at all may be evidence that the software giant is at last coming to terms with Linux's role in modern IT -- and its place in IT's future.
The rocky road ahead
Even if Microsoft disappeared tomorrow, however, Linux would still face challenges. For starters, Microsoft is hardly the only company that could assert patents against the open source OS. In April, Bedrock Computer Technologies won a $5 million judgment against Google for patent violations related to the Linux kernel. Doubtless that was but one reason why Google sought to purchase Motorola Mobility, which has its own portfolio of more than 24,000 patents.
The rising value of the commercial Linux market may also lead to increased infighting among the Linux vendor community. For example, Oracle has frustrated Red Hat for several years by marketing what is essentially a carbon copy of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. In response, Red Hat has become more guarded about how it releases kernel code patches.
More recently, Oracle bought Ksplice, a maker of technology that allows patches to be applied to a running Linux kernel instance with zero downtime. Previously, Ksplice was available for multiple Linux distributions, including Red Hat and Ubuntu, but Oracle now says it will make the technology available for its own Linux flavor exclusively. Further actions like these could disrupt the "cooperative competition" that has characterized the commercial Linux industry to date.
Equally important, Linux's technical evolution isn't over. As successful as it has been on mobile devices so far, it could do a lot better. Linux on the ARM architecture is a morass of redundant, device-specific kernel builds and distributions, and consolidation is sorely needed.
Mobility is but one frontier for Linux to conquer. Parallel processing is another. Linux works well on today's multicore chips, but as tomorrow's chips grow to 48 cores or more, today's Linux kernel won't be able to keep up.
Between mobility and cloud computing, Linux has an unprecedented opportunity to become a dominant force the likes of which IT has never seen. But as it enters its third decade, Linux's greatest challenge may be to avoid becoming a victim of its own success. As the open source OS has matured and stabilized and its code base has grown in complexity, Linux kernel hacking is losing its allure for new developers, and recruitment may soon become a top priority if it is to overcome the hurdles ahead.
Linux's growing pains are over, but its grown-up problems have just begun. Oh, to be young again.
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This article, "Linux at 20: New challenges, new opportunities," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest news in software development, languages and standards, open source, and Linux at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.