Sammer believes the prevalence of corporate-backed contributors is "due to the barrier of entry to any project as complex and critical as the Linux kernel. Your average C hacker doesn't have the time to get up to speed, build the credibility with the community, and contribute meaningful patches in their spare time, without significant backing." In his view, corporations most often have the resources to support such endeavors, with universities and research organizations being further behind.
But has the prevalence of corporate contribution to Linux turned the OS into a mere corporate plaything? Is that Linux's future, to be a toy of the monoliths?
What matters most is not who's contributing, but in what spirit. Linux advocates are firm believers in contributions to Linux, no matter what the source, as a net gain -- as long as the gains are contributed back to the community as a whole.
Mark Coggin, senior director of product marketing for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, believes "the best innovations are those that are leveraged, and improved by the greatest number of participants in the open source community."
"We put all of our innovations into open source projects, and seek to gain acceptance by those upstream groups before we incorporate them into our supported products like Red Hat Enterprise Linux. We hope that everyone who works to enhance the Linux kernel and the userspace projects also takes a view like ours," Coggin says.
It's also not widely believed that corporate contributions are a form of "hijacking Linux," as Gillen puts it -- a way to make Linux "less applicable to other major user contingents." He's convinced commercial support for Linux and commercial enhancements to Linux "are an asset to the Linux development paradigm; not a negative."
Likewise, to Zemlin, Linux development "is not a zero-sum game."
"What one developer does in the mobile space to improve power consumption can benefit a developer working in the data center who needs to ensure their servers are running efficiently," says Zemlin. "That shared development is what makes Linux so powerful."
Corporate contributions are not the enemy to him, either: "Having people paid to work on Linux has never been a bad thing; it has allowed it to be iterated upon quickly and innovation to be accelerated."
The real issues, as Baker notes, come when "some very large Web companies make some changes available and push them upstream, but decide to keep others in-house to give them an advantage."
Version 3 of the GPL -- the license Linux was released under in an earlier version -- was developed in part as a response to such behaviors. However, it only prevents taking code others have written and redeploying it as a Web service. There's no inherent (or legal) way to prevent code developed in-house from being kept in-house -- which might well simply be part of the ongoing social cost of offering Linux freely to the world.
The biggest threats to Linux
If corporate co-opting is less likely than ever, thanks to the mechanisms that keep Linux an open project, what real threats does it face?
Nobody takes very seriously the idea that Linux is about to be wiped off the map by a rogue patent threat or lawsuit. One of the biggest such legal attacks, SCO Group's lawsuit against IBM, widely construed as a proxy attack on Linux, failed miserably.
Coggin is of this mindset: "Linux's huge success, with a vast network of developers and widespread global adoption, means that it is highly resilient. Although patent threats arise from time to time, as they do with many technologies, it seems unlikely that a patent or combination of patents could pose an existential threat to Linux."