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Another year ends, so it must be time for an LWN retrospective and look forward. Interested parties may want to review the 1998 year-end LWN for a similar summary of where we were a year ago. Things have changed a lot.

So what are the themes of 1999? Here's a quick look:

  • A year ago, people still wondered if it was possible to make money working with Linux. Few people ask that question anymore. Linux stormed decisively into the stock market; clearly people think there is money to be made. We have our first Linux billionaires. Anybody who makes a name for him/herself as a Linux hacker does not lack for job offers. Highly commercial Linux trade shows draw ever-larger crowds.

    Many questions remain about the long-term viability of specific Linux companies, but nobody doubts that there is money to be made with Linux.

  • A year ago, Linux was criticised as being unsupported. Nobody says that anymore either. Companies like Linuxcare and Red Hat have high-profile support operations; if those companies are still too small to make your CIO sleep at night, companies like HP and IBM should do the trick. Linux now probably has the widest variety of support options of any operating system out there - and any one of them should be able to actually fix problems.

  • Open source software development has become institutionalized and funded. Volunteer hackers remain the heart of many development projects, but more and more of them are finding that companies want to pay them for their efforts. The sourceXchange and Cosource.com have sprung up as another way to fund open source development. Resources like SourceForge provide infrastructure to help free software projects along.

    Ad hoc free software projects abound, but much of the core Linux infrastructure is now in the hands of people who are paid to work on it.

  • Last year, LWN made the obvious observation that big business had discovered Linux. This year, instead, big business has discovered open source. Companies like SGI, IBM, and HP are running large and important open source development projects. Others, like Compaq, Creative, Matra Datavision, and many, many more are doing significant software releases of their own. Others, such as Sun, haven't quite figured it out yet, but may get there.

    Even a year ago, the idea that a large corporation would find releasing its code to be in its interest was considered pretty radical. This year, it's just another business strategy. That is a tremendous change.

Many other things happened, of course...that big proprietary software company was found to be a monopoly... license wars abounded, but had little effect on the rest of what was happening... the 2.2 kernel... Samba 2.0 breaks into the domain controller business... Linux failed to fragment or fall apart... almost every Linux web site on the planet got bought... and so on. See our 1999 Linux Timeline for an attempt at a complete list (final version to be released just after the beginning of the year).

What awaits Linux in 2000? We don't know much more than anybody else, but that hasn't kept us from sounding off over the last couple years. Here's a few ideas:

  • Like it or not, the release of Windows 2000 is going to be an important event. It could well be the thing that fuels Linux's next big growth phase. If it is, as some have predicted, an all-time commercial flop, the resulting rush to Linux will make everything that came before seem insignificant.

  • The release of Office for Linux, which might happen in 2000, will be another defining event. Office would further "legitimize" Linux in millions of businesses; it would also make life much more difficult for commercial and free Linux office suites. Linux systems running Office may beat other systems running Office, but that is still not the vision many of us have of our desired computing future.

  • Linux stocks are currently valuable for a number of reasons; one of those is their scarcity. By the end of next year, that scarcity will no longer exist. Expect a true flood of Linux IPOs over the next six months; also expect companies that are already public to try to reposition themselves as Linux companies - along the lines of Corel.

  • The pressures of being public and of increasing amounts of money in play will erode the friendly nature of the competition between Linux companies. The "we are all in this together, against Microsoft" line will look increasingly timeworn. Linux companies will be competing against each other.

  • There will be an explosion of vertical applications for Linux. Already we are seeing applications for restaurants, medical offices, and e-commerce sites showing up. Many more will come, especially as industries discover that they can do better with cooperatively-developed open source software. There is probably a promising future for companies that can set up and coordinate development projects for vertical applications.

Beyond all that, look for the usual tremendous growth in Linux deployments, more endorsements from the commercial world, continued pointless licensing flamewars, and no end of things that nobody expects.

Another issue for 2000 is protection of algorithms. Software patents, clearly, are an important aspect of this problem. The software patent issue may well come to a head in the coming year, as silly patents bite more and more people. The level of discontent will certainly rise; whether it's enough to bring about any kind of worthwhile change remains to be seen.

Software patents are bad enough, but free software also is vulnerable to attacks on reverse engineering. The current attack by the "DVD Copy Control Association" against 72 defendents demonstrates clearly the extent of the problem. The DVD folks put together a poor, closed-source encryption system that was easily broken; now they want to use intellectual property laws to put the genie back into the bottle. They will fail, but the amount of grief that they can cause in the meantime is large.

Defendants are being named in this suit for the crime of linking to places where DVD information could be found. Deja.com has been named for carrying a netnews posting with links.

The attack on reverse engineering is scary. If it succeeds, expect to see a lot more like it. And once it is illegal to look inside a box to see how it works, it will be always harder to create free software equivalents, to deal with problems, or even to look for "NSA keys." So much for freedom.

The attack on linking is perhaps even worse. It is reminiscent of the "Communications Decency Act" of the mid-90's, which attempted to criminalize the provision of legal information. If linking is a crime, then the web is in trouble, and freedom along with it. It is encouraging that (just before LWN went to "press") the initial motion for a restraining order (to prevent posting or linking to the DeCSS code) was denied by the court, but this fight has just begun. Let us hope that 2000 goes down as the year when these sorts of attacks were beaten back.

(See also: Chris DiBona's DVD page, and articles in Wired News and News.com).

Inside this week's Linux Weekly News:

  • Security: Kernel-based buffer overflow protection, Quake cheats.
  • Kernel: 2.3.35, kernel HTTP service
  • Distributions: TINY Linux, updates to muLinux, LinuxPPC interview.
  • Development: Free software BBS systems, new weekly reports.
  • Commerce: LinuxOne's IPO - February at the earliest.
  • Back page: Linux links and letters to the editor
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

This Week's LWN was brought to you by:

December 30, 1999


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