Some of the stuff Linus Torvalds said during the keynote panel discussion at LinuxCon NA 2014
Linux may be dominating the world – powering super computers, infrastructure of stock exchanges and sites like Amazon, Facebook, Google, space missions of NASA , air traffic controls or airlines and much more. In consumer space Linux, via Android, controls over 85% of the market and its fast capturing the casual laptop market through Chromebooks. In a nutshell Linux has become omnipresent in today’s world. As Jim Zemlin said during his keynote Linux is one of the greatest shared technologies in the world.
Despite this dominance and ‘god-like’ presence, the emperor penguin still has one territory to acquire – the desktop. Despite Microsoft’s repeated failure with Windows 8.x, the demise of Xp and need for backdoor free operating systems in the Snowden Era Linux on desktop has not succeeded they way its cousin Android or Chrome have succeeded.
When asked by Greg KH during the keynote panel discussion ‘where should we go next’, Linus said “I still want the desktop.” As we all know Linux on the Desktop is not as much about technology as it is about marketing and other factors. Just look at ChromeOS which does much less than what Kubuntu, openSUSE or Linux Mint do still Chromebooks are the best selling devices on Amazon.com, whereas it’s hard to find a decent Linux-preloaded system there.
Canonical tried, but then they gave up on desktop and shifted focus on mobile so today there is no big enough company which can not only bring Linux desktops to the market but also manages to get service and content providers to offer their products to Linux users. I interviewed Noa Resare who works on free software at Spotify and even he was of opinion that considering the market Spotify for Linux may never arrive. Even heavy Linux users like Google don’t offer their drive to Linux users so it is a Catch 22 situation. There are so many factors holding Linux back, but the biggest of all is the absence of a commercial vendor to drive adoption of Linux on desktop.
Linus says “I don’t believe its a kernel problem, it’s a whole infrastructure problem and I think we will get there one day.”
Linux is in good shape
During the panel there was discussion about the most annoying bugs that developers face and Linus mentioned the recent GCC compiler bug. He said the most annoying thing about it was that the bug was not in their code, it was somewhere else so while they wasted a lot of time on looking at their own code, it was also relieving to find that bug existed somewhere else.
While Linux is in good shape that doesn’t mean there are no challenges for the developers. Some of the issues that Linus is concerned about is lack of maintainers for some projects. He said that he is less worried about an unmaintained code which no one uses. His real concern is there are many projects which have only one maintainer and if that maintainer chooses to take a week of for whatever reason it becomes problematic for developers who want to push their code.
One solution to the problem, which he said many projects have started to use, is to have multiple maintainers for the same code who work together so even if one maintainer is burned out or sick others continue to job. He gave the example of x86 code-base which have multiple maintainers.
Brothers in ARMs
There is no secret that free software developers used to hate ARM, as it was such a huge mess of code-base. While asking about the situation with ARM, Greg said they have zillion trees so how is the cleaning up of that code going on?
Linus said ARM is getting much much better, but it was very frustrating initially: “When I used to do ARM merges, I wanted to shoot myself and take a few of their developers with me. He continued, “But these days ARM mares are fairy painless and I think they are much less painful for ARM people too.”
He also said that now ARM has also adopted the multiple maintainer approach and there are “at least two people who are working on ARM tree and are pushing the whole unification and they are working together.” He added that they looked much better last year and it’s an ongoing process.
Another thing that Linus wants is to shrink the kernel again. He feels that the kernel has bloated a lot lately. “I love for us to shrink again. I occasionally look at my kernel that I build for my own machine and I build a very minimal kernel because quite frankly i build kernels a lot and boot test them and if I can do that in 30 seconds instead of 2 minutes that’s all good. The kind of minimal kernels I boot used to be a few hundred kb it’s not a few hundred k anymore, let’s put it that way, so we are clearly bloating the kernel a lot for the last couple of years.”
Greg argued that they are deliberately bloating the kernel, they are simply adding the features that people wanted. Bloated kernel can be problem for low-powered or embedded devices which would want the code to be as small as possible. But, Linus points out, the problem is with the market. Developers get only those machines which runs Linux, if the machine doesn’t run Linux they don’t buy it. And the companies who have these kind of hardware tend to do their own solutions that work for them instead of using Linux. Some of these companies may like to use Linux, but when they do they use a very old version of Linux. ”
…. but most of the time they say we can’t use it because we use this really pitiful hardware platform. So these companies continue to do their own things which creates more security issues.”
Overall the kernel is in good shape and hands, it continues to get fresh blood – young developers who not only make it better by patches but also help in cleaning the code. Cleaning the code is also very important and Andy Lutomirski, one of the panelists contributed heavily to improving the code-base. Valve owes a lot to Andy because of his work Steam games run faster on Linux.
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