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The news that the operations chief from a major US airline, Jim Whitehurst from Delta, is taking over at Red Hat from Matthew Szulik is a further sign of the growing legitimization of open source and Linux in the eyes of corporate, mainstream America. It underscores how the “suits to sandals” ratio in the open source and Linux movement sliding further towards the suits.

Whitehurst’s blue-chip background at the $16-billion-a-year Delta and the fact he’s an executive lured from outside of the IT industry rather than one who simply swapped one tech industry management job for another underscores the belief in open source as a business.

Recent research from Saugatech found 10 per cent of software used around the world is open source and that enterprises are increasingly taking open source seriously.

And even that perennial chestnut - the growth of Linux on the desktop - seems at last to be coming true. This month's stats from the W3C shows that the percentage of Linux desktops has grown to 1.77 per cent. This might seem ridiculously small - but six months ago it was only 1.25 per cent.

It's not only Linux that is growing. With Firefox 3 looming, W3C also shows Firefox is making serious inroads into Microsoft's dominance of the browser market. The latest version of Firefox now ranks second behind Internet Explorer 6.0 with almost 21 per cent of the market. If you stir in the effect of a mere handful open source packages such as Audacity in audio processing, Gimp in image processing and OpenOffice, the penetration of open source software in 2007 is striking.

It is worth re-iterating here that open source software is not always "free". Indeed, some of the more recognized and successful open source packages such as Red Hat's Linux while not free are less expensive than proprietary equivalents - no names mentioned.

It's been a while coming, but as noted in David Wheeler's comprehensive paper on the growth of open source, it has been building up for several years. As is often the case, growing interest in the consumer market is echoed by growing interest in the enterprise market.

The key to the success of open source is its maturity. Not only is the code for many key open source products now stable, but the processes for maintaining and developing it are also formalized and efficient. Gone are the days of ad hoc changes and dodgy code. Furthermore, open source products are generally becoming as easy to use as expensive proprietary products while thoughtful, altruistic people have populated the web with free guides and tutorials in abundance.

Although they have swooped on open source as the next big thing, suits like Whitehurst could be in for a disappointment. The open source movement is generating a wide range of excellent software that is available for no more than the effort needed to learn how to use it. This will make it hard to sell any products - including some open source software.

But it is not only the suits that need to do some hard thinking. The success of the open source movement also raises serious questions about the future economics of software development. If, as seems likely, that in the not-too-distant future all software will grow from open source initiatives, who will actually pay for programmers?

Whitehurst himself stepped into Red Hat from a struggling sector. US airlines are also trying to find ways of making money against the competition while their customers have more choice than ever before. In April, Delta itself emerged from restructuring under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. While Red Hat has seen phenomenal growth, the company faces its own challenges from making the JBoss unit live up to pre-acquisition promises and fending off Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s low-priced support network to standing up to next year's Windows Server 2008 and Microsoft’s on going claims of Linux and open source patent violation.

One thing is clear. The richest people in the world in 20 year's time will not have built their fortunes from making software, which will come as a hard shock to people like Whitehurst who might have hoped to retire rich on open source’s fortunes. If Microsoft's Bill Gates or Larry Ellison of Oracle were in their early 20s today, they would be looking for other ways to make their money.®

Additional reporting by Gavin Clarke

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