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Linux: this year's silver lining?

Watch out Windows and Solaris, says Zemlin

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With the new year under way and all of the problems in the old year still largely unsolved, people in the IT sector are looking around for a little good news and some prospects for growth. There are a lot of clouds out there right now, and Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, thinks the rain is going to be good, particularly for Linux.

"Even though 2008 was in recession, the Linux platform did well, and it is growing faster than other platforms," Zemlin told us during an interview.

"Linux definitely has critical mass, and you use Linux ten times a day and you don't even know it. So in 2009, we expect to see a bit of growth. It is not going to be a boom year for anybody, but at the end of the day, Linux is positioned to do well."

One of the interesting things - and some might say exceedingly optimistic - that Zemlin believes looking ahead is that Linux will outship Windows on new PCs in 2009. By PC, it should be noted, Zemlin means desktops, laptops, and netbooks.

The key word in that sentence is "new". Like many watching the PC business, Zemlin thinks 2009 will be a year when netbooks really take off, and Linux is doing well on these platforms. "Linux is taking share from Windows in this new playing field, and we think Linux will be the dominant platform for netbooks," explained Zemlin. He added that Microsoft has been forced to extend the life of Windows XP and move up the launch of Windows 7 as many consumers and corporations have ignored Windows Vista.

While Linux enthusiasts have been jonesing for more Linux share on desktops, if Microsoft sees Linux getting traction, it seems far more likely that Microsoft will drop the price of Windows XP and extend its support to maintain share.

Zemlin also seemed to be cheating a bit on the "Linux outships Windows" thing. He is including a quick-boot feature on laptops and netbooks that loads a baby Linux instance for instant web browsing, so in some cases a machine will have both Linux and Windows on the box.

The funny bit is that in many cases, a user will open up a machine and start browsing without loading Windows at all. So does the Windows really count?

As has been the case for nearly a decade, Sun Microsystems - but not its Solaris Unix - is a favorite target of the Linux community, and Zemlin pulls no punches in pronouncing a death sentence for Sun. "Sun is really exiting," he said.

"This is just too little, too late. The company did not recognize the need to change to the open-source/subscription model until it was too late. In the not-too-distant future, Red Hat is like to have a larger market capitalization than Sun."

Indeed. As we went to press, Red Hat had a $2.7bn market cap, compared to $3.1bn for Sun.

Zemlin sees the operating system market as a two-horse race: Linux versus Windows, because - for new application development - people want to code on platforms that have what they believe is a long and fruitful future.

No one in the Linux community, including Zemlin, is predicting that Solaris is going away. It is just a matter of where the new workloads are deployed and where they are not. "Look, there's still a lot of NetWare out there," Zemlin said. "You see people migrate away and then a platform fades into the background. We know how this movie ends, even it is a long and painful one."

So Sun and its woes will benefit Linux, and while Zemlin expects some growth in the IBM AIX and Hewlett-Packard UX server space, it will be modest. The important thing is that right now, as far as the Linux Foundation is concerned, no other operating system is going to displace Linux on servers. So how long before Linux is the dominant operating system on servers?

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