From catch-up to leader

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Kran Kanthawong, 123RF

Kran Kanthawong, 123RF


For a while, it looked as though GNU/Linux was playing catch up to proprietary software. Now the tables have turned, and Linux is a leader in innovation.

During the early years of Linux, from the outside, the technology itself and the community that grew around it always seemed to be playing catch up. The desktop projects were accused of imitating proprietary desktops but lacking the polish and consistency of closed-source systems. The applications were described as inadequate clones of proprietary products, and users complained that support for common (not standardized, mind, just common) hardware and formats was spotty.

Of course, there were plenty of reasons for all these complaints: The usability rules behind graphical interfaces had been laid down years before the advent of Windows or Mac OS X. Open source app developers were often trying out innovative but untested techniques. And reverse engineering ever-changing hardware and formats without the help – and sometimes with active opposition – of providers is a time-consuming and uncertain endeavor.

But, none of that matters now.

Now, even the most ardent FLOSS sceptic would be hard-pressed to find an area in which GNU/Linux is not innovating in a big way. Take, for example, the underlying structure of the Internet. It has changed radically because of the advances in open source cloud computing frameworks and containers, and Free Software groups and companies are at the forefront of the cloud revolution.

The way teams of developers and creators build software and applications has gone through a major shift thanks to Free Software. Born out of the need to coordinate and make sense of input from hundreds of sources, the likes of Git and other participation-enabling technologies have revolutionized how people work together.

Developers are also changing the tools they work with. Hardly a year goes by without half a dozen new and exciting programming language and frameworks popping up, which in turn lead to faster and more stable deployments and services. Nearly 100 percent of these technologies are open source. In fact, those that are closed source tend to fall from favor and die sooner or later.

In the area of artificial intelligence, Free Software is also the trailblazer. Both IBM's Watson and Google's AlphaGo run on Linux clusters. Engineers are rapidly developing the tools, filesystems, and kernel mods necessary to manage a massive number of nodes and make simulating intelligence possible. AI requires powerful computers running millions of operations per second. Linux is currently used on 98.8 percent of the top 500 most powerful computers in the world.

Finally, since the days of Compiz and its wobbly windows, a substantial leap forward has been made in free, human-facing interfaces. For example, two new graphic middleware projects – Wayland and Mir – are poised to make obsolete everything we have seen in the way of support for graphical interfaces, including proprietary solutions. Desktop and app creators are doing their own thing and taking risks with how users interact with their environments. Even if many of these experiments fail, the ones that don't will push the boundaries of graphical interfaces into the future.

It makes sense, does it not? Free and open software guarantees that individuals, communities, research teams, and companies share their progress. It is much more likely that technological evolution happens in an environment like that, rather than in closed, isolated groups that jealously keep their discoveries secret.

It stands to reason then that we dedicate this issue to looking at innovation in the realm of distributions and to helping you experience first hand what the next generation of Linux has in store for us all.

Enjoy the future.

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