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04 August 2008, 15:01

Jim Zemlin and the Linux Foundation: Looking after Linus

Andrew Donoghue

While Linus Torvalds, the father of Linux, has a wide and well established fan-base, fewer people are aware of the wider organisation that supports his vital kernel development work.

Linux Foundation was formed in 2007 by the merger of the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) and the Free Standards Group (FSG), and sponsors Linus Torvalds financially so that he is free to focus on his altruistic, albeit commercially beneficial, task.

Jim Zemlin, Linux Foundation's executive director, is the man charged with managing an organisation that appears to have only the noblest of goals – the betterment of open source software, for the good of all. As well as sponsoring Torvalds, its other aims include fostering standards around Linux, providing a fund to contest any legal issues and managing the Linux trademark.

Despite its altruistic and not for profit stance, the foundation has some very commercially-aware backers including Fujitsu, Hitachi, HP, IBM, Intel, NEC, Novell, and Oracle – with one obvious exception. In fact, merely mentioning the name Microsoft in some of the more zealous spheres that the Linux Foundation has to operate can draw a lot of flack, as Zemlin found out recently to his cost. An interview with Zemlin in InfoWorld in March this year, was headlined, "Linux Foundation: We would love to work with Microsoft". What Zemlin actually said, when asked if there were plans to collaborate with Microsoft was, "Not at this time, but we'd love to do it", before going on to explain the ground-rules were such a collaboration ever to happen. As is often the case, a headline is often enough to trigger a flurry of negative comments from Linux fans, but Zemlin comes across as someone not easily rattled.

Laconic, yet clearly passionate about his calling, Zemlin does a good job of treading the same line that the wider foundation must navigate, between a dedicated open source community one one side, and the IT companies keen to reap commercial rewards from a development model based on goodwill and often time given freely. He is also quick to spot this ability to juggle commerce and community in others. Zemlin is typical of a new breed of IT industry leaders trying to keep the open source world onside without alienating commercial partners and customers and vice versa.

Zemlin's own career history is typical of a tech industry leader. Previously executive director of the Free Standards Group before its amalgamation with the OSDL, Zemlin also served as vice president at Covalent Technologies, who developed products and services for the Apache web server. He also had a part in the founding of Corio, an on-demand application provider which was eventually acquired by IBM for $185 million in 2005 after failing to make a profit for the previous four years.

While Zemlin's experience with start-ups may have had limited success, he is still clearly interested in predicting which tech start-ups the smart money will be investing in. Given his remit as an evangelist and nurturer of all things Linux, it's no surprise to learn that Zemlin sees big things happening on the desktop, despite the fact that the Linux camp has been pushing that particular line for many years with no real success. The latest figures from Net Applications, show that Linux is still only has 0.8 per cent of the desktop market.

"I am going to predict once again that we will have a sea-change - I am really bullish. Honestly if I was going to start a Linux business today it would be something on the desktop or a mobile device," says Zemlin. "The reason is that a laptop computer is going to be a couple of hundred bucks; in a couple of years you are going to have fully functional laptops that are incredibly cheap. Intel and AMD are building systems on a chip that is reducing the cost of building these kind of devices. The highest cost items on these things is memory and storage - so if you look at the world in the future of the $200 laptop – Linux is the only game in town."

Zemlin believes that specialisation and targeting niche markets with tailored devices, and more importantly tailored distributions of Linux will begin to win over more customers to the open source platform. "Early successes will push Microsoft to price compete but its not just the price that is going to make the difference but the fact that with Linux you can tailor the experience for woman over 40 in Asia for example," he claims. Zemlin expands on this idea in a recent blog entry.

Zemlin sees some barriers to the specialised Linux netbook concept taking off. The first is the issue of standardisation and how to make sure there is an application development platform across all these potentially niche Linux desktop environments. Luckily this just happens to be part of the Linux Foundation's remit, and something Zemlin claims the organisation is already working hard on.

The other issue to contend with is the elephant in the room in any conversation about the desktop - Microsoft. Although the software giant has made some concessions around its server products in February this year by disclosing some of its APIs, Zemlin claims that similar moves on the desktop aren't going to happen any time soon.

"I think they are going to defend that desktop," he says. "I think rather than embracing openness on the desktop side they will do the opposite they will retrench – they will do anything to protect that Microsoft Office cash-cow. I mean that is their big monopoly in terms of really displaying monopoly price characteristics – Jesus, that is an expensive suite of products."

Microsoft's desire to defend its desktop business is not surprising given the pressure it faces in the most rapidly expanding client market, that of mobile devices. According to Zemlin, Nokia's announcement in June that it was acquiring Symbian and releasing the whole platform under the Eclipse open source licence was a major blow to Microsoft's ambitions in the mobile market. "For me the biggest loser here is Microsoft – that is just a kick in the teeth for them – I would not want to be in the Windows Mobile sales group now," he says.

Zemlin admits that Nokia is going to face some cultural and technical issues when it comes to transforming Symbian into an open source organisation. "The Symbian move is a smart one but something they are going to have to overcome is that they are saddled with this old architecture that was designed for small handsets – not for smartphones per se – so they are a little more chained down and its going to take them some time to roll out the open platform, get the governance model working, get the foundation set-up, get the licences all cleared."

Zemlin also believes Google's Android mobile software stack project will cause Nokia problems. "It is going to be tough fight. I think the Android guys are going to come out with some really good handsets at Christmas, next year, and I think Google is extremely good at attracting new developers. They have as buzz about them and a track record of developing killer development tools," he says. "The assumed reason for Google to develop Android is to keep that mobile computing world as open as possible so that companies like Google can provide services, paid search, music downloads – you name it – and not have to go through an OS vendor or a carrier. Nokia definitely has the same ambitions, they want to be similar to Apple when it comes to distributing music and entertainment- and all these mobile vendors see that future and they all want to be there."

The role of the Linux Foundation in all of these developments is not to get in the way of any healthy commercial competition, whilst ensuring that the players – all of whom are making use of the Linux kernel – pay their dues to the community and maintain some level of cooperation. "Well we support the kernel development effort and that is the one thing that all these developments have in common – they all use the Linux kernel. So to the extent that we can provide forums to allow the groups to collaborate on technical issues at the core of their technology then we are out to do that, as well as legal issues, we have a forum for council from all these companies to come together to discuss the legal issues which has been a pretty popular forum for a lot of companies within the mobile Linux and mobile industry in general," says Zemlin.

Any discussion of mobile development has to include Apple. The company recently built on the momentum it enjoyed with last year's iPhone release with an updated 3G enabled device. However, despite some flack around failing to initially open up its platform to third-party software developers, the company rarely gets any criticism for seeming to completely ignore the entire idea of open source development.

"They seem to get some kind of bye – you ever noticed that?" says Zemlin. "But then the reality is that they just make killer products. No one can argue that the iPhone or the Mac desktop experience is not a great experience," he says.

However, as is clear from his vision for the future of the desktop, Zemlin clearly believes that the Linux community is also capable of producing a great experience too, and at significantly less cost than Apple. However if his predictions ring true it will mean more commercial success for Linux distributors and the OEMs using their software, which will in turn mean more competition – and a more challenges for organisations such as the Linux Foundation charged with making sure everyone plays by the rules.

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