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Linux in 2009: Recession vs. GNU

Pundits and business executives alike are predicting gloomy economic times for 2009. But when the talk turns to free and open source software (FOSS), suddenly the mood brightens. Whether their concern is the business opportunities in open source or the promotion of free software idealism, experts see FOSS as starting from a strong base and actually benefiting from the hard times expected next year.

That's not to say that challenges won't arise, but the consensus seems to be that 2009 presents more opportunities than difficulties for FOSS.

The outlook for business

The idea that software available at no cost will become popular in a recession is a no-brainer. As Peter Vescuso, vice president of marketing at Black Duck Software pointed out, "The recession is going to force a lot of people to be more careful with their spending, and look to get more and more value out of their resources as they spend."

And, Vescuso added, the pressure to do more with less will be particularly hard on IT departments, who are always under pressure to deliver efficient, uninterrupted service. Under the circumstances, interest in software that is available at no cost or only a small one is only natural.

But FOSS has many more advantages than simply being a cheaper way of building infrastructure. Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, pointed out that FOSS in general and Linux in particular are well-supported, with billions of dollars of investment from top-tier companies. Additionally, unlike Windows, it is "massively hedged," by which he means that it is available in every form from cheap notebooks through embedded systems to super computers.

"It's just unparalleled in computing in terms of its versatility and its diversification," Zemlin enthused, adding that in the last year, "pretty much everyone has opened up their device drivers, giving it broad hardware support that is only going to increase over the coming year. Moreover, FOSS is already strong in areas such as virtualization, which many large organizations may turn to in their efforts to do more with less."

In fact, Zemlin sees Linux and the FOSS ecosystem surrounding it as having insurmountable advantages in any market over its main competitor Windows -- advantages that an economic downturn only intensifies. At a time when a search for the lowest possible price point is happening in such areas as notebooks, FOSS is available at no cost. It is easy to rebrand and customize in a way that Windows Isn't, and is also technically more efficient.

"Lower cost, faster time to market, higher profit margins, better branding -- these are all things that are in favor of Linux and not in favor of Windows, he summarized.

Zemlin predicts that FOSS will continue to dominate netbooks and consumer electronics, as it did in 2008, and gain significant market share in the mobile market, largely through Google's Android and the Open Handset Alliance.

The result, he said, will be "better technology into the commons, better power management and better support on a wider variety of chipsets." In other words, the whole FOSS ecosystem will benefit directly from gains in this area.

Zemlin also sees FOSS as remaining strong on the server, with Linux continuing to be the major player. Most of Linux's growth in 2009, he said, will be "at the expense of Sun Microsystems, which is floundering in its business model right now. People look at Linux, and they say, HP, IBM, Dell, Intel and AMD -- these are collectively not going to go out of business any time soon. Then they look at Sun Microsystems, and they say, 'Whoa! This company has some serious financial difficulties, they have an uncertain future -- that's not a safe bet for me.' Nobody is really growing much, but where there is growth, it's going to in Linux."

As for advances on the desktop, Zemlin, like many, laughs at the long-predicted "Year of the Linux Desktop." However, he quickly adds that the year may have already passed in 2008 with the use of Linux in netbook computers.

The only negative aspect Zemlin sees is that FOSS is likely to continue to be ignored by traditional software vendors in the coming year. "Software vendors need to see a growth in Linux demand and they need to see a consistent demand," he said. "This is the two-pronged challenge for Linux: How do you provide the market that would encourage an ISV like Adobe to port Photoshop over to Linux?"

Zemlin has no answer to this question, but he clearly regards it as being of secondary importance in current economic conditions. Asked if there were any downsides that FOSS might expect in 2009, Zemlin was succinct in his summary.

"No downside," he said. "Linux is here to stay."

The outlook for the community

Peter Brown, executive director of the Free Software Foundation, suggested that the main concern for the FOSS community in 2009 could be funding for key projects. In hard times, donations are one of the first places where individuals and corporations alike are apt to cut back, so the possibility is very real that FOSS development may be slowed for lack of resources in 2009.

However, countering the possibility of reduced donations is the incoming technologically savvy administration in the United States, and the need of government and education alike to do more with less, all of which could allow free software to make new inroads in the coming year.

If President-elect Barack Obama keeps his promise to appoint a chief technology officer (and the appointee is not Bill Gates or some other partisan of proprietary software), "then I don't see how he could not consider free software," Brown said, pointing out its obvious advantages of low cost and high adaptability.

Brown thinks that the economic advantages of FOSS might create an atmosphere in which the ideals of free software -- that is, working to ensure that users are in complete control of the computer -- could reach a larger audience.

Page 2: Limits to growth?