At Linux in the long run I expressed the opinion that Linux in general could suffer
when Linus Torvalds steps aside or dies. That opinion is generally
unpopular with the Linux community, but I think it's defensible.
But before getting to that, I need to explain that I do think
that Linux has a lot less to fear from succession than Apple does.
Right now, Apple is riding high, gaining ground regularly and stealing
both Microsoft and Unix users right and left. It's not just iPods
and iPhones; OS X is a power to be reckoned with. I can guarantee that
none of this would have happened without the vision and strong control
of Steve Jobs. And when Steve is gone, my bet is that Apple will
slide back to near oblivion very quickly.
Oh, there will be momentum. Jobs has built a great product line
and that could pull them along for a few years without him. But unless
someone equally strong minded and equally gifted takes the reins, Apple
I think Microsoft is going to suffer no matter what. What they
actually need is a Steve Jobs, but their board isn't likely to
appoint one even if one could be found. However, "suffering" in
Microsoft's case might mean slipping a bit: if Apple and Linux
fall behind, and nothing else fills the void, Microsoft junk can
continue to reign just because nothing else is there to fight them.
Let's hope that is not the case: if Apple and Linux can keep up the
pressure, Microsoft WILL slide downward.
The "succession doesn't matter" arguments boil down to demonstrating
that Linus Torvalds doesn't do all that much now, so succession
really won't change much. Defenders are also quick to argue that
Linux is only responsible for the kernel anyway and that most of
the obstacles to widespread popularity come in other areas, like the
Desktop. Those arguments definitely have truth in them, but there's
more to it.
First, the "it's only the kernel", because that's the weakest:
without excellence in the kernel, everything else falls apart. You
can't ever hope to have the slickest, most user friendly, absolutely
the grinchiest desktop if you don't have a strong and reliable kernel
underneath. If the Linux kernel gets screwed up by politicking,
in-fighting and neglect, Linux as a whole will suffer.
But it won't, right? It's all decentralized now, it doesn't
really need Linus.
Maybe. I want to believe that as much as anyone else, and perhaps
even more so: I think open source is critical to our future and
that we will lose a lot if proprietary systems regain their absolute
dominance. But I think that the "nothing to worry about" arguments
neglect two basic elements.
The first is charisma. Linus Torvalds IS the face of Linux just
as Steve Jobs is the face of Apple. Outside of the kernel mailing
lists, nobody knows any other name. That's important, because
perception is reality: if the business world sees Linux as leaderless
and rudderless, faith will be lost. Again, here it's not a matter
of reality, it's perception that matters. Even if a strong leader
steps up to take the reins, he or she will be an unknown, and
that can shake confidence.
Secondly, I suspect it's unlikely that a strong leader will
emerge. There are too many strong willed individuals capable
of taking over, so there likely will be extreme bickering and
fighting. That may resolve without serious damage, but it could
also lead to dreaded forks or worse, management by committee. And
that last is probably the thing that should be feared the most.
A committee won't screw up the kernel by making bad technical decisions
as a popular but incompetent leader might; no, they'll screw it
up by inaction.
That's the real danger here. A moribund kernel lagging behind
other developers needs will either push them to other platforms
or tempt them to fork.
None of this HAS to happen. My hope is that it WON'T happen.
But it CAN.
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