What will happen to Linux when Linus Torvalds quits?

The kernel will go on

linus torvalds with swapnil bhartiya
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

Linus Torvalds is undoubtedly one of the most powerful 'geeks' in the world today. His software is used in almost every aspect of our lives, often without us realizing it.

When we hear the word Linux, we think of those command line operating systems that we tried back in 2004 and abandoned. The fact is 'almost' everything around us that has some kind of computing power, is powered by Linux. Whether it be the router that connects you to the super Internet; the printer that fires up every time you send a print command; the coffeemaker that kickstarts your morning; your Android phone; Kindle; Roku; Amazon Fire TV; Netflix; Spotify; Facebook; stock exchange; NASA rockets; banks; drones or supercomputers.

[ Also on ITworld: 11 technologies that tick off Linus Torvalds ]

In a nutshell, Linux is omnipresent..

This penetration of Linux in our lives and our dependency on it makes one wonder how this astonishing technology is being developed. It has been an Open Source project from day one and it’s been developed in public over email (more about that later). The source of Linux is released under GNU GPL v2 license written by the father of the free software movement, Richard M Stallman, aka RMS.

This license, and the development model, allows people to take the code and make changes to it. The changes can be applied to the main code and as a result, the Linux kernel continues to improve and become more useful for a huge range of products.

Linus is more of a manager

Linux is developed in public, primarily over email where developers send patches and merge requests explaining why their changes should be merged and then Linus makes the call whether to merge them or not. He is the final authority on Linux.

Before we get ourselves into what would happen to Linux after Linus, we must also understand what makes Linux different. When we look at traditional software development where companies have visions of what they want to do, those visions come from the top through a series of ‘managers’.

By contrast, Linux doesn’t have any vision of where it, the Linux project, needs to go. Linus said that there are hundreds of companies and individuals who all have visions of where they want to go with Linux. Linus comes into the picture when these companies or individuals send changes and Linus, after looking at it may say ‘that may make sense to you, but there is no way we can do it because it makes sense to nobody else.' As he told me in an interview I did with him in 2011, “One of my jobs is saying no”. However he is not the “no” man in all cases. At times he would suggest changes so that while it will solve the problem for that company it will also work for everyone else. Looking at the massive adoption of Linux in so many diverse use-cases it becomes very challenging for Linus to ensure that changes suggested by one party won’t break something for someone else.

What makes Linux really revolutionary is, as Linus said, “We don't distribute just the coding effort we also distribute the vision effort and I think it's equally important.” Look around and you will find the same Linux being used by companies to create their own grand visions. Look at Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix, Spotify, Red Hat and many more. Same kernel, different vision.

Even if the kernel development relies on one guy, what companies can do with it doesn’t really depend on him at all. However the development of Linux does depend on him. One may wonder what would happen to Linux if Linus gets bored with it and wants to do something else. A similar question popped up during a recent Bloomberg interview. I asked the same question, in a more diplomatic tone, to Linus back in 2007: "Since the Linux Kernel Development depends so heavily on you, how do you plan to organize/reorganize it for it to continue progressing without you in case you decide to dedicate more time to your own life and family?"

Linus told me, "I've long since come to the realization that Linux is much bigger than me. Yes, I'm intimately involved in it still, and I have a fairly large day-to-day impact on it, and I end up being the person who, in some sense, acts as the central point for a lot of kernel activities; but no -- I wouldn't say that Linux 'depends heavily' on me.

So if I had a heart attack and died tomorrow (happily not likely: I'm apparently healthy as anything), people would certainly notice, but there are thousands of people involved in just the kernel, and there are more than a few that could take over for me with little real confusion."

That’s the core strength of the Open Source development model. That’s the strength of Linux.

The show must (and will) go on.

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