Linux May Be Worth $10.8 Billion, but Is It for Everyone?

Hard on the heels of Linux’s 17th birthday came two more notable milestones for the operating system, both of which came to light in the past week.

First, the Linux kernel surpassed 10 million lines of code — albeit with blank lines, comments and text files included. A full 96.4 percent of that code is written in C, while 3.3 percent is written in Assembler, according to the Heise article that reported the news, attributing the counts to the SLOCCount tool.

Some 430 wise-cracking comments were made on Slashdot following the report, such as, “Too bad 9,999,999 lines of that code were ripped off from SCO” from CRCulver, and “the unique line is commented out” from Tubal-Cain.

Round but Not Bloated

“10 million lines of code is interesting, because humans like round figures, and especially round numbers in the millions,” Slashdot editor Timothy Lord told LinuxInsider. “But unless Linus says otherwise, there’s nothing *significant* about it.”

Some people — such as on Slashdot — “have complained that this high line count means that the Linux kernel is ‘bloated,'” Lord noted. “But this ignores the facts that Linux isn’t a microkernel, that much of the 10 million figure is made up of comments and white space, and that Linux isn’t like the Constitution of Texas: Cruft gets dropped, as it’s replaced with new code. There are a lot of drivers that are now (to everyone’s benefit) in the kernel that certainly weren’t there 10 years ago.”

Bottom line: “Congrats hackers, it’s an amazing feat,” added Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean.

The Value of Free Software

The second striking bit of Linuxy news to emerge recently was an estimate of Linux’s worth, which a report from the Linux Foundation on Tuesday suggests is about US$10.8 billion. Specifically, that figure represents the cost it would take to develop the Linux distribution Fedora 9 by traditional proprietary means in 2008 dollars, the group noted.

That’s a lot of R&D!

The news received more than 800 Diggs and was picked up on Slashdot, among other blogs. While the numbers are impressive, many reactions were on the skeptical side.

“Someone really needs to read ‘The Mythical Man-Month’ and see why the numbers really don’t work that way,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider.

Just a Number

Indeed, the figure is “a classic example of spurious precision,” Lord added. “People pretend that all economic questions have knowable and precise answers, because numeric values can be postulated and assigned, and because there are so many precise-looking numbers out there, for various quantities that *can* be known (at least provisionally).”

With questions like this one, though, “the more important parts are in fact pretty mysterious,” Lord added. “Not spooky, just hard to divine without time machines, parallel Earths, etc.”

For example, “If a company saves a few tens of thousands in licensing fees because they choose a free OS (Linux, BSD, or something else), how did they allocate the money they didn’t need to spend on software?” he noted. “Did it let them fill some other part of their budget that turned out to be vital for a given project?

“I am a big believer in dollars as useful tokens, but if assigning dollar figures to dynamic, future-dependent activities were easy, more economists would be rich,” Lord said.

“The problem I see here is one of economic school of thought,” Dean told LinuxInsider. “I’m an Austrian economist, and the very basic premise is that things have no value aside from being useful to other people.”

Eye of the Beholder

While some may argue that a house, for example, has a certain worth because of the cost it took to produce it, that figure “is not actually the worth of the house if nobody is willing to buy it,” Dean explained. “A house, like a Linux ecosystem, is only worth what those buying and selling it would value it at.”

Currently, “Linux (the kernel) is providing more value by being open to anyone, and essentially, it’s not for sale,” he added. “Like everything else that isn’t for sale — say, the Mona Lisa — it’s priceless.”

Few true believers would dispute that assertion, but does that mean that everyone under the sun should use Linux? A question posed by Thomas Teisberg on the Linux Loop pondered just that — “Who should use Linux?”

“Some might say that everyone should use Linux, but I disagree,” Teisberg wrote.

Two Extremes

Linux is well-suited for people who use their computers only for basic tasks, as well as for “real geeks,” he explains. “So who wouldn’t I recommend Linux for? People in between these two extremes.”

Reactions to the question were surprisingly polarized.

“This entire post is a croc of $%^#,” wrote Linux Power User in response. “Power users exist on every platform, and the use of that power varies by the very toolsets available on that platform.

“Command Line is a power tool to a power user in Linux, just as a GUI might be to a Windows power user,” Linux Power User argued. “These ‘power users who aren’t interested in getting into the details of the operating system’ are fictional characters dreamt up in YOUR idea of what YOU want Linux to be.”

On the other hand: “I agree with the idea that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for anything,” Dean said.

Again — the Beholder

People use computers to meet needs, “and only the person WITH the need can say if what they’re using has met it,” he explained. “There’s no rules to this beyond that.”

Someone who needs a gaming platform to run some Windows-only game, for example, “will find their solace in Windows,” Dean noted.

“I came to the realization long ago that ‘Linux activism’ was a stupid waste of my time,” he concluded. “Tools meet different needs. Proselytizing for Linux makes as much sense as advocating that bricklayers turn in trowels for screwdrivers.”

Some viewed the matter differently.

In cases where people feel there are particular applications that they must use to do their jobs, either “they or their organizations have made a fundamental error in the choices made when the IT system was formed,” Robert Pogson, a blogger and Linux Loop contributor, told LinuxInsider.

“Routine stuff can be on the desktop. Anything highly specific should be on the server so that most of an organization can be platform-independent,” Pogson said. “That someone made a wrong choice in the past is not reason to continue down the wrong path.”

Your Choice

Microsoft is “an unreliable partner in IT,” Pogson added. “They make buggy software, alpha software, and release it as a finished product. That should be unacceptable to anyone.”

In short, “I do not believe there is anyone but an employee of Microsoft who should not use GNU/Linux,” he asserted. “There is always a way to get any job done with GNU/Linux.”

It may just come down to personal preference, some suggested.

“Who should use Linux? Easy — anyone who wants to!” Lord said. “It’s free. It probably works on most of the hardware that some people are considering replacing because it’s marginal as a substrate for Windows Vista or Windows 7 or Windows Infinity. It’s available in all sorts of GUI guises, and anyone who lives near a large American or Western European bookstore can pick up a Linux-oriented magazine-with-CD and start playing.”

In poorer parts of the world, the advantages of using Linux are even more compelling, Lord added. “Localization efforts are often truly local, customization can be performed *at the OS level* as necessary if you hire (or are) a skilled programmer, and the U.S. dollar might not always be as weak as it currently is.

“Oh, and kids — kids should use Linux, regardless of wealth or location, and without getting trapped into thinking that any one way of interacting with computers is ‘the right way,'” Lord added. “No child should ever believe that God handed Moses a tablet inscribed ‘My Documents.'”

And on that note, dear readers, we’d like to wish you all a Happy Halloween, with a quick parting shot of spooky, Linuxy inspiration. Have a good one!

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