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Editor's Note: Tipping Point Ahead

Jun 02, 2006, 23:30 (27 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

A week ago, I had a chance to speak with Scott Handy, Vice President of Worldwide Linux Strategy at IBM. Mr. Handy has always struck me as one of those people really likes his job, because despite the instinctive reluctance many executives have when dealing with the press, he seems to really like to share what IBM's doing to promote Linux use.

Or he's just really good at his job.

Regardless, the reason we were speaking on this occasion had only a tangential connection to IBM, but it was still very interesting to hear nonetheless. Handy had just seen the results of the Spring 2006 North American Developer's Survey from Evans Data and was pretty excited about some of the data coming out of that report.

If you've never heard of this survey, it's an independent survey of developers in various markets around the world. In this case, the North American market is examined, with 400 developers surveyed to find out what makes them tick. What got Handy revved up is the part of the survey that deals with the operating systems for which these developers are coding.

According to survey, by the end of the year, it is expected that the number of developers expected to be working on Linux will match the number of expected Windows developers.

You read that right. The expected development targets for developers--from an independent survey--will be 50% for Linux and 50% of Windows by the end of 2006.

That rate is not static, mind you. The percentage of Linux developers has been growing steadily for seven years in a row. If it continues to grow, Handy believes that by this time next year, we will be seeing more Linux developers than Windows developers.

And if you think that doesn't scare the willies out of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, think again. Handy related to me that in the 2001 edition of the same survey, Linux developers surpassed the number of Solaris developers. About five months later, in Feb. 2002, we saw Sun Microsystems' then-CEO Scott McNealy waddled out to an audience at a Sun conference in a penguin suit.

It would be too simplistic to tag this report as the sole reason Sun began its half-hearted attempt to embrace Linux; but it takes no big leap of imagination to realize that Sun had certainly seen the Linux writing on the wall four years ago, and some of that writing was penned by Evans Data.

Given the fact that the same survey may be about to reveal Linux developer numbers surpassing those of Windows developers, one wonders how Redmond will react. Ballmer in a penguin suit? One shudders.

More likely, their Shared Source was created partly as a response from watching the developer balance shifting away from their favor over the years.

Indeed, I think it very likely--because it never quite rang true with me that shared source was for the benefit of Microsoft's customers. End-users and their IT managers don't often care enough about the actual source code (though they should) for this to be such a big deal. And, let's face it, when did Microsoft ever really care about the end user in the first place? No, "shared source" was and is an attempt to stem the tide of developers dropping work on proprietary code to enjoy the very real benefits of open source work.

So what does Handy think is behind the steady increase of Linux coders? Well, he couldn't quite forget who signs his paycheck, since he touted the Eclipse open source development project as one reason why its easier for developers to shift to Linux work, as well as the sheer openness of Linux. He's probably a bit biased, but there's no denying that there are really strong development tools and frameworks out there--Eclipse among them--that certainly can't be hurting the cause.

Also helping out the shift in development platforms is the huge success of another open source project: Apache. "Apache," Handy stated, "has won."

With its dominant adoption rate, Apache may be doing more for the cause of open source development than Linux itself. Some survey numbers support Handy's theory: 68% of the respondents are planning to code for Web applications. Since Apache is the most prolific Web server, it stands to reason that the openness of the Apache server is rubbing off on the development community. They've gotten a taste of open source development and they want more.

Now, let's keep in mind that this is just one survey, and the numbers may not reflect reality (Evans cites a +/- 4% error rate). Plus, having more developers does not automatically ensure the success of an operating system. But it cannot be denied that the trend is showing a strong growth of Linux developers, and sometime in the near future, their numbers will pass those of Windows. When that happens, a lot more applications and solutions are going to find their way to Linux.

"Watching the developers is like watching the future," Handy told me. If so, then the future's looking mighty good for Linux.