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Linux chief: ‘Open source is safer, and Linux is more secure than any other OS’ (exclusive)

In an interview with Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin, VentureBeat got a bird’s-eye view of the future of the open-source operating system for 2014.

We also addressed the controversial issues of government spying and “backdoors” — those nefarious windows into our personal online lives that the public recently discovered in most of the services we use every day.

Zemlin gave us the skinny on how and why GNU/Linux remains the most secure option for concerned consumers — and why it’s becoming the OS of choice for powering cars, phones, TVs, and all kinds of emerging devices.

Here’s our e-mail transcript in a bare-naked Q&A format.


VentureBeat: Security and privacy has been the hottest topic this year, bar none. We’ve heard rumors that Linus [Torvalds, Linux creator] OK’d a Linux backdoor for the government.

Zemlin: If there were a backdoor in Linux, you’d know it.

The whole world can see every line of code in Linux. This is one of the reasons Linux is more secure than other operating systems and why open-source software overall is a safer than closed software. The transparency of the code ensures it’s secure.

And for the record: He wasn’t approached.

VentureBeat: How committed is the foundation to preserving Linux users’ privacy and freedom from tracking/surveillance?

Zemlin: As committed as we have always been. It’s very difficult to insert something into the kernel that would violate privacy and freedom without thousands of developers noticing. The nature of Linux is that it’s self-policing.

VentureBeat: Do you think there’s any chance that this year’s privacy/security/surveillance issues has driven or will drive more consumers toward Linux?

Zemlin: Around the world, I am hearing people say, “Using open source is a critical to ensure privacy.” So yes, I think that will drive more users people to Linux.

I also think more consumers are being driven toward Linux for a variety of reasons, in addition to the confidence and trust they have about privacy and security related to the platform. The transparency of the code and development process gives increasingly knowledgeable and aware consumers an option they feel good about.

[Video game publisher] Valve and its work on SteamOS is driving more consumers to Linux, as is the ongoing dominance of Android and other consumer devices that run Linux — from televisions to appliances, cars, and more.

VentureBeat: Do you have any thoughts on the Ubuntu Edge for phones? Where do you see the market for Linux/Ubuntu phones going in 2014-2015?

Zemlin: I like seeing potentially interesting new products go to market, especially when they’re Linux-based. It is hard to predict what product will produce a big hit in the phone market from year to year.

I don’t think it is a stretch to predict phones based on Linux will dominate. Android, Tizen, Ubuntu, Firefox, and more show that Linux can drive innovation in the mobile market and create new experiences for consumers and market opportunities for developers and OEMs.

What’s exciting about the year ahead, and what I’ll be watching, is how Linux and open source will help connect all of these devices, objects, and services together.

VentureBeat: What’s the most exciting use case you’ve seen so far for Linux embedded in automobile systems?

Zemlin: No question it’s the in-vehicle-infotainment systems being built by Cadillac, Tesla, Toyota, Jaguar, Land Rover, and others.

For example, the Tesla Model S, which won the Motor Trend Car of the Year [honor] in 2013, features a 17-inch flat-screen computer running a custom-built Linux OS. This is really, really cool stuff.

And the 2014 Motor Trend Car of the Year was just revealed — the Cadillac CTS sedan — and it also uses Linux for its in-vehicle-infotainment system. Car makers are able to innovate and differentiate with these systems using Linux.

The success of Linux here can be seen in the latest numbers from IHS Automotive, which reported this month that sales of automotive Linux are expected to rise to 53.7 million units in 2020, passing Microsoft and Blackberry QNX in the global automotive infotainment market.

The Linux Foundation does a lot of work in this area with its Automotive Grade Linux workgroup. By hosting a neutral, supportive environment among the Linux kernel community, other open-source communities, and the automotive industry, we’re able to help advance automotive Linux technologies among some of the world’s largest automakers including Nissan, Jaguar, Land Rover, Toyota, and more.

VentureBeat: How is Linux growing beyond the hardcore developer market, especially with regard to consumers and gamers?

Zemlin: This year has been a turning a point for Linux with gamers for sure. Valve, the gaming company behind the Steam web platform for Linux, builds and runs all of its source code and animation on Linux. Valve’s CEO Gabe Newell reported at LinuxCon this year that they’re running 198 games on Linux, and with the introduction of the Linux-based Steam, that number will only continue to go up. This is the beginning of a new trend for Linux and gaming.

Consumers use Linux every day. It is the software that runs our lives. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are built on Linux and open-source software. At our LinuxCon Europe conference in October, Twitter’s Chris Aniszczyk told the audience: “Twitter is of course all running on Linux. Why would you need anything else?”

Linux now powers the 1.3 million Android phones that are activated daily, and most of the nearly 600,000 new TVs sold every day. New appliances and cars are being built with Linux. Major transportation systems use the operating system. The superpopular GoPro uses Linux and open source. The examples are endless.

And Linux and open source will just keep reaching more into mainstream consumer life. Samsung uses the Linux kernel and Linux-based products throughout its product line, from TVs to phones to home appliances and more.

Stay tuned — you’ll see more coming that illustrates the growing role of Linux and open source software and collaborative development in everyday life.

VentureBeat: What are the biggest opportunities for free and open-source software in 2014, in your opinion?

Zemlin: We’ve talked about gaming and consumer devices, but the enterprise continues to present even more opportunity for Linux. The rise of cloud computing is creating new challenges for developers and new opportunities for growth. Try to find a public cloud that’s not running Linux.

The realization of years of promise in software defined networking will be one of the major stories of 2014. People don’t appreciate how big software defined networking and network function virtualization will become. Think about it. Billions of dollars are spent on hardware based switches, routers, load balancers, firewalls, etc.; this is all being abstracted into software. More importantly it is being abstracted via open source software in the sweet spot for OSS which is at this infrastructure layer. I think you’ll see projects like OpenDaylight and others have a big breakout year in 2014.

Of course, this is all part of a broader trend towards collaborative development, which should be of interest to your readers. I’d predict that in another decade nearly all of infrastructure software will be built collaboratively. Developers in 2014 need to learn how to build software collaboratively and how to work on and contribute to open source software projects. Their career opportunities will be endless if they understand the principles of collaborative development and open source software.

It’s a thrilling time to be involved in Linux. It’s become the de facto platform to go to for everything from smart watches to TVs to automobiles, you name it.

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