Considering the fact that it was developed by a Finnish university graduate in his spare time, Linux is perhaps the happiest accident in modern computing. Having evolved as a response to the unwieldy UNIX operating system, Linux has become a cornerstone of the internet. But how did this open source software kernel become such a mainstay of web applications?
In the Nineties, Linux was an avant-garde alternative to the ubiquitous Windows and Mac operating systems. Few people had heard of it, peripheral drivers rarely worked on it, and computers were sold with rival OS pre-installed. As a result, Linux became the default option of techies and free thinkers – the very people who would become pivotal in the internet’s development. Indeed, the World Wide Web allowed Linux applications to be launched in ways far beyond the inflexible potential of the desktop-oriented Windows and Mac OS…
The Android operating system is by far the most significant of today’s Linux applications. Underpinning half of the world’s 2.7 billion smartphones, Android is a modified version of the open-source Linux kernel. In a nicely circular development, Linux now runs on Android devices through apps like the UserLAnd emulator, supporting leading distros including Debian and Ubuntu. Going into the Software Info sub-menu on any Android handset will reveal which version of the Linux kernel has been installed.
As well as the hugely successful Android mobile operating system, Google also developed Chrome OS. Installed on slimline laptops known as Chromebooks, these machines offer advanced web functionality but little else – ideal for those whose IT needs extend no further than cloud-hosted productivity tools and online streaming services. Again, the favour has been returned with Cr OS Linux – a free Linux OS for use on PCs, netbooks, and notebooks.
Linux applications in the cloud include the market-leading hosting services of Linode and Amazon Web Services. Unsurprisingly, Google Cloud Services is built on Linux, while even Microsoft (which had the most to lose from Linux’s success) supports it via Azure. Recent calculations suggest Linux underpins 90 per cent of the public cloud, reflecting its ubiquity.
Next time your car flashes up an engine management notification or provides you with sat nav directions, spare a thought that it’s probably being generated by Linux applications. The collaborative Open Grade Linux project has seen manufacturers and tech firms putting their heads together to create a fully open vehicular software stack underpinned by Linux. The intention is to create an industry standard, akin to MPEG-DASH or HTML5. Japanese car manufacturers are in the vanguard of progress, but 140 other companies from Adobe to Sony are also contributing.
In the early Noughties, all the big animation film studios like Disney and Dreamworks switched to Linux applications. Because it isn’t constrained by the limitations of Windows and Mac OS, this is the ideal foundation for creating flexible Linux applications like GIMP and Inkscape. The open-source nature of this OS also lends itself to developing bespoke applications designed to solve a particular problem or resolve a hitherto unmet need.