Although the combined market share of Linux distributions pales in comparison with Windows or Mac OS X, the Linux community is strong, engaged and, perhaps most importantly, loyal. Part of that is due to the community’s strong feelings against closed software, especially products sold by Microsoft. It’s also due to Linux’s creator, Linus Torvalds, who still commands a massive amount of respect and admiration sometimes bordering on adoration.
Over the weekend, Torvalds wrote on a personal blog that although he can’t stand mobile phones, he was pleasantly surprised by Google’s Nexus One smartphone. Torvalds called the device a “winner” and said he’s happy with its design. And since the phone runs a version of Linux, he was even more willing to pick it up.
The importance of Torvalds’ endorsement of the Nexus One can’t be understated. In many ways, the Linux community follows his lead. When he offers an opinion, the community rallies behind him. The Nexus One will be no different. And considering that the Nexus One competes against Apple’s iPhone, Torvalds’ endorsement could have a more profound impact on iPhone sales than we might expect.
Let’s take a look at why Torvalds and the Linux community could affect iPhone sales, while helping Google’s Android platform.
1. Open source means everything
To the Linux community, open-source software means everything. Linux fans believe that the finest software can only be improved with the help of users around the globe. They fundamentally disagree with the belief that a handful of developers can produce a proprietary software application that is superior to an open-source alternative. In the open-source community’s view, the Nexus One and Google’s Android platform provide open alternatives to the iPhone, making Apple’s device less capable and thus less desirable.
2. Torvalds’ opinion matters
Torvalds is still highly regarded in the Linux community. When he speaks, those who subscribe to his beliefs on open-source software and the viability of open operating systems listen. He has come out in support of the Nexus One in part because it runs Linux. That might be enough for the huge Linux community to get behind Google and decide against buying iPhones.
3. The Linux community is faithful
Although there are several distributions that pit one part of the Linux community against another, in the mobile space, those folks don’t need to choose. The iPhone is a closed device. Only Google’s Android platform can adequately supply the Linux community with the key element they desire. The Linux community knows that. And it likely will affect how Linux proponents choose smartphones.
4. There are more than you think
After examining OS market-share figures, many believe that Linux followers are few and far between and they don’t necessarily matter to a company’s bottom line. It’s a faulty conclusion. The Linux community is huge. Millions of people around the globe support open-source software and all that Linux stands for. They rebel against closed software. Apple’s iPhone is included in that grouping. And unless Apple decides to make the iPhone OS open source, it will stay in that unfavorable category.
Google Cultivates Open-Source Fans
5. The Linux community is growing
The Linux community is growing relatively rapidly. Recent market-share figures reveal that more people are adopting Linux. In other software markets, open-source offerings are growing at an astounding rate to the detriment of closed software. Unlike Apple, Google realized that and opted for an open operating system. Apple and its iPhone might be battling an enduring trend. That can’t be good for iPhone sales.
6. They’re usually the advisers
For the most part, the Linux community is composed of people who fully understand and follow the tech industry. Because of that, they’re typically called upon by others for advice on buying tech products. If a Linux user rails against the iPhone, some might opt for a Nexus One or another Android-based device. Linux users know what they’re talking about and share their knowledge. That word of mouth could be to the detriment of Apple’s iPhone.
7. Torvalds can effect change
Torvalds is more of a figurehead today than the true decider of Linux’s fate. But as the figurehead, he can rally the Linux community unlike any other open-source supporter. He has been a key reason why Microsoft has been forced to deal with open-source software so often in the past. He’s also why some open-source products became popular. By getting the Linux community behind Google’s Nexus One, Torvalds might push a sizable customer base away from the iPhone.
8. Google cultivates the relationship
Unlike Apple, Google realizes the power and influence Torvalds and the Linux community really have. Whether or not Google truly believes in open standards is up for debate. But the company was smart enough to realize that if it can get a rabid community behind it, it might be able to more efficiently improve its operating system, while capitalizing on Linux’s immense influence. It was a smart move on Google’s part. And for its efforts, Google might be able to convince some to turn away from the iPhone and opt for Android instead.
9. The community gets even
The Linux community doesn’t simply support an open-source project and do nothing. Instead, it gets behind that project and does everything it can to see it succeed. In some cases, that means improving the software. In other cases, it means railing against the competition, highlighting the competition’s flaws and bringing about change through activism. Microsoft has learned that lesson the hard way. Will Apple and its iPhone learn the same lesson?
10. Changes aren’t coming
As innovative as Apple might be, it simply doesn’t believe in offering open-source software. That’s understandable. Steve Jobs is running a company that has generated record profits over the past few years due in large part to its closed software. But as the industry and the users turn more to open-source software, how much longer can Apple hold out before that policy starts impacting sales?
Torvalds’ support might be a first step in that direction. If the Linux community gets behind him, Apple might feel the effect millions of Linux users can have on a bottom line.