Java, Linux and UNIX: How much things have progressed

I am putting together an Ubuntu Server box to act as a RAID file server for our family photo, video and document archives. It’s been a long time since I put together a hardware system myself and I am enjoying the experience. It is good to catch up on new technologies – last time I built a box all hard drives were still IDE and SCSI. This box will also server as my experimental server to try out some technologies for my professional development.

So all this got me thinking. In the late 1990s while I was in college I founded Clarkson University Linux Users Group. I maintained an online ezine dedicated to bringing Linux and to some extent Java to the masses. In 1996 I wrote this:

In my opinion, the future is not after Microsoft and Windows NT, as many people think, but after open standards. Users are tired of software/hardware incompatibility. As Java becomes the de-facto standard and many developers switch to Java and by doing that reach as large user base as they possibly can, proprietary systems will slowly turn towards Java. It will be a matter of your taste to decide what operating system to use. So, it doesn’t matter whether the Java program was developed on a Linux machine or a Windows computer. Linux already has kernel support for Java executables. The future is after open standards and Linux is truly open. In the future, the only operating systems that will survive will be those that conform to the open standards.

So that was the fall of 1996.

In 1997 I met with Paul Horn of IBM as a representative of a student project to build a parallel computing cluster at Clarkson. He was there offering research project funding and there I was, a 19 year old trying to convince an accomplished executive to give us $30K to build a small supercomputing cluster. Dr. Horn was pressuring me to prove that Linux was indeed the right approach and that IBM should be funding Linux projects. Source code availability didn’t impress him and he said IBM could get us source code to Windows if we wanted it. He said something along the lines of “Linux will never be a commercial success, corporations will never buy Linux.” To that I replied that with all due respect corporations aren’t buying IBM OS/2 and yet IBM continues to fund it. Needless to say we didn’t get the funding for our project. A couple of years later I met Dr. Horn at an employee picnic at IBM T.J.Watson Research Center and he recognized me as “one of the Clarkson Linux guys.” I will never forget this experience.

It is the end of 2010 now. IBM is one of the major sponsors of Linux. It could be argued that Linux in its various forms is more popular than Windows (if you include mobile phones, game consoles, servers, etc.). UNIX in general is as popular as ever despite its age if you count iPhone as a BSD UNIX system (to think, in the 1990s everyone was predicting death of UNIX). And Java did indeed become a de-facto business language, a COBOL of the 21st century as I like to call it.

What ever happened to Clarkson LUG ? Well, after I left the group as I founded it came apart – but the spirit of open source and freedom remained. Clarkson established an open source institute with funding from major industry players. I am proud of my influence, however small and insignificant, on the direction that Linux (and to some extent Java) took over the past decade.