Will we see another operating system?

amcpherson's picture

Two weeks ago we published a research paper estimating the development cost of a community Linux distribution. It was a fantastic project for the three of us who worked on it. The findings were surprising, even to me. It would take over $10 billion for a company to develop the software represented in Fedora 9.

Even more important than the money is time. The sheer number of years it would take to build this would make it daunting for any company to undertake. As soon as the OS was done, requirements/architectures/markets would have changed and they’d have to start all over again. That is one of the unheralded perils of proprietary software development. Since you are operating under central command, you lack the flexibility of a de-centralized community who can work in parallel. Or to quote from the paper:

Just imagine a computing world where Linus Torvalds didn’t allow (in fact force) users of Linux to allow others to re-use their contributions. Would there be a Google if they didn’t have the free use of Linux and the ability to modify it to suit their needs? Could there be the expanding new category of sub-$350 ultra mobile PCs without the free use of a $10.8 billion piece of software? Would Amazon be able to build its new line of Kindle reading devices without a free piece of $1.4 billion R&D to power it? More than just money, the software in a Linux distribution represents time. The economics in each of these examples would not have been possible had these companies been forced to pay per-device or per-server license fees to any one company or had to devote the thousands of person-years of development time to create this software.

The paper was an interesting experiment in putting a value on something that is free. As the paper states:

As we can see from this study and through the explosion of Linux throughout all areas of computing, collaborative development creates enormous economic value. Companies such as IBM, Intel, HP, Fujitsu, NEC, Hitachi, Google, Novell, Oracle, Red Hat, and many others have all participated and profited in the tremendous ecosystem created by this open model of software development.

The companies stated above, and many others, realize they are getting a great value in free r&d. Analyst Dennis Byron wrote an interesting follow up to the paper in financial magazine Seeking Alpha where he states that Microsoft’s R&D expenditure is in line with our estimates.

Over the period roughly comparable with the development of Linux as defined by LF in its study, Microsoft was developing its Vista client operating software, Windows Server 2007 server software, Office 2007, Internet Explorer 7 and other related software. Microsoft spent around $14 billion on that effort by my estimate (see illustration; sum of “Est. Comparative R&D” ) making the LF estimate seem reasonable.

Of course these studies are purely academic and debatable. No one is going to re-write Linux from scratch. Why on earth would they when they can use it as they wish, as long as they share with others? The numbers from our studies (and Dennis’) however do raise the question: will we ever see another operating system independently developed by one company from scratch?

Obviously Microsoft seems destined and committed to go it alone. They are busy remaking Vista into Windows (how is that for a backward port)? Apple based their OS on the freeBSD system that has been around for some time.

What about Google’s Android, you say? Or the Moblin platform for Mobile Internet Devices and Netbooks? Both are based on Linux. Google and Intel have leveraged the free R&D into these projects, producing a framework available on products in record time.

Vista is likely the last operating system we will ever see written by one company from scratch. I think the future operating systems will smartly make use of the free software already available. It produces better quality code, running on more architectures and for more devices. It also would have saved them about $10 billion. Oh well.