The Long Tail of Linux Kernel Developers

9 September, 2005

Along with many others, I've been following the development of a set of ideas about the rising importance of niche markets in a world with ever-decreasing costs of production, storage, and communication called The Long Tail by Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson (or as we call him around Music For Dozens, "the other Chris Anderson").

Yesterday, I thought of his ideas while listening to an IT Conversations podcast of Andrew Morton's presentation to SD Forum. Morton is the lead maintainer of the Linux kernel (the technical heart of the operating system and in many ways the spiritual one of the open source movement as a whole). Morton is second in command only to the eponymous Linus Torvald himself.

In his talk, detailing the process through which development of the kernel takes place, Morton gave an interesting example of the Long Tail which I had not yet come across elsewhere. While Anderson and other commenters have outlined many ways in which the open source software world plays a part in many different Long Tails, Morton described what is, essentially, a Long Tail that exists amongst kernel developers themselves.

Morton explained that while patches have been contributed to the Linux kernel by a couple thousand programmers, its core constituency, which is responsible for the majority of development consists of about thirty people. Above that, of course the head narrows ever further down to the movement's leadership at the Open Source Development Labs, and eventually down to Torvald himself (there's an interesting discussion in the Q&A section about what would happen if Linus got hit by a bus -- according to Morton, it wouldn't be that big a deal -- which is an interesting question for Long Tails more generally [what happens if the head suddenly disappears?], but I digress).

Morton's argument is that the maturation of Linux and its rapid and successful recent growth comes from the emergence of this head, of a class of professional kernel developers who are employed by companies making products that interact with the kernel for whatever reason (whether it be Red Hat and the other big commercial Linux distribution companies or just some hardware manufacturer that needs drivers for its products merged into the Linux tree so that their products will work with Linux systems adn they won't lose Linux users as potential customers). At a certain point it became economically necessary for these companies to actively fund kernel development and the strucutre of the Linux project puts in place incentives for these companies to merge their improvements back into the public version of the Linux source code so they can benefit from the massive quality assurance and testing efforts continuously undertaken by Linux's constituency of early adopters and so that their features will be built upon, expanded, and maintained by other future Linux developers.

So, I guess my question is this: is Linux development the first example of a Long Tail to emerge tail first?

Technorati Tags: , , , , , .