Don’t give me this “We Used to Do Big Things” Crap. We do.

ImageI was having a discussion yesterday with someone who decried our country’s lack a manned space program. I agree, the fact that the US doesn’t have a manned spaceflight program is a step back. But then he said, “our generation hasn’t done anything like land someone on the Moon… we used to do big things.”   I looked at him funny because…

…he’s just plain wrong.  The Linux kernel trumps the moonshot both in terms of engineering effort and societal impact by a few orders of magnitude.  The kernel is the largest, most complex collaborative effort in the history of the species. That may sound somewhat grandiose, but it’s very much true. The Linux kernel is over 17 million lines of code and is growing at an average rate of 3,500 lines per day. Nearly 1,300 developers contribute to Linux with versions like 2.6.25 generating more than 12,000 patches. The Linux kernel powers over 93% of the TOP500 Supercomputers. The kernel is at the heart of Android which has a nearly 60% share of the mobile operating system market with 1.5 million device activations a day. The kernel also powers millions of servers across companies that have transformed the way we consume information and communicate with one another such as Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

This is a silly game show to play, but if I had to choose between a Saturn V with three dudes and a lunar landing module strapped to the top of it and a DVD with the Linux kernel, I’d point to the DVD as having a bigger impact. I’d also argue that the benefits of today’s innovations are more equitably distributed and are not driven by global nuclear conflict.  That’s a good thing. Instead of generating dusty artifacts for museums in DC we’re busy creating software that people can use. I’ve singled out the kernel because I’m convinced it’s at the center of several transformative shifts.  

It is also the operating system that will send us back to the Moon (on a private, SpaceX rocket).  Here’s a quote from Robert Rose at this year’s Embedded Linux Conference:

Linux is used for everything at SpaceX. The Falcon, Dragon, and Grasshopper vehicles use it for flight control, the ground stations run Linux, as do the developers’ desktops. SpaceX is “Linux, Linux, Linux”, he said.

We still do big things.  So keep your sappy 60s sentimentalism to yourself and submit a patch.