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Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Theory of Change #020: Miguel de Icaza on 30 years of Linux & open source
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Theory of Change #020: Miguel de Icaza on 30 years of Linux & open source

Thirty years ago, Linux began as a college student’s hobby operating system project. Today, it’s a critical piece of software that powers the majority of the world’s smartphones and the most powerful servers and supercomputers. Along the way, Linux managed to displace much more established versions of the Unix operating system that it was designed to be compatible with.

But Linux as a technological phenomenon has been about more than what it makes computers do. It also popularized the concept of “open-source development,” a new way of programming where everyone has access to the underlying software code, and they can modify it and redistribute it as well.

Before Linux, open-source was considered a threat to capitalism and society itself. Today, it has become even more popular than Linux and is used almost everywhere in computing, including all the software we use here at Flux.

In this episode, we feature Miguel de Icaza, a Distinguished Engineer at Microsoft who played several important roles in the spread of open source, including at Microsoft, where he helped turn a company that was vehemently in favor of proprietary software into one that now embraces it and sells it in many different ways.

De Icaza began using Linux while he was in college shortly after its first release in 1991. Soon thereafter, he released Midnight Commander, a powerful program for managing files that is still developed today. Several years later, he co-founded GNOME, a graphical environment for Linux and other Unix operating systems. 

After creating GNOME, he began working on enabling open source developers to write programs that could run on Windows, Mac, and Linux. That eventually led him to co-found Xamarin, which was later turned into a software platform that could create code for both Android and Apple’s iOS. In 2016, Xamarin was purchased by Microsoft and he has worked there ever since. 

In the discussion, de Icaza tells the story of how Linux and open-source development became mainstays in the computing industry, how the “foot logo” of the GNOME project came to be, and why he has gravitated toward using a Mac despite decades of advocating for Linux and free software.

A video version of this interview is below. A lightly edited transcript of the audio follows.

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