The onset of LinuxWorld 2007 provides reasonable impetus to chime in about the heart and soul of Linux: the kernel. Perhaps because Linux has emerged as a highly recognizable brand and theme word for a general crowd there is a tendency to forget that the Linux, originator and copyright holder Linus Torvalds is involved with on a daily basis, isn't an operating system like SUSE or Ubuntu, but is the actual kernel. So while Linux is considered an operating system/platform (in the general sense), the kernel remains its atomic unit of existence.
Ironically, the emergence of Linux as a leading open source brand has done wonders for its ecosystem but has also served to obfuscate the true source of its strength and value: the kernel community. To the majority of those who count themselves as users of different Linux distributions, perhaps the kernel takes a backseat to the features/characteristics of a particular flavor, yet it is the kernel which determines, to a great degree, the core stability for a given distro. Does this minimize the considerable work which goes into building a Linux operating system? No, but it does put the entire picture into better perspective: It all starts with the kernel even if it doesn't end there.
As a key driver for what the Linux ecosystem has accomplished as a force in the open source world starts with the kernel community. As has been discussed before, most contributors are paid/funded by the corporate world, without hedging control to any particular set of private interests. This is possible due to a commitment to transparency by the community as a whole. This commitment must be respected by the entities that wish to participate in the kernel's development process. IBM, Red Hat, Oracle and others are counted as contributors without wielding unaccountable sway over the kernel community's governance or process. Linus Torvalds doesn't have to play the role of benevolent dictator, either. He is able to oversee the technical decisions of a technical project that keeps everything open for inspection. Discussions, code, documentation and other artifacts are made plainly accessible, creating an environment conducive to oversight by all. Where the surrounding community keeps itself in the know on its own. The same elements perpetuate a virtual meritocracy and give birth to a culture of participation.
When transparency breeds participation it becomes key in generating a high ratio of value over time. Case in point, the 2006 study funded by the European Union estimated the redevelopment cost of kernel version 2.6.8 at 882M € (US$1140M). All dollar amounts aside, the success of Linux as a competitor with operating systems developed using the proprietary model speaks to its immense value. Commercial efforts built around the kernel tend to absorb the very same core values in one way or the other. Red Hat sells its Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) the same way proprietary companies do, but maintains the 100% open source Fedora community as its upstream cousin, not as a courtesy but as a key component of its development process and, ultimately, its business model. End users and decision makers are empowered when they can find information like this or even this. Understanding where Linux is moving doesn't require anything except the desire to know and to pull together disparate information. A welcome step forward from relying solely on vendor press releases and road maps as a barometer.