Linux could be about to fork. In a worrying parallel to the issue that stopped Unix becoming a mass-market product in the 1980s - leaving the field clear for Microsoft - a recent open source conference saw a leading Linux kernel developer predict that there could soon be two versions of the Linux kernel.

Today, only one Linux kernel is current but Andrew Morton, lead maintainer of the Linux kernel for Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), said that he expects the 2.7 version of the platform to fork to accommodate large patch sets.

Commenting on the planned 2.7 release of the Linux kernel, Morton said OSDL expects a few individuals with big patch sets will want to include them in the kernel. But there will be no place to put them - presumably because functionality for major kernel changes won't be applicable to all or even most users. One example might be between desktops and servers. So at some point, Linux founder Linus Torvalds will fork off version 2.7 to accommodate the changes, Morton said at the SDForum open source conference.

Discussing the requirements and planning process for Linux, Morton noted Linux is guided by standards such as Posix and IEEE. “Either features will come at us or they won’t,” Morton said. He cited clustering as a feature sought for Linux.

OSDL does not anticipate, for example, having to ever rewrite the kernel, which would take 15 years, Morton said. Top contributors to the Linux kernel have been Red Hat and SuSE, he said. Also contributing have been IBM, SGI, HP, and Intel.

OSDL has high standards for Linux, he said. The drivers that OSDL sees for other OSes are not up to Linux standards, Morton said. Asked about Sun Microsystems’ plans to provide Solaris technologies on an open source basis, Morton said this was a good first step but that a community would then need to develop around the platform after it becomes open source. "Ask me in two years’ time [about open source Solaris]. Really, they need to develop a community and learn how to interact," said Morton.

Successful open source projects have largely focused on providing legacy infrastructure, which is 30-year-old technology, Morton said. Open source has focused on software such as the operating system, kernels, runtime libraries, and word processors. "Leading-edge projects are the exception in the open source world," he said. If anyone is developing leading-edge technology, "they should get their act together and form a company and take a shot at getting rich with it."

Morton panned SCO’s lawsuit against IBM over Linux code issues. "We have sufficient faith in the legal system because we’re expecting it all to fall over because it has no basis," Morton said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Kim Polese, CEO of SpikeSource, described the open source movement as forever changing the IT market. "There’s been a lot of talk about doom and gloom when it comes to IT," she said. "But in fact, I believe there’s a profound movement under way."

"I actually believe we are entering the most exciting decade for software development that we have seen," she continued, with a cross-section of open source and enterprise IT representing the heart of the new era.

"Increasingly, open source software is higher quality and is starting to meet the capabilities of commercial software and in some cases is overtaking commercial software," said Polese. “What’s different about this new marketplace is, of course, nobody rules."