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Why was Linux successful (and will it stay so)?

© August 2006 Anthony Lawrence


Internet News reported on a panel discussion of the reasons why Linux was successful. I had been thinking about that myself recently, and had earlier found an older but more detailed article on the same subject.

That timing had a lot to do with this is obvious: the hardware was at the right power/price point, the Internet made communication possible, and even the BSD lawsuits added impetus by at least temporarily spreading FUD over BSD efforts and perhaps even moving a developer or two from that camp.

The impression that Linux was more receptive to new ideas and less demanding about their implementation is alluded to :

It has also given the illusion of a kernel and OS more open to the individual developer. The BSD variants have all come about from splits out of one or the other 'core' teams. Linus take patch submissions from anyone - within his vision of where the kernel should go.

But why splits? My impression has been that BSD developers lean more toward purity while Linux has been much more pragmatic. The willingness to explore other directions is sometimes upsetting - breaking backward compatibility isn't an unusual occurrence in the Linux world - but it also keeps up the excitement and interest. For example, see this rant against xinetd. Even its author seems to recognize that xinetd is neat, though he carps:

It's Cool, not stability nor security that has the most cachet when living la vida Linux.

He goes on to say what has been said about many Linux changes:

If you have an application which is used by thousands perhaps millions of hosts, it's replacement had damn better be backward compatible. The more entrenched the application, the greater the need for transparent backward compatibility.

There's truth there, but the rigid adherence to the status quo is what caused BSD development to appear stagnant when contrasted with Linux. Yes, convention and expectation are important, but it's also true that some things really need to be changed. Inetd needed changing and xinetd addressed its deficiencies.

I have to say that Linux has upset me from time to time: when I first encountered that "I_WANT_A_BROKEN_PS" message, I was actually angry. But when I investigated more, I found I agreed with the changes. For me, the arguments for change made more sense than the arguments against.

The Desktop

So, here we are in 2006, and Linux is successful, at least in the server arena. Moving into desktop territory is more difficult, and that difficulty causes some arguments in the Linux camps. From the Internet News article referenced above:

Raymond got riled up as he proclaimed what he thought was necessary to be done for desktop Linux to be successful.

"We need to do whatever compromise is necessary to get full multimedia capability on Linux so non-technical users don't dismiss us out of hand," Raymond shouted.

That's the argument in a nutshell. The other side of it is "We shouldn't compromise security and integrity just to attract more users". I tend to agree.

Fighting Microsoft for dominance is bad enough, but now Mac is catching a lot of attention from the geekish crowd and the "dumb user" population. I've switched to Macs myself (causing barely audible muttering that sounded like "more money than brains" from some acquaintances) and have noticed more than a few Mac notebooks at geekish events I've attended. Of course some of those may have been running Linux, but there's no doubt that I'm not the only Unixish type who found the Mac an easy way to retain my need for Unix while also having a media capable machine. And it's not just geeks: I've had more interest from non technical users and several have bought Macs recently.

But Macs aren't the perfect answer. For every I'm sick of doing things the hard way, there's a Why I Might Switch Back to match it. I waffle on this myself, and could easily slide into Linux desktop land. But.. geeks don't count. The great mass is people who don't understand any of the pro and con arguments and who aren't likely to download and install new operating systems over what they have. That's where Mac has a big advantage over Linux: you can buy a Mac. Now and then you have been able to "buy a Linux", but not as easily, and for the mass market it's always been on the cheapest hardware - little choice for the buyer who might want a better machine - and no advertising pushing them toward this to start with.

Certainly there's a market for ultra-cheap. But that market isn't going to propel Linux into the mainstream.

It's possible that redefinitions of what a desktop needs to be may provide a competitive role for Linux. Some think we will be moving toward web based and/or thin client computing. Dibona's comment in response to Eric Raymond's call for "whatever compromise" points toward that ( "Develop for the Web," DiBona said. "People can switch to Web applications from their desktop more easily.).

I don't see that happening. My judgement may be clouded by a geekish prejudice toward power under my tapping fingers, but I don't think thin client is our future. It's part of it, certainly, but I think we still will want real computers and our own local applications. And that's where Linux has the most to overcome.

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Sat Aug 19 16:10:12 2006: 2417   BigDumbDinosaur

Moving into desktop territory is more difficult, and that difficulty causes some arguments in the Linux camps.

Linux is not going to suceed on the desktop, period. The average "dumb user" simply doesn't know or want to know what's better about Linux and why s/he should be using it. S/he only wants to know if the computer runs Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Internet Exploder and Outlook Distress. What's stopping Linux here is nothing more than an overwhelming case of vendor lock-in.

Mon Aug 21 01:02:36 2006: 2418   Sledge

Late at night one time I found myself explaining to a CFO that the appeal of open source software is to the folks who were buy the source code in the first place. When folks are OK with vendor lock in they will, and do, purchase shrink wrapped applications. Desktop users don't build their own apps.
That being said, I don't understand the resistance on the desktop. I have been trying for years to get my sister to switch to Linux on the desktop. Everytime she sends "BRB" in an IM/Chat because she has to reboot her machine I mention the ease of installation that MEPIS (for exampl) offers (1. Boot from the CD 2. double click the install icon on the desktop workspace, 3. Answer in the affirmative on every dialog box. Just like what ships out of Redmond). I really lay it on thick when she misses a scheduled chat and the next day says she was "AFK" for a system rebuild. What I need to do is run Linux in an emulator as her screen saver so she can see that GUI is as GUI does (i.e. there is no learning curve when you have icons).
To speak to the multimedia issue, I am a former musician and part time producer/engineer. That makes me a multimedia power user. Linux has that covered. Mac OS does it better. But multimedia on Linux is held back by outside influences - DRM, proprietary codecs, closed API's, etc - more than internal issues. I am not sure what Raymond was bellowing about, I can get all but the newest of the new codecs to work.

Tue Aug 22 01:08:22 2006: 2421   anonymous

Raymond was just being foolish.
Everything that he wanted already exists on various Linux distributions. He just wanted 'his' Fedora Core to also adopt restrictions in favor for market share.

The most obvious is Linspire.. The Linux company who stated goal (literially) on multiple occasions has been along the lines of: "We want to be the AOL of Linux".

You pay like 50 bucks or purchase a computer with it pre-installed, pay a yearly fee to access the 'Click-n-Run' interface. With top level subscription you get a number of propriatory software and games made aviable to you. Things like crossover office for those users that realy realy need Microsoft Office 2003 to run in Linux.

They've licensed mp3 support, probably 'css protected' dvd playback support, and definately Windows WMV support. If you have a mess of DRM Audible audio books your best bet to be able to listen to them would be in Linspire. It's got a Itunes clone that is compatable with ipods and other itune systems. (don't think it's compatable with online stuff though and I am not sure about drm-encrusted aac files).

They have their own relative company that sells MP3's online that have some fairly big names in their lineup. (but nothing like Itunes has, of course)

They offer phone support and hire people to maintain their forums. It's based on Debian, just like Ubuntu is. And it shows the 'evil' GPL is much less restrictive then people try to protray it as. If Linspire, but creating, shipping, or selling, closed source software based on something they obtained from Debian that didn't follow the licensing to the letter we would all of heard about it by now. Anybody who knows anything about Debian knows that they are pretty relentless when it comes to licensing issues.

Then why isn't Linspire taking the world by storm? It should have everything everybody ever wants? They are doing the best that is currently possible for Linux and making it new-ex-windows-users friendly. But it's just not taking off in a huge way.

Ubuntu pretty much tromped it in terms of Linux adoption and they aren't shipping with a single peice of propriatory software or codec support. It can't do itunes, it can't do dvd, it can't even do mp3 playback out of the box. Pretty much everything they have Linspire has had it first.

In fact I think the best bet for Linspire would be to port their CNR to support Ubuntu. I think they'd end up selling a lot of subscriptions. Should be pretty trivial to do.

I think the personally the real big things holding linux back are..
1. Video game and productivity software support for apps people are currently using.
2. Most people use what came with their computer irregardless of how good it is. Expecting somebody to order a install cdrom or burn one themselves and installing over windows is way way to big of a technical barrier no matter how simple the actual installer is. Most people think Windows == Computer. Everybody uses Windows because that's what everybody else uses.


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