Tilting at Windows: Don’t Fight for Desktop Linux Adoption

I picked up this article by Caitlyn Martin from Steven Rosenberg’s Click blog. She takes a different tack on some of the issues I’ve addressed when I’ve commented on some of the more exhuberent (and less honest) Linux activism. Her article references one such article, a list of ten points about how Linux has outgrown its geeky past and is appropriate for desktop use.

She writes, “All 10 points in the article are valid. None of them, nor any other efforts at Linux evangelism over the last decade, have worked when it comes to moving the masses towards Linux in the home and office on the desktop. Look, I’m not critical of the article. It may even convince a handful or people to give Linux a look. It, and articles like it, won’t have a major impact.”

This is true and so is her suggestion that it’s preaching to the choir. There have been many activists who’ve attempted to make inroads and get Linux adopted on the desktop. She’s correct that it’s not about cost, it’s not about ease as Linux desktop environments and driver support have improved. Resistance is hard to overcome no matter what price tag you put on or take off.

I think she too easily dismisses a couple things, such as the ease with which devices still work with Windows because their vendors are Windows-centric. If I buy any webcam, I know it will probably work very easily with Windows — plug it in, voila. If I do the same for use on a Linux desktop, I need to first check to see if it’s natively supported in Linux. Failing that, I have to see if anyone else has a driver for it. Then, if there is one, I have to check and see if that driver has enough functionality to be worthwhile. And if I already have the camera and it already works in Windows, why would I want to switch to a “free” operating system that will require me to compile a separate module for my device, run depmod, etc., just to use it? We can argue all we want about closed hardware and software, but these things are reality. We don’t have a magic wand to make it go away.

Substitute scanner, printer, or any other device for webcam. The more stuff a user already has, the more resistance he or she will probably have in switching.

Martin suggests two ways that users may be lured to desktop Linux. One is via well-conceived and well-configured devices like the Asus Eee UMPC that come with Linux. These have been met with more enthusiasm by existing Linux users, though. With these UMPCs increasingly shipping with XP, I don’t see how this bodes well for Linux. (I’m neutral on superiority of Windows or Linux because often it boils down to the same thing: how well things are pre-configured for the less savvy user. The less savvy the user, the worse the perception is if it’s inadequately set up even if the “problems” are very benign.)

The second thing Martin says may help Linux adoption is via concerted effort between Linux developers and hardware vendors — more of a Microsoft approach. There’s a big problem with this: there aren’t many manufacturers of hardware ready to embrace open source, at least not with the kinds of strings that GPLv3 would attach with respect to firmware. While some companies are becoming more lenient when it comes to distributing their firmware (since I just compiled two 2.6.25 kernels, I noticed there’s a lot more of that than in the 2.4 line), they really don’t benefit by pushing Linux on desktops — even a 100% increase in Linux desktop adoption wouldn’t reach the 5% share, so spectacular growth rate keeps you in a marginal market. Hooray, BeOS!

I think where all of this is moot is, we’re moving away from traditional desktop computing. Whether you want to look at mobile computing vis-a-vis laptops, notebooks, and UMPCs or in the direction things appear to be headed with cell/smart phones and PDAs, the real growth is away from desktops. Dittos for other devices popping up in homes all over the world: TiVOs and other DVRs, game consoles, etc. Many of these devices are the real initial contact points people have with Linux.

That’s where hardware vendors are already onboard with Linux. And vice versa. Except for FSF and fringe types who object to the way the real world operates.

My beloved told me she would never use Linux on her laptop. She’s dead serious. She hates my computers. She stopped telling me she’d never use Linux when I pointed out where she was already using it: her cell phone, the router, the server, the DVR, the TV. Things she takes for granted because she turns them on and they work without “eye candy” or code she can audit herself (which would be quite interesting to see!) or lack of command lines. Just like Windows. She’s not in the open source choir and not interested in how many different window managers she can try. She’s just pragmatic.

What Martin argues for is already reality, just not on desktops.

Linux is widely used on mobile hardware like cell phones and it stands a much better chance of widespread adoption there barring more goofy GPL turf wars by zealots who make up words like “tivoization” for problems that don’t even exist (TiVo plays by the rules; so FSF changes the rules and moves the goalposts). Licensing really matters as much as whether the source is open or not. I’ll even argue that adoption of Linux and its funding from vendors would already be more widespread if its license were less restrictive — much the same way TCP/IP became an adopted standard in both open source and proprietary worlds because there weren’t petty restrictions preventing others from integrating it as they saw fit (it’s important to understand that Microsoft and Apple had every bit as much freedom to use TCP/IP as BSD; otherwise, we’d have closed networking stacks that don’t communicate very effectively with each other).

The real battle in this decade is away from the desktop. Those who want to win market share on the desktop are tilting at Windows.

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