Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Linux and The Mainstream

Toby Richards postulates on Newsforge about "Why Linux isn't mainstream". And in the huge whack of resulting comments, the discussion rages on as to what Linux has to do to make it mainstream.

I'm not entirely sure it will ever be. And I'm not entirely sure that it needs to be, at least in the way it's typically discussed.

I've been running Linux (Ubuntu Dapper) for the past month or so on my home system and I haven't booted to XP once within that time. Has it been a challenge? For sure, yes it has. But for me that is not a problem. In fact, I enjoy it. Is Windows ever a challenge? Maybe not for me, but ask my Father, Father-in-law, co-workers, and various friends why they've needed my computing help in the past and it wasn't because they were running Linux.

Toby is right in that you likely won't get Linux into organizations without full MS Exchange support. But that is that any different than other application segments? It is going to take products (and projects) that do things better than Windows without any penalty for switching. Is that impossible? Dont' tell the Firefox folks that. Sure it's tough, but with the shift to web-based applications and the ever improving nature of open-source software, maybe that rocky road is being paved smooth piece by piece.

Let me be clear, running Linux (Ubuntu Dapper anyway) has been more of a challenge than running XP. If I had bought a machine pre-installed with Linux maybe I wouldn't be saying that. (I've never actually installed any version of Windows). But in any case, I've had to do a fair amount of learning in the past month or so. To me this is never a bad thing, but for the typical mainstream PC user it might be distasteful. (I'm always awed by Joe Public's utter disdain for learning anything new - and not just in terms of computing).

So why do I like running Linux? Here are some of the reasons both practical and principled:

- The whole system is built and supported by people who are overwhelmingly doing things because they love doing them, and want to share them with others. Don't dismiss this. It's happening in lots of places on the web. Not only in open-source.

- Right now there are some 18000 software packages listed in my Synaptic Package Manager. I can choose to install any one of them right here, right now, for no cost.

- The support mechanism falls on the developers and the users. And for the vast majority of cases, it works and works well. There are a great number of sources for good, flame-free support. I'm blown away by how quickly passionate users will support other users. Of course this is not the exclusive domain of Linux, but I think being a smaller group has some advantages in this respect. There is a definite sense of community.

- XGL/Compiz is just plain cool.

- System stability. While my XP system was never too bad, it was significantly more sensitive to a multitude applications running concurrently. I've not had any kind of system crash running Linux yet.

- Installing software very rarely requires a reboot (kernel patches being one of the few exceptions). I just install software from the repositories and keep on trucking.

- The command line is a powerful thing. It's nice to be reminded that it is not always better to point and click. In fact many times it's not.

- Linux people generally don't whine and complain about their computers. We are all here by choice, so complaining about it is pointless. (It's pretty rare to hear about someone forced to use Linux)

- Choice. Now some will regard this as a major detriment to Linux, but I love it. I get to choose things like my desktop environment, word processor, text editor, spreadsheet, mail client, web browser, podcasting client, graphics program, etc. Sure, for a new user it's nice to provide good, safe defaults, but for me, I love the ability to choose and experiment.

- Very few worries about someone end-of-lifeing my favourite piece of software.

- I don't need to run three anti-spyware apps and an antivirus program to scan for malicious things on my system.

- Did I mention it's free?

Now of course the question remains 'Will it ever be mainstream?'. I think it might be more likely that open-source cross-platform software projects (running on Windows) will continue to claim more and more of the mainstream market. And after a time, it won't be such a big deal to switch XP out for Linux. There may come a time when it won't make a difference because many of the apps they use on Windows will have come out of a Linux-based development system anyway. But will that alone be enough reason to switch? Probably not. Maybe there will also need to be a compelling Linux-only 'killer' app that will pull the market across at that point. There are plenty of smart people in the open-source world. Don't think they're not working on it.