|Sunset on an era.|
I know it has been a while since you ranted something on Linux...That's an interesting observation. It really has been a while since I ranted about Linux. Before I became a Linux ranter I was a happy user, writing a thread of positive advocacy pieces on Linux, especially OpenSUSE (10.2). I branched out with Ubuntu (7.2) and Mandriva.
But in the end I grew tired of watching my system grow less useful and more broken with each new distribution release. My patience with this madness came to an official end on March 16, 2009, when I finally declared I'd had enough with OpenSUSE 11.1, and Linux in general. To quote Béranger at the time, I defected from Linux back to Windows as a rational act.
Just a few months after that, Linus Torvalds had this to say about Microsoft and hating on Microsoft:
I may make jokes about Microsoft at times, but at the same time, I think the Microsoft hatred is a disease. I believe in open development, and that very much involves not just making the source open, but also not shutting other people and companies out.I don't often agree with Mr. T, but on this subject he and I are in violent agreement. I sampled just a taste of that extremism through Boycott Novell. While it wasn't the primary reason for leaving Linux advocacy behind, it was the final straw. It was fine and dandy to criticise Microsoft and Windows, but the extremists would brook no criticism of Linux. In the end, rather than continue to contribute to the controversy one way or the other, I simply put it down and walked away. Life is way too short to waste any portion of it in this way.
There are 'extremists' in the free software world, but that's one major reason why I don't call what I do 'free software' any more. I don't want to be associated with the people for whom it's about exclusion and hatred.
There are other reasons to ignore the call of the rant. But first, a little background.
Linux usage can be classified into two broad areas; classical OS usage and embedded usage. Classical usage is further categorized into desktop and server usage. On the server side Linux has, through major companies such as Redhat and Novell, staked out a decent market presence and provides good value when properly matched to the task at hand. Desktop presence, on the other hand, has been pretty abysmal.
Linux had two golden opportunities to establish a much greater presence on the desktop; by taking advantage of the disastrous release of Microsoft's Vista in November 2006, and the netbook wave that came about later in 2007.
Vista, by any measure you care to use, was a colossal flop when it was first released. It was a train wreck that had already left the edge of the cliff; it finally reached bottom with the January 2007 public release. The train wreck left the station in May 2001, five months before Windows XP was released. It was initially known as Longhorn. It was supposed to be all things to all people, end world hunger and bring universal peace. As the years ground along, reality seeped into the collective Microsoft mind. Key features were dropped in order to try to meet a release deadline that kept slipping further and further to the right. In the end, the release was so bad that Intel, HP, and Microsoft were sending accusations 'round and 'round about who was really at fault for the disastrous launch, primarily about the lack of suitable drivers and core graphic hardware requirements to support Aero, the fancy new UI shell.
Here was the opening the Linux desktop community had been praying for. Mighty Microsoft had stumbled, and in a most dramatic fashion. Years late, missing drivers for common hardware already in users hands, and making what some considered outrageous hardware demands, anti-Microsoft/pro-Linux rhetoric was whipped to a fever pitch. With such a golden opportunity laid before Linux by Microsoft, what could possible go wrong?
Much to the consternation of everyone, including Microsoft, the Windows user base voted with their wallets and their feet by - staying put. They stayed with Windows XP, so much so that Microsoft allowed downgrading from Vista to Windows XP, and pushed support out to 2010. Many users, primarily businesses, stuck with Windows XP because it ran all their applications just fine. Consumer systems continued to ship with Vista, and many found that Vista was actually pretty good, especially after Vista SP 1 was released.
So what happened to Linux on the classic desktop? It remained stubbornly in the background. "Dumb Windows users" were excoriated in certain raucous Linux corners for their unwillingness to leave Windows XP and embrace the new order of Linux. But once again, Linux (and to a lesser extent, Microsoft's own software engineers) failed to realize that their world view with regards to Windows XP didn't mesh with the Windows user base, and for the same reason; seeing the success of Apple's Mac OS X. In a rare (some might say ironic) alignment between Linux partisans and Microsoft, both groups believed that the Windows user base was tired of old and busted XP, and were looking for a good excuse to leave it for something better. Microsoft thought they could provide that excuse via Vista, while Linux aficionados thought that any number of Linux distributions would provide that excuse. Both failed to realize that if Windows users were that dissatisfied they'd buy Apple (and many did), or just wait for Microsoft to get the kinks ironed out with the release of the first Vista service pack, a practice that annoys Microsoft.
What many thought would be a golden opportunity for Linux instead turned into dross. Linux couldn't turn the opportunity to their favor because of:
- User inertia, especially in business. Why give up something that was a critical part of your business and that was working perfectly fine, and would continue to do so for some time to come?
- Vista's continual improvements. Microsoft listened to its users, fixing the problems that beset the initial release. With Vista SP1, Vista finally became the OS it should have been on January 2007.
- Increasingly powerful hardware. It is one of the little ironies of history that Vista was slightly ahead of the hardware curve. If Microsoft had delayed Vista's release one more time, the way they wanted, this issue would not have arisen.
- Apple. Apple notebooks and workstations, pre-loaded with Mac OS X, became the true alternative to Vista. Apple, which had grown into a finely honed technology jugernaut under the guidance of Steve Jobs, knew exactly what to do and how to do it. The rest became history.
The Netbook Debacle
At the same time that Vista was struggling for respect, the market began to embrace another computing platform, the low-cost and low-end net-centric computer, or netbook. They were supposed to be low-cost alternatives to more expensive laptops, their primary task to surf the web and checking on-line email.
The first netbook was the Asus Eee PC 700. Based on an Intel Celeron M ULV, it shipped with both Xandros and Windows XP pre-installed. Shipping a machine with Linux pre-installed by a major manufacturer was still a novelty; the only other major manufacturer that publicly admitted such was Dell, who shipped Ubuntu on several notebook and desktop PCs.
Linux appeared to get off to a great start, with lots of favorable press over how it fit this new device with the low price, and how Windows was too expensive and too slow. In the beginning this was true; Window's cost/device was too high for the very-low-priced and -margin netbook. But Microsoft soon began offering Windows XP Starter edition for $3/device, essentially countering the key advantage of Linux, it's price. Some manufacturers started to note that the return rate for Linux-based netbooks was four times that of Windows-based netbooks, which stirred further ranker in the Linux cheerleaders. As time passed, many netbook manufacturers started to ship more machines with Windows installed than Linux, especially in the US market. As of August of this year, no notebooks are shipping with Linux installed in the US market; they're either shipping with Windows XP or Windows 7.
But this transition from Linux to Windows on netbooks was happening early on, so fast in fact, that one David M. Williams wrote an opinion piece in December 2008 titled "Dumbass consumers squander netbook experience by rejecting Linux." You read that title right. While Mr. Williams might not be considered an extremist in the same sense as Mr. T defined it above, Mr. Williams certainly gave "aid and comfort" with his polemic piece (read my response at the time). And it has continued to reverberate around the extremist corners ever since. This was a very public acknowledgement of what the Linux cognoscenti think of the greater market that likes and wants to use Windows: "There's nothing wrong with Linux, so there must be something wrong with you."
There are two notable public Linux successes; Linux as a server (specifically Redhat Enterprise Linux), and Android. Android is unique in that it is built on the kernel, with the majority of the higher levels in the stack specifically written and tuned for smartphone use; it is not your typical Linux distribution. RHEL works quietly but effectively in the background, and Redhat is cash flow positive (quite cash flow positive) with revenues that continue to climb higher year after year. Android's success, by any measure, is quite spectacular. It continues to show up on more and more handsets from more and more wireless handset manufacturers, and is even intruding onto other devices, such as tablets and even some netbooks.
What's key to this success? Both are driven by mature corporate organizations. The people in charge are adults. Rational adults. They believe in providing real value to their customers, and listening to their customers real needs. In treating their customers with respect, instead of calling them a "dumbass", or worse. They demonstrate this customer understanding and respect with a customized Linux that exhibits polish and customer-driven features.
Linux has achieved success, but in different markets than the desktop. The extremists and their supporters continue to be marginalized and ignored by those of us who have a job to do. Whether we use Linux or Windows or Apple's operating systems, we all believe in using the best tool for the job based on capability, not ideology.
The reason I don't rant about Linux anymore is that I've realized all this and moved on. And so should you if you're reading this and haven't already.