Sunday, September 12, 2010

Why I don't rant something on Linux any more

End of Summer: Evening Thunder Storm on the Lake
Sunset on an era.
I had an interesting comment show up on one of my posts. The reader said, in part:
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.

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.
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 other reasons to ignore the call of the rant. But first, a little background.

Linux Yesterday

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:
  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
In the end, the "window" of opportunity Vista opened up for Linux to establish itself closed too quickly for Linux to take advantage of. Microsoft resoundingly redeemed itself three years later with the release of Windows 7, which has been selling like gangbusters since its release.

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."

Linux Today

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.


  1. Speaking of the anti-Microsoft sentiment amongst the Linux community... I see plenty of this first-hand. It goes so far as to make you think that the only reason these people favor Linux is because they hate Microsoft. (Of course they'll flatly deny it the moment you call them out on it.)

    Meanwhile, these same people generally have no problem with Apple. This really irritates me, actually. Why? If you took the same criteria they use to hate on Microsoft, and applied it fairly to Apple, then I think Apple would actually look worse than MS. The difference? Apple's products are sufficiently clean and polished that everyone gives them a free pass.

  2. Just a note. Linux hold a 32% of notebooks market share, and that share seems to be on the surge. ref:

  3. Sometimes the right answer is to abandon something that doesn't work and adopt something that does.

    Linus's comment about hating Microsoft being a virus is DEAD ON.

    I moved from Desktop Linux to Windows at home not too long ago after 14 years of Desktop Linux because over the last two years, quality has just gone down hill. Now my home computers are completely pain free (believe it or not), and all of my trouble is with my corporate PCs not necessarily because they are "Linux", but simply because they aren't stable. Patch distribution has broken my "stable" Linux machines more than once, and like you I am sick of it.

    I understand completely why you have stopped ranting, because you have no need to vent. I'm almost there too, unfortunately. I have taken a similar approach in that I have just shifted to a tool that does the job at home rather than continuing to try to use a screw driver as a hammer.

    Linux is a perfect data center OS, but just it isn't a good desktop OS yet (because of the way we distribute it).

    Hopefully that changes soon though. That's why I keep working with the Aurora team. I think we have the right focus, we are trying to fix the right problems rather than just continuing to make the same mistakes as the other Desktop distributions.

  4. @Miguel, thanks for the link. Unfortunately, it is nearly a year old and doesn't cover what 2010's numbers are. From what I read in the article, these numbers are worldwide shipments outside the US market. The complete replacement of Linux by Windows is as of August 2010, and is for the American market only (an oversight in my blog post which I've corrected). Please note that your link is an article from November 2009.

  5. Bill: it's not for the American market only, really. I could find one netbook available with Linux pre-loaded in the UK and none in Canada.

    I think mostly the problem is just that moderateness doesn't lend itself to advocacy. The Micro$oft Haters are a small and mostly inconsequential minority, but they're very loud, because they have a nice simple and cheerfully bonkers position which lends itself to all-caps soap box advocacy. 'Microsoft is just another big technology company which cares about you about as much as all big companies do and does some bad stuff and some crazy stuff and some good stuff and a lot of humdrum, profit-chasing indifferent stuff' isn't much of a rallying cry, so all of us who think that aren't exactly going to out-shout the 'Micro$uck$ IS EVIL!!!11!!' crowd. Mostly we ignore them.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion: "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." Nevertheless it is and will be interesting to see whether responses reflect this open mind or it will be in fearfull defence of Linux or "I agree I've moved to Windows" responses. Both would in my opinion twist the meaning of your conclusion.

    I would however like to add another deciding factor besides capability, and that's the human factor. It's not very different from how I was engaged in a discussion about keyboards some time ago, and when most couldn't understand mine and other's absolute preference for quality mechanical keyboard and view the investment as cheap. Humans aren't identical, even though our societies tries to make us such, and hence we also compute differently. Therefore capability becomes an equation of soft- and hardware capabilities and individualism.

    In some Linux communities you see total indifference to Microsoft. No hate, no love. Personally Microsoft irritates me, as it looks like I'm the opposite of FEWT, because it irritates me mostly on a technological level. While not being indifferent in an absolute sense I can't feel any real animosity towards Microsoft itself. Sure its sabotage of the market makes me sad, but on the other hand it's not a life and death issue like how foul play of food and pharmaceutical industries severally damage human lives.

    Talking about the market for software, I think some of your statements aren't fair. As you write later on Linux doesn't represent itself, as it's up to companies to decide whether to promote Linux or not, like Red Hat. Hence you can't say that Linux failed to take advantage of the Vista fiasco or the new netbook market, since it only means that there wasn't any strong enough organisation at the time to even try. I can't think of any company with a solid reputation among Linux users that really tried. Xandros did loose its credibility a long time ago and their offering for netbooks was worse than home brewed alternatives. While Linpus hasn't any history in the world of Linux to talk about, it didn't show any vision beyond hacking already existing Linux offerings and putting on top a terrible desktop. An easy conclusion would be that Linux wasn't... oh here comes the soap opera of Linux articles... ready for the desktop. Another just as likely explanation is that the market simply doesn't work, something that's true even if we exclude Linux from the argument. True, that's not an exclusive problem of software, I admit while digging through the box of zillions of USB cables and adapters for cell phones.

    Androids success also illustrates what happens if you don't take use of the tradition of how software are developed within Linux communities. Google could easily have avoided the attack of Oracle if they had made better software choices. Android might be successful commercially, but we still see few benefits for the wider use of Linux. The good thing is that it puts pressure on the other players on the smart phone market, so while not benefiting Linux it could still benefit consumers.

    That also leads me to my own conclusion. I see practical benefits of adhering to technological ideas of Linux. Some would argue that some of these are ideological, but I disagree. To promote use of open systems and formats I do myself a practical favour by securing my digital future. I don't need to rant on Windows to proceed, because these issues are far above trivialities about choice of working environment. It could well be I abandon Linux for something else, hopefully better, but as of today Microsoft hasn't anything to offer me that would fit my demands. I believe I've also moved on, even though my decision might not be the same.

  7. Woah! First of all I hope you did not misunderstand my comment. It was actually a compliment on how you started that blog entry. Maybe I could have used some other word than ranted? Like "I know it has been a while since you spoke something about Linux..."

    Some thoughts on this entry:
    I think the distros like Ubuntu and Fedora are breaking so much because of a mere 6 month release schedule. Also, sometimes I feel there's an internal competition between these two - maybe competing for 1 and 2 on Distrowatch? Ubuntu releases its latest and bam! within 2-3 weeks out comes a new Fedora. Compare this to their mother ships - RHEL and Debian still in their 6th iterations while Fedora and Ubuntu have gallopped away to 14 and, what 21? And how stable are these? You already spoke about RHEL, look at Debian: Squeeze was supposed to be released December last year, and still it hasn't been released. These guys will release it when it is release ready and I can bet my bottom (can I say rupee? :)) that Squeeze will be rock solid as usual.
    BTW, what was the time gap between the releases of XP, Vista and 7? I feel the Vista disaster happened simply because MS was hurried to make the release. Do we see any problems with 7? Didn't they release it in their own sweet time?

    My second point: When MS released Vista, did they make it an update that can be installed on top of XP? Same with 7, was it an update over an existing installation? So why should we expect the same in Linux updates? I feel distro updates should always be a fresh one, from scratch - format everything.

    I myself am using a dual boot of XP and Mint 8. I resisted the temptation to update to Mint 9 even though it's rolled out of an LTS, just because everything is working fine for me. And that's how I feel it should be. Upgrade only applications, distro updates should be only after 2-3 years.
    Some thoughts on XP. I am still with XP coz I can't afford 7. And there are some softwares that I need which work only on MS. XP is not unstable as some of those Linux fanboys claim. It is yet to crash on me, I have never seen the BSOD. My only problems are Viruses and Spyware that really slow down the system and my solution is a re-install.

    BTW, I am very much intrigued by the LMDE. I respect the work that Clem and his team have done for Mint, and LMDE sounds interesting with its rolling release funda. Maybe I'll wait a year and then try it out :)

  8. Linux still has its uses on the desktop. For example my cousins Vista machine would get infected every three months or so and it was up to me to reformat and reinstall. I installed Linux for her and she can play her Farmville just fine :-) Haven't had to do a reinstall for her for the past one year.

    Admittedly quality control on Linux has gone done, specially on the buntus. Every time you install patches you have to keep your fingers crossed.

    I myself am still sticking to linux as I use a lot of torrent sites and don't want to risk visiting them on a Windows machine.

    Forget torrent sites, reddit windows users were also infected with the cycbot.b worm recently.


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