Friday, January 16, 2009


Fernando and I discussed operating system market share the other day, and I mentioned something mentioned in this article: that Linux users don't care if the Linux operating system, (speaking collectively of all distributions thereof) becomes widespread. To quote Dominic Humphreys, the author of the article:
Linux is not interested in market share. Linux does not have customers. Linux does not have shareholders, or a responsibility to the bottom line. Linux was not created to make money. Linux does not have the goal of being the most popular and widespread OS on the planet. All the Linux community wants is to create a really good, fully-featured, free operating system. If that results in Linux becoming a hugely popular OS, then that's great. If that results in Linux having the most intuitive, user-friendly interface ever created, then that's great. If that results in Linux becoming the basis of a multi-billion dollar industry, then that's great. It's great, but it's not the point. The point is to make Linux the best OS that the community is capable of making. Not for other people: For itself. The oh-so-common threats of "Linux will never take over the desktop unless it does such-and-such" are simply irrelevant: The Linux community isn't trying to take over the desktop. They really don't care if it gets good enough to make it onto your desktop, so long as it stays good enough to remain on theirs. The highly-vocal MS-haters, pro-Linux zealots, and money-making FOSS purveyors might be loud, but they're still minorities.
There's some truth in what he says, but Nando, like always, made me see it from a different perspective. Truth be told, ask any one of us Linux users why we use Linux instead of Windows, and we'll get all high and mighty. What? Me use Windows? Use a stodgy piece of software with almost no security where I have to pay hundreds of dollars every few years in order to keep my computer from being a useless pile of garbage and end up buying a new computer every time I do just because Microsoft's operating system can't run on medium-end hardware? Pay oodles of money for expensive software that matches no standard and for which I have to pay extra money for basic support? No way! I'm tired of dealing with it! But it's this last sentiment that proves inaccurate the statements made by Mr. Humphries. I'm not trying to belittle the article or call it wrong or anything. In fact, this article is usually the first thing I give to somebody who shows any interest in Linux because it's a great preparation for someone about to make the switch. It's just that we like to complain about Microsoft and how they're all over the place and how those of us who are the official family and neighborhood computer technicians end up supporting broken software constantly. The hypocracy here is that we'll complain about the forced ubiquity of Windows (and enough's been said about the Microsoft tax, so I won't go into that rant here), and we'll make the argument that Linux is the ultimate fix for Windows, but (at least in Dominic Humphreys' world) we supposedly don't care about Linux's market share. If we do not care about market share, then we are content to sit in the background screaming about the Linux solution and doing nothing to enact it while Microsoft continues to write shitty software and install it across the globe, laughing all the way to the bank. And the reason they're laughing? Because they didn't even have to try. Competition breeds innovation. The closest thing to competition that Microsoft has is Apple, but Apple does not count as true competition. Apple does not sell a run-anywhere-on-anything, just-add-drivers operating system. They sell hardware that looks pretty that happens to have an operating system on it. And if that operating system happens to be so easy to use that my grandma can use it, then let Apple sell five-hundred-dollar hardware to my grandma for two thousand dollars. But Mac OSX won't run on anything, only the hardware it comes on. Windows will run on a lot of different hardware, and is therefore a fundamentally different product, a product much like Linux. Linux is perhaps the only hope at creating competition with Microsoft, and in many ways, Linux has the advantage. Linux is usually free of cost. It doesn't have to be, not by its own philosophy, but you certainly don't have to look far to find a free version. If it's something for your average Joe to use, you really only need to look at something like Ubuntu or one of its derivatives like Linux Mint. So it's not just a matter of how much cheaper it is than Windows, it's a matter of it not costing anything at all. Basic support is free. Forums are all over the Internet. IRC chat rooms are available. It's a community effort and within the community is where you'll find the best help. You're getting responses from the same people who wrote the software in the first place, not some schmoe in India whose name is most definitely not Steve, plus you're not getting charged a single penny for any of it. Desktop effects, security, and tons of free software make it an appealing choice. Every time I show somebody my desktop cube or my rain of fire when windows close or my ability to remotely control my computer in extremely granular detail, they are blown away. When I show them that my laptop can hop onto the closest wireless network in two clicks instead of countless menus, from a single drop-down box in my tray instead of several enormous windows, they say, "I wish it were that easy on my computer." My computer also doesn't slow down over time, fragment files, become unstable, crash, catch viruses or spyware, and I never have to perform regular maintenance to be able to make these claims. People like that. They like that they don't have to work for their computer. So we should care about market share, because if we do, we can force Microsoft's hand. I would be stunned, but not offended, if Microsoft produced a quality operating system, or a browser that doesn't fail miserably when trying to conform to web standards, or a mail client that uses less than 1.5 gigs of hard drive space to store 137 megs of email. In fact, I would be thrilled were that the case. But Microsoft has no real competition, so they have no real reason to do these things. If Microsoft lost significant profit due to the disintegration of their market share, that would mean that enough people are using Linux to make any kind of FUD marketing Microsoft could do useless, and they would be forced into writing better software. I might be tempted to use a Microsoft operating system primarily if it could provide a significant benefit over my current Linux configuration. I'm one of many customers Microsoft could attempt to win back. Linux also shows potential. It's been around since 1991, which is pretty impressive when you consider how small its user base is, and that means that its user base is strong and emphatic. The market share for desktop versions of Linux (non-server) has doubled in the past year, and that means the market share is growing. Granted, it's grown from one percent and a half to about three percent, but it's expected to grow to nearly ten percent soon. This is largely because of Linux's ability to run quickly on low-end hardware. Linux has become a popular choice for those "netbook" things, which are insanely popular. Already, Microsoft has been forced to react to this by making the upcoming Windows 7 run on less hardware. Linux still has the advantage here, though, because the customer buying the netbook (typically designed to be inexpensive) isn't having to pay for the operating system. I'd say that Windows has the advantage of popular software, except that they don't. My suspicion is that Windows 7 will have just as many operational problems and software backward compatibility problems that Vista had, while Linux has and will remain less vulnerable to those. Contrary to popular Linux belief, Linux users do need to help populate the operating system if they care about the future of technology. Like I said before, competition begets innovation, and Microsoft is apparently already feeling the heat.