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Editor's Note: The Bigger They Are...

Sep 16, 2005, 23:30 (28 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

When Jack Messman, CEO of Novell, stands up and tell the attendees at BrainShare that the enterprise desktop is the way his company is going, isn't that a pretty good clue that Linux on the desktop isn't such an anathema as it used to be?

Well, apparently not, as pundit after pundit called out to the masses this week all that was Evil (and Good) about the Linux desktop. By Wednesday night, I was reeling from trying to pick and choose articles that were trying to represent a balance of opinions. And that wasn't easy.

While some of these articles were trying to goad developers into building a better desktop in a sort of "tough-love" strategy, a number of them were coming from the "status quo" camp, which basically asserts that What Is Will Always Be. I know a lot of people assume that these pundits are somehow in the employ of proprietary software vendors, and I have said before that 99 percent of the time that is not the case. Instead, a far less sinister motive for maintaining an anti-Linux stance is likely the culprit, though far more lazy.

"Microsoft is It. It Will Always Be It. Nothing Will Change That," the pundits write, assuming from their lofty perches that because Windows is number one, it will always be number one. Somehow in their minds, they have even retroactively applied that to history as well. They must have, because they seem to have forgotten one important thing: something else was King of the IT Hill before Windows (and we can debate what that was). Therefore, simple logic dictates that something else will be King of the IT Hill after Windows.

I maintain that something else will be Linux. Others might point to other technologies, and we can debate that, too. But to blindly assume that something will maintain its prominence for the sole reason it is the most prominent thing now is arrogant, short-sighted, and stupid.

I think this is the argument that makes me the craziest from the pro-Windows camp: "It has a 90-percent installation base. Linux will never be on the desktop."

Excuse me? What the heck does current install numbers have to do with Linux? All that tells me is that Linux hasn't entered the global collective conscious yet. And even that is changing.

No, a 90-percent number can change seemingly overnight. US President Bush used to have a 90-percent approval rating. Now it's around 40 percent. The Roman Empire used to control most of the European continent and we all know how that ended up. Things that are popular one moment can be replaced by something out with nary a qualm. People will use what it easier, what is cheaper, what is faster, and what is better.

Massachusetts is the most recent example of an entity that has figured this out. They realize that proprietary standards are ultimately bad in the long run. They are looking ahead, and thinking of the future.

And for the first time, I think Microsoft is genuinely worried. Because Massachusetts wants something that they simply will not give up.

That's the way it starts—when something big and powerful comes down. A dam can hold back millions of tons of water pressure on a daily basis. But it's ultimately one single crack only big enough for the smallest droplet of water that will bring that dam down. Other states will watch what Massachusetts does and when it works, they will emulate it. Business in those states will follow along, as will schools. Once schools get into the technology, the home user will follow along.

One little crack.

I am not short-sighted enough to think that Linux will be the Be All End All forever, either. Eventually, something else will come along and be the next King of the IT Hill. It's the way of things. But, just as the historical repercussions of the Roman Empire can still be felt all across Western society, I think the imprint of Linux and the concepts of free and open source software may be felt for many years to come. This is one of the few things on which I agree with Richard Stallman: freedom is the most important thing. Not what kind of software is running on what machine, or what name we should call a piece of code.

Things like that are short-sighted, too. Concepts like freedom should be upheld for the longest haul. Sure, we can all strive to give to the next generation of coders a great operating system. But they will learn from us and probably build something better. What we need to do is teach them to keep their code free and open. So they can teach their children. And their children beyond that.