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For the Love of Linux: The Anything but Microsoft Crowd

Jun 14, 1999, 07:33 (21 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Paul Ferris)

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[ The opinions expressed by authors on Linux Today are their own. They speak only for themselves and not for Linux Today. ] -lt ed

By Linux Today writer Paul Ferris.

It's getting to be a regular thing. I'm reading somewhere outside of our sphere of news and I find Linux mentioned. The other day, I was reading Newsweek, and there it is. I'm no longer doing double takes. It's no longer surprising. Mom and Pop may not know who we are yet, but it's bound to happen any day now.

It feels good. It's fun to watch the press and the public as they change perceptions about just who these Linux folks are. At the moment, we're getting lumped in with the Mac and OS/2 crowd. We're the ABM (Anything But Microsoft) folks.Today we're part of a cult in some peoples perception.

That's a mistake. I originally, about 3 years ago, associated Linux with another crowd altogether: The Unix lovers crowd. I myself personally fell into that category. However, I was to have an education through the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) support channel where I hang out. Linux is not about people loving Unix. I found this out rather quickly.

You see, I loved Unix from years of hacking* at the shell level. To those who haven't had this happen, one of the wild things that's addictive about Unix is point in time when you have swamped yourself in about 10 man pages on several potent tools. Things like ksh, awk, sed, perl, tr - stuff that most readers here might recognize. Mom and Pop just look at you as if you're talking Swahili when you start waxing prophetic about these things. You're learning these for the first time, and you realize that there is nothing, nothing that you can't do. If you can dream it, it can be done with Unix.

The first time you grok that, it's like being on some kind of addictive drug. Except that this one is legal. It's called Unix, and it may cost a lot (at the time, a cut of SCO was over a grand, and required more computer than I owned), but it's accessible. Today it's free, so the addicts like myself are like kids in a candy store.

Your addicted mind begins to go off on tangents while you are driving to and from work. I can automate that next, it thinks. The next day, people are listening to maniacal laughter coming from your cubicle, as stuff that used to take hours for the whole department is now happening in seconds. Sometimes it's stuff that no one even thought was possible.

That's your typical Unix lover, in a nutshell.

But, as I said, I found out that the people coming to the IRC support line (and often times staying, permanently) were not learning Linux because they were Unix lovers. Some of them, I'm guessing a small few, like 5%, might end up as Unix lovers. The rest, they were there to do things with Linux that were next to impossible or too expensive on other platforms.

What's amazing to me is that a good portion, over half, were under 20. That's a rough discovery, for a guy that's in his mid 30's. A lot were young teenagers. It was an awakening. I watched daily as new kids showed up, and dove right into the boiling Unix water as if it were the backyard pool.

These were not people migrating to Linux because they were Unix lovers. These people were obviously here for something else. A lot were learning to serve web pages. Some just ran it to be different. But you don't run something like Linux for long, just to be different. Especially since in the early days it was fairly daunting.

I think that it could mostly be boiled down to one word: Freedom. These kids wanted to get their fingers dirty. To learn. To not be insulted by erroneous dialog boxes. To try new things that didn't boil down to waiting for new functionality. These kids, I discovered, were pioneers. I learned as much from them, as they did from me. More, possibly. I learned to love Unix, rather Linux, for more reasons.

Above it all, I learned to respect my freedom.

Yes, we all poke fun at Microsoft, I don't think it's possible for us not to do it. Let's face it, Microsoft is a company that takes months to turn out patches to their system, and poor ones at that. The evolution of Linux is on Internet time. Our changes occur by the minute.

We're getting joined now by groups of people that want Linux for other reasons. Do these new groups of people fall into any one specific crowd?

If you are a software developer, you probably want Linux because it levels the playing field.

If you are a hardware vendor, you probably want Linux because it doesn't have any software royalties, and provides you with a comfort zone that Microsoft cannot provide: easy access to the source code.

If you are a Value Added Reseller you probably want Linux because it provides you with a new reason to sell services. Face it, money coming from the sale of software and hardware has all but dried up. Services are where the money is.

If you are an ISP you probably like Linux for a host of reasons. Among them: efficiency, flexibility, security, cost and support. Face it, Linux is not gaining in the web server arena due to marketing, there is little to no marketing at all for Linux at the moment.

If you are an operating system company that makes a proprietary product that's known for locking out markets. Well, I can't see many reasons to love Linux there.

Now, you have your answer why these two groups might be diametrically opposed. But are we part of an ABM cult? Most cults seem to grow religious as the product line fades. As death comes nearer for the providing company. The Linux crowd is not like any of these cults in a big way. We are growing, and no one company is providing our "product".

What makes Linux popular? The answers are many.

We live in a society of simple answers. People look to a massacre like Littleton Colorado, and they want simple answers. One of my best friends and high school classmates is a teacher. We had a long talk about Littleton the other day. The answers, we decided, were complex. There are a lot of problems.

Just getting rid of Doom, or banning handguns, or whatever the simple answer of the week will be - it's not enough. But people, they want a simple answer to a complex problem. So the problem likely will not be comprehended for a long time. Never, possibly.

And this same mentality helps explain why people want to describe the Linux phenomena as a simple group of people, doing something simple.

Linux, like any Unix, is not simple in makeup. The people that contribute constitute a cross section of folks all over the globe, with generally only one thing in common: Internet access. The love of the product goes the same way: These people are all looking at it from their perspective. They are all contributing for different reasons.

It's not a simple answer. To make it simple, that's a serious mistake.

Yes, we don't have much respect for Microsoft. Why should we? But, to think that Linux is just happening because it's the ABM crowd, that's a mistake.

We are anything but, the anything but Microsoft crowd.

You can go ahead and lump us into that group if you want. It's been done over and over. We might even have a few converts that were previous members of that crowd.

Just don't be surprised when someday, your Mom or Dad talks about how much they love their Linux box.

* hacking: A term referring to "computer artist" - not to be associated with the people that try and break into things, or the people that write virus code: see "cracking".