Lou's Views: A Six Pack of PonderablesNov 29, 2000, 14:12 (12 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Lou Grinzo)
By Lou Grinzo, LinuxProgramming.com
Thanks to the US's currently being gripped by its unprecedented and seemingly endless case of EDS (electoral dysfunctional situation), I find myself feeling more and more like I've slipped into a parallel universe or a really bad science fiction story where everything is reversed and the abnormal has become commonplace. This frame of mind has me pondering some of the big "what if" questions about Linux and the computer industry in general, and how a change here or there could have resulted in a whole different story--or could still do so. Call it a new-found respect for the whims of probability and chaos, if you will.
I've whittled my list of ponderables down to the most intriguing six, which should still be more than enough to keep some of you awake at night. And getting them off my chest should help me sleep easier.
1. What if Windows had been a truly great operating system all along? Rock solid, secure, high performing, reasonably priced, and endowed with a spectrum of first-class administration tools for everyone from newbies to network admins riding herd on dozens of servers and thousands of users? Would Linux still be a rising superstar, with regular coverage in CTO- and CIO-oriented publications like InfoWorld and ComputerWorld, and one big company after another vying for the role of Linux's best friend? As good as Linux is, particularly in the areas I just mentioned, I think it's clear that one of the multipliers on Linux's success is Windows' mediocrity.
I've talked to countless Windows users over the years, from individuals running a home PC, to those in small businesses, through enterprise-class admins who all desperately want a more economical and better alternative to Windows. Whether Linux can improve in usability and application support before Windows becomes stable, secure, and reasonably priced is still an unknown, of course, but I have my hunches who will win that race.
2. What if Microsoft.NET succeeds brilliantly? One of the great unknowns of today's computer scene is the impact of Microsoft's announced but still vaporous .NET strategy. Depending on whom you ask, this shift to network-based service and content delivery is anything from an obviously correct move that reflects the technology shifts in our industry ("the network is the computer", as Sun says), or it's a me-too effort that's merely setting up Redmond's biggest stumble since Microsoft Bob.
Microsoft.NET is critical to Linux because it could shift developer focus away from the desktop/laptop client to a whole new API and set of development skills and tools, and it would be yet another example of Microsoft's legendary skill in locking in developers. If .NET fails, it would be a big win for Linux simply because Microsoft will have been weakened by wasting huge investments in money, time, and political capital (think credibility with corporate decision makers). Plus, Linux won't be sitting still; during the several years it will take for us to find out how well .NET really works; we'd likely see two major kernel revisions in that time.
3. What if WINE worked perfectly? No disrespect intended, but as impressive as the WINE project's accomplishments have been to date, it's still not an "install and forget" system component. What if it worked so well that any Windows program could be run perfectly under Linux, with no penalty in terms of performance, esthetics, or usability? Clearly, WINE would then be part of the default install on virtually all Linux distros, but more important, it would single-handedly create an industry-wide "tipping point". Users would stampede from Windows to Linux, their Windows application CD's in hand, in search of superior stability and security. Linux's desktop market share would zoom from its current 5% to well over 50% within a year, and Microsoft would be faced with some very tough decisions.
4. What if the Linux zealots were all as sensible as Linus? I'm reminded of this every time I read an interview with Linus (such as the one in the December issue of Linux Magazine), in which he talks very matter of factly about why so many people use Windows and why forking isn't the monster under his bed, among other issues. Contrasting Linus' pragmatic, non-political approach with some of the things we see posted online or e-mailed by Linux advocates is enough to give one the vapors, as people said once upon a time. But what if it weren't like this? How much would it really help Linux's acceptance outside of our community if these people worked hard to support and enhance it, but didn't act as if Bill Gates were evil and anyone using Microsoft products was insane? It's easy to jump to the conclusion that it would help the Linux cause a great deal, but I'm not convinced. As absurdly political as decision makers inside big companies can be, they can also be ruthlessly focused on the hard-and-fast facts when it comes to formulating technical plans and choosing individual products. One could argue that Linux's stunning success in the server segment is proof that managers and system admins couldn't care less about the politics and personalities, and are simply choosing Linux on its merits. Of course, there's no way to know if Linux would be eating up even larger chunks of the server market if it weren't dragging along some of its zealot baggage. Hmm...
5. What if there were no direct competition between GNOME and KDE, and we had just one major desktop environment? Would KDE 2.0 be as complete and good as it is today, if it had no competition? Would the upcoming GNOME + Nautilus + HelixCode triad be as good as it's shaping up to be if it had the field to itself? In both cases, no matter how much developers and users associated with either project might protest to the contrary, I think the answer is clearly no. Competition, whether friendly, as in the KDE/GNOME situation, or less so, as in the brass knuckles approach we see whenever Bill Gates and either Scott McNealy or Larry Ellison run into each other, is almost always a good thing. Sure, that competition causes some grief for developers and users, in the form of compatibility issues and more packages to worry about and maintain, but my hunch is that the benefits still outweigh the costs, and we're better off having at least two horses in this race.
6. What if IBM had open-sourced OS/2? For that matter, what if they did it today? It's no secret that many people in this business still consider OS/2 to be a first-class operating system that failed solely because of lack of third-party support. If open-sourced, it would be invigorated and would instantly become a very formidable competitor for any desktop OS. More important for our purposes, it would draw a lot of developers away from Linux, slowing the development of major components, device drivers, and applications, although probably not the kernel. I'm not suggesting that IBM either should or will open source OS/2, so please don't go spreading rumors. If anything, I'm confident they won't do it, thanks to their staggering investment in Linux and their lack of interest in triggering that level of chaos in the industry. At least as confident as I was three weeks ago that the US could quickly and simply elect our new president.
This is all speculation, of course, and the most intriguing possibilities are the ones none of us has thought of yet. Given some of the things we've seen in the industry, and in the world at large, in the last year, that might be the most settling thought of all.