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Big Picture Stuff

Nov 21, 2007, 23:30 (17 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

There have been a couple of thought-provoking columns that have been published recently that I wanted to add my own two cents. Not that the authors of these missives were completely wrong in their conclusions, But I think some added perspective is needed to highlight that their points, while having some validity, still fall short of where Linux is right now and how it's going to move forward.

The first column is the most recently published: my colleague Bruce Byfield's piece "It's Time to Get Over Microsoft" that ran over on Datamation, another Jupitermedia site. In it, he puts forth some pretty good ideas about how Microsoft just isn't capable enough to completely eliminate the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) industry/movement, and that the community has much better things to worry about than the suits in Redmond.

Now, to a large extent, I agree with Bruce. We all have much better things to worry about than Microsoft. I can think of several things right off the top of my head that are much more important, like cleaning the leaves out of my gutters this weekend. Or flossing my teeth. And he is correct in recommending that the level of hatred be taken down a notch, or two, or three.

Even Bruce acknowledges that he doesn't expect his advice to be universally accepted. Here, he demonstrates the realism that there is a a very vocal minority in the FOSS community that will never, ever stop despising Microsoft. My concern is, I don't believe any of us should stop keeping at least one eye on what Redmond is doing. Not to the point of obsession, but certainly to the point of caution.

Here is the thing that must be remembered: for all its faults and negative actions, Microsoft has done far more to shape the present-day status of FOSS than almost any other company. Period. Like winds and water eroding a mountain to a particular shape, the actions of this one company have shaped Linux and the rest of FOSS more than I think a lot of us would care to admit. Very often, it's a reverse reaction: if Redmond goes one way, FOSS developers make darn sure they go the opposite. But even negatively, the influence is there.

More pragmatically, I think it is a fool's game to not think that Microsoft is only tolerating FOSS until it figures out how to (a) replace it or (b) remove it. Bruce does not think they can do either, and maybe he's right. But I am very sure that Microsoft can slow down the FOSS movement. He brings up the example of OOXML as a serious non-challenge, because ultimately someone will find a hack around this so-called open format. Of that I have no doubt, but how many man-hours will be wasted trying to develop said hack? How many Office deployments will go out at the expense of OpenOffice.org?

Bruce is absolutely right when he says that taking on FOSS means taking on the entire IT community. But that's an open fight. Don't think Microsoft isn't above a rabbit punch when they think no one's looking. Or any other proprietary company, for that matter.

Is this obsession? Or paranoia? Perhaps. But asking the community to stop worrying about Microsoft is like asking a mother bear to stop protecting her cubs. That's the one aspect of FOSS that is rarely seen in the proprietary world: most of us have played at least some small part in the creation of FOSS. We coded. We tested. We used. We suggested. Whatever our role, FOSS development allows many people to feel they are a part of creating something bigger--how can we not feel protective? How can we not react?

To be fair, there are signs of a sea change within the offices in Redmond. I have met some folks that are making genuine attempts to reach out and explore what this concept of open source is about. But until the day comes when all of Microsoft's executives lay down their arms, somebody needs to stand watch.

The other article I wanted to mention was the Linux Magazine opinion piece "Is 2008 the Year of the Linux Desktop?", written by my friend and co-author Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier.

I have no real difference of opinion of the content of the article, in which Joe delves into the current status of Linux on the desktop and sees a bright future--if not this year, but soon after. His observations and opinions are spot on. My only problem is the title and meme of the article itself: this whole "year of the desktop" (YotD) notion has got to go.

The problem I have with the YotD idea is that no one, not even me, really knows what the heck defines what a YotD is. Is it when Linux dominates worldwide desktop deployments? Or when Linux is recognized as a perfectly valid player in the desktop arena? Heck, depending on what your criteria is, you can say that the YotD happened the moment they plugged X Window into Linux.

I'm not anti-desktop--I want Linux to succeed in these arena just like it's kicking butt and taking names in the supercomputing, server, and embedded spaces. I think Linux does an excellent job on the desktop now. My point is, who's going to define what success in this area is? How many deployed systems must there be? How many apps need to be ported?

In my opinion, there will really never be a YotD for Linux. I think one day we're all going to wake up and look around and say "hey, how did this happen? We're all using Linux!" A very similar thing happened with the Internet. I was using the 'Net rather early (Gopher! Aiee!), before the National Science Foundation released it for commercial users. "Suddenly," around '98 or '99, all the major news outlets were proclaiming it was the Year of the Internet. Which I thought was hysterical, since I'd been using it for work and recreation for years and some scientists and computer engineers for decades.

The same thing, I believe, with happen with Linux. It will slowly creep up on the IT world until one day someone will notice the landscape has been completely changed. At that time, the media wags will declare the Year of the Linux Desktop, but that won't really mark the tipping point--no one will really know when that happened, unless we were really paying attention.

Like all good projects, the success of Linux on the desktop will happen over time, not all at once. So maybe we can put away the media hype this year. And the next.

LT is shifting into weekend/holiday mode until Monday, November 26. For those of you celebrating here in the US, may you have a safe and happy Thanksgiving. For the rest of the world, may all your days be the same.