Consumer Darwinism and the Rise of FOSS
Jan 11, 2008, 23:30 (9 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)
Re-Imagining Linux Platforms to Meet the Needs of Cloud Service Providers
By Brian Proffitt
One of the recurring themes that keeps popping up in the Linux
community is this pressing need to get Linux on the desktop. I have
often pondered in the past that such a goal is indeed worthy--once
we actually figure out just exactly what "desktop" means.
Watching the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) coverage this week,
it was once again hammered home that in a very real sense, it
doesn't matter what "desktop" means. The true opportunity for Linux
and the rest of the free/open source software (FOSS) developers and
business people is to anticipate what the customers want and get in
front of their needs in time to deliver the goods. The term
"desktop" is, I believe, an anachronistic term held over from the
days when one company had the means and the chutzpah to dictate to
the market what the customer needed, instead of the other way
Think of this for a second. Prior to 1985, very few non-business
users were using computers, and no one had heard of a "desktop."
Most computer users were using dumb terminals, DOS-only PCs, or (if
they were lucky) one of the Mac 128s, Commodore 64s, or Amigas on
the market at that time. My first computer exposure was an Apple ][
in the high school computer lab, used to write BASIC code.
Computers were out in the consumer market, but not very many
people knew what the heck to do with them. They didn't know any
better; no one really understood what these computer-thingys could
do. The customers weren't stupid, but they were functionally
illiterate as far as computer technology.
That, I think, was the jugular Microsoft and a few other
software vendors grabbed and held for the next 20 years. If no one
knows what computers can be used for, they decided, then we will
tell the customer what they can do with them. And so they did. With
operating systems, office suites, accounting programs, these
software companies essentially invented the desktop PC paradigm
from the ground up. And now, here we are, over 20 years later,
using essentially the same paradigm to judge the worthiness of all
Of course, it wasn't always a perfect model for the software
vendors. The market almost got away from them in the mid '90s--the
historically famous gaffe Bill Gates made with the Internet is a
classic example. It took a complete change in business policy (give
something away for free) and a disregrard for the law to keep
Microsoft from losing the Internet platform to Netscape. This was
clearly a case of the customers waking up and starting to think for
themselves about what they wanted. After nearly 10 years of
inventing the market they were selling to, the software vendors
lost sight of the fact that people using computers (especially the
young people who grew up using these machines) were not stupid and
could think for themselves.
You would think the vendors would have learned from their
mistakes. Apparently not, because they're about to make the same
mistake again. For 20-plus years, they have defined the desktop.
More than that, they have declared that the desktop is the only
kind of platform the consumer needs for computing.
That is no longer the case. What's more, the software vendors
are beginning to realize it.
Look at the events of CES, or even the consumer technology news
in the months leading up to 2008. Over and over, we see
announcements of popular computing devices: laptops , UMPCs,
inexpensive PCs at Wal-Mart, smartphones... all running Linux. More
importantly, all running Linux, and no one cares. Because
these systems work.
Just a few years ago, if a company had announced a hardware
product with Linux on board, there would be a huge hue and cry
about the "lack of performance" or "lack of applications" for the
device because of the presence of Linux. Today, that is rarely the
case. People are buying these devices because they just want
something that (a) just works and (b) is something can afford. And,
as you can see from the list above, the something they want is not
always a "desktop."
Suddenly, there's a whole new array of platforms people are
buying. The very same Internet that Microsoft struggled to
"control" with its anti-trust practices will prove to be its
downfall: people want devices that will enable communication
through the Internet. At the same time, the Internet also plays a
big part of the customers' learning experience. Through the
Internet, anyone can learn what technology is being developed and
can say "I want that."
In 1985, you had to rely on the mainstream media outlets to toss
out scraps of technological information. Today, consumers in
Bippus, Indiana can see the latest software developed by an Isle of
Man company founded by a South African billionaire has developed
and get it for themselves. Now.
Computer technology is not something that any one company can
dominate, ever again. Microsoft was able to defeat Netscape because
it was essentially a one-on-one game.
Today, the existence of FOSS means that new companies are
popping up every day with creative takes on old software. Instead
of spending years developing closed software from scratch, they can
get a huge head start on R&D and get right down to
distribution. No one can take on businesses using such an open
model. You might take down one or two, but eventually the open
software they built will be used by someone else to make something
else. Like having a well of clean water to dip into every time you
need a new bit of knowledge or resources. (No wonder, then, that
some companies want to poison the open source well altogether with
allegations of intellectual property infringement.)
In a way, proprietary vendors help FOSS by being the predators
in an ecosphere. They kill off the weak products, but the next
generation can resurrect from the ashes of the old to make
something better. Call it software evolution through FUD and
"The desktop" as a paradigm is changing, to be replaced by
whatever this consumer-driven market decides it wants. For too
long, consumers have been told what they could do with technology.
Now they are telling software vendors what they want, and are not
so quick to buy into what the vendors have sold them in the past.
Because of their open nature, Linux and FOSS are in the best
position to adapt and change to the market needs,
It is the curse and the blessing of ubiquity that's being
bestowed on Linux. The news from CES made that abundantly