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Consumer Darwinism and the Rise of FOSS

Jan 11, 2008, 23:30 (9 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

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 around.

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 other software.

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 competition.

"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 clear.