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Editor's Note: When Will it Really Be the Year of Linux?

May 15, 2009, 23:02 (40 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

It already is. It already has been. It will continue for the forseeable future.

My scorn for lazy tech reporters who have made an industry out of "This is the year of Linux!/ No it isn't, stupid hippies!" is no secret. In fact I could make my own little industry out of scorning lazy, useless, content-free tech reporting, except that complaining all the time is dull and annoying. It gripes me greatly that this grand bully pulpit of online publishing, where a single person has the potential to reach the entire world, is wasted on 90% dreck. But then Theodore Sturgeon said that ninety percent of everything is crap, so I guess that's just the way humanity operates.

So, getting back to The Year of Linux. Those of us (like you, my fine readers!) who are actually clueful about the tech industry understand that there are very few Aha! events, which are dramatic events that change forever life as we know it. That's a Hollywood fiction. (Maybe that's why so much tech journalism is so awful-- too much TV.) In fact I can't think of a single genuine Aha! event in my lifetime. Putting astronauts on the moon was the culmination of decades of hard work. After more than a century of automobiles, the primary advance is more cupholders. Our modern personal computers that give us mighty processing and storage powers for small price tags are the results of years of refinements and incremental advances. Fast advances to be sure, but not Aha!.

Linux is a relative infant at age 18, so Tux isn't even legal drinking age yet. Going from zero to where Linux is today in only 18 years is remarkable, especially when you compare it to poor old Windows. The first release of Windows was in 1983. You'd think that with 26 years of development and tens of billions of dollars it wouldn't be quite so awful, but maybe that's an indicator that Sturgeon's famous quotation is more than a wise saying, it's a law of nature. But again, no Aha! moments.

What Does Winning Look Like?

We like to joke about world domination, but I would settle for a level playing field, a computer marketplace that is not controlled by an evil, rapacious monopolist. I would settle for hardware vendors that support Linux equally, and for gosh sakes what could be easier? Release the specs, donate some machines for testing, and let FOSS developers do the rest. I would settle for retail outlets that are honest about customer demand and actually meeting it, instead of letting Redmond tell them how to run their businesses, and then making lame excuses. I would settle for legislatures and parliaments and standards bodies that do their jobs, which at least in theory are not propping up Microsoft.

Winning looks like honest reporting and product reviews written by people who have actual knowledge and do actual research. In my dreams the giant thundering hordes of astroturfers would all be smitten with attacks of conscience and go mute. I know this breaks with established industry practices, but I can dream.

When you think about it, for all their size and clout, Microsoft sure needs a lot of outside help to stay on top.

Desktop Linux

The only market segment that Linux does not have significant penetration is the desktop, though even this is debatable given the difficulty of coming up with accurate figures, and the well-funded opposition to coming up with accurate figures. In all other arenas it is a force to be reckoned with: supercomputing, datacenter, embedded, networking, servers of all kinds. This is no small achievement for an OS that has had to succeed strictly on merit and against relentless opposition.

We need to give Linux a lot of credit for improving rapidly on multiple fronts all at the same time. Complaints get all the headlines: wireless sucks, KDE4 sucks, video sucks, support for Microsoft document formats and protocols sucks, etc. Yeah whatever. Since the 2.6 kernel was launched progress has been phenomenal. Unglamorous things like shiny new PATA, SATA, SCSI, and USB. User-configurable I/O scheduling. SELinux and AppArmor, overhauls of key subsytems like Upstart replacing init, udev/HAL, and substantial progress in wireless and video. The Linux wireless team have done an exceptional job of rewriting the entire wireless subsystem, and bringing hardware vendors on board.

At the same time usability and polish have been getting a lot of attention; and different packaging like LiveCDs, bootable USB distros (which Windows still does not have except via some third-party tools that don't work very well and require the full retail Windows version), PXE boot, wake-on-LAN and network installs, great tools for easily making your own "re-spins", nice growth in application software of all kinds. Powerful testimony to the power of free software. In contrast, after all these years of supporting Nvidia what do we have? The same old closed binary drivers. At least with Intel and AMD/ATI we have hopes of attaining the same status we had in the late 1990s, which was several different 3D video chipsets with FOSS drivers.

The Last Link: OEM Desktop Linux

As so many folks have been saying for so many years, the key to visibility is the OEM channel. We should be able to go to any computer store, whether online or in meatspace, and see good-quality fairly-priced Linux machines sitting side-by-side with Mac and Windows. I know this strikes some people as in insane concept, which means they don't even notice there are multiple brands of PCs, servers, networking gear, hard drives, monitors, and other components all sitting quietly together.

You might have noticed that Apple could never get good shelf space, but was always relegated to its own ghetto. CompUSA had an Apple section stuck way in the back of their stores, and Apple had to open their own stores to get anywhere. Even Fry's shunts Apple to a dank corner.

Good OEM Linuxes mean that Linux itself doesn't need to be perfect in every last detail, because then it's up to the OEM vendor to release a machine where everything works the first time. We hear the same stupid FUD all the time: oh noes, too many Linuxes!! Hardware support is too weirdz!! Give me a break, nobody can be that dumb without getting paid for it. The OEM vendor picks a limited, well-supported set of hardware; contracts with a Linux distributor like Canonical, Mandriva, or Red Hat for support and engineering, and voila! Instant excellent Linux box. How hard is that? Apparently the concept itself is monumentally difficult to grasp if we go by the awful netbook Linux customizations the titans of industry have been releasing, or high-ranking industry analysts like Lenovo's Matt Kohut. On the other hand it's obvious, logical, and not all that difficult if we go by the examples set by independent Linux vendors like ZaReason, System76, and Penguin Computing. And any random moderately-accomplished Linux geek.

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