Linux on the Desktop--an Impossible Dream?

Microsoft isn't the only corporation dissing Linux these days Joining the corporate chorus is Steve Smith, a Dell manager, who doesn't believe that there's much of a future for Linux on the desktop. "It's still a fundamentally technical operating system," Smith says.. "It's very easy for someone who doesn't know what they're doing to break. It's not designed for the novice user."

It's tempting to laugh off Microsoft's recent criticisms of Linux (such as the assertion by a Microsoft executive that the General Public License is "un-American"); they're clearly part of a carefully planned FUD ("fear, uncertainty, doubt") campaign that's intended to scare customers away from the competition. But Dell is fairly Linux-friendly; the company deserves praise (and respect) for releasing machines with Linux installed, a move that surely infuriated our friends up in Redmond. Criticism from your enemies is one thing; criticism from your friends is another, and deserves to be taken very seriously indeed. Is Smith right?

On the surface, it's hard to deny Smith's point. Linux can be very challenging for novice users. The desktop environment is far from complete--and what's potentially more damaging is KDE versus GNOME fork, which has created two competing desktop environments that aren't completely compatible. And then there's the shortage of applications.

Still, I believe there's a bright future for Linux on the desktop, but understanding this future requires going beyond viewing the Linux desktop in isolation. Smith's point focuses on the difficulties of Linux in "pulling" users away from Windows and Mac OS--but that's only part of the story. As the history of personal computing reveals, major usage shifts involve "push" as well as "pull". By "push", I'm referring to the actions of Linux's competitors (read "Microsoft") that alienate users to the point that they're ready to move to alternative technologies, even if they perceive these technologies to be more difficult to use or technically inferior. And as you'll see, there's a good case to be made that the Linux pull is steadily im proving, and that push may develop into a major factor indeed. Disclaimer: This article advances an admittedly simplistic and overstated argument--but darn it, if you'd been around in the 1980s, you'd understand why I place so much emphasis on the factors I'm about to discuss.

The 1980s: A Tale of Push and Pull

In the mid- to late-1980s, few questioned the fact that Apple's Macintosh and related technologies held the technological lead. In the late 1980s, I squandered a significant portion of my annual income on a state-of-the art Macintosh system, which consisted of a Mac SE, a Radius full-page display, and a LaserWriter NT. I sneered and snickered at those poor pathetic souls who were using IBM PC compatibles, MS-DOS and--Lord help them--WordPerfect 4.2, which required them to reveal and manipulate the underlying formatting codes in order to perform the most rudimentary tasks. But slowly, the truth dawned on me. My state-of-the-art Macintosh system set me back nearly $5,000--which, to put the cost in perspective, was about one-sixth of my net annual income at the time. My DOS and WordPerfect-using friends, pitable though they seemed in my Macintosh-besotted view, were spending about one third as much as much money for quite workable systems. This fact wore us down. The little cell of Macintosh zealots to which I belonged began to dwindle, both in size and religious fervor, as we gradually realized that Apple was concerned, above all else, to preserve what were at that time the highest profit margins in the computer industry (nearly 50 percent). To put the point bluntly, we started to realize, "We was robbed." When our SEs died (which they tended to do rather quickly), we didn't buy Macs again. We bought PCs. We learned how to use DOS. We learned how to use WordPerfect 4.2. We learned how to reveal codes. We even learned how to write highly technical and customized AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files to squeeze another 30K out of conventional memory so that our kids could Bubble Bobble. College professors, secretaries, insurance agents, massage therapists and other inherently non-technical types became incredibly proficient with this unfriendly, difficult, challenging technology, which by any rational criteria was poorly designed for end users. If Smith had been around at the time, he would have doubtless said, "It's very easy for someone who doesn't know what they're doing to break. It's not designed for the novice user." Why did we abandon Apple for those technically challenging DOS systems? I'll tell you why. First, pull. The DOS/WordPerfect systems were much cheaper--and by this time, we were buying computers for people even less computer literate than we were--kids, tenured professors, parents--and we just couldn't ignore the price differential between Macintosh and PC systems. Second, push. Frankly, we were really pissed off at Apple. They had superior technology, but they were sitting on it and gouging us. They seemed to us to be both arrogant and, increasingly, incapable of making rational decisions. Then they hired this Pepsi guy to run the company, and next thing you knew, Jobs was out. Can you spell D-U-M-B? Subsequent events demonstrated, unfortunately, that we were correct in our assessment. (Consumers aren't as stupid as corporations think they are.)

Let me try to formulate the Laws of the Computing Marketplace in a way that captures our experience back then. As I see it, there are but three major Laws: Law No. 1, the Law of Pull. That which is CHEAPER pulleth more mightily than that which is easier to use. Ease of use hath nothing to do with it. (See Law No. 2.)

Law No. 2, the Law of Push. At a certain point, an arrogant corporation can alienate its customers so much that the customers, formerly thought to be insensible sheep, suddenly become capable of amazing feats of technical prowess.

Law No. 3, the Relation of Pull and Push. Push magnifies pull. How much? I realize this isn't very scientific, but I'd say a lot. If you want a precise number, I'd say 4.8, multiplied by an integer representing the angle at which the rays of the full moon traverse the northwest corner of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Pull and Push Today, Or, Why There's Hope for Linux on the Desktop

How's Linux doing in the pull department? Forget ease of use. Law No. 1 states that, to paraphrase the common saying in the real estate industry, what matters is "price, price, price." Part of the difficulty here is that there isn't a huge perceived gap between the hardware costs, as there was in the Mac versus DOS days. The real cost gap is in software--but then again, consumers don't really perceive this (yet). They don't realize that they've paid for the Windows operating system that's shipped with their computers. They do realize they haven't paid for the version of Office they're using-and that's because they know perfectly well that it's pirated. So Linux doesn't have much pull as yet. And it's not because the desktop environment is incomplete, or that there aren't enough applications, or yadda yadda yadda. It's because people haven't yet perceived that Linux is cheaper. They haven't done so because, if you accept the Business Software Association's terminology, most of them are hard-core criminals who care nothing about intellectual property or the law. (Of course, corporate customers have learned the hard way that unauthorized duplications of Windows and Office products can lead to hefty settlements--but consumers, criminals that they are, are still making unauthorized copies for their spouses and children.) But the pull picture is about to change. And that's because push is about to come into it. Big time.

You've heard about the various rumblings from Microsoft concerning moving its customers to subscription-based services. What's going on? It's simple: Customers aren't upgrading. They don't really understand the need to keep paying Microsoft over and over again for the same products. That's bad, but for Microsoft, there's something even worse. All those old copies of Windows and Office don't incorporate the surveillance and anti-piracy technologies that Microsoft plans to deploy in its forthcoming products, such as Office XP. In case you haven't heard, Office XP will "acclimatize" itself to the specific PC you install it on. Microsoft says that this will improve your "experience." What it's really going to do is make it all but impossible to install the software on any other machine. Goodbye piracy, hello subscriptions.

I could cite numerous additional examples to make my point, but I believe that Microsoft is cranking up to a level of arrogance and stupidity that will make Apple look like a small-time, amateur player. And I've focused here on consumers. I believe the amount of ill will among Microsoft's corporate customers is building up to a Tsunami--the same type of consuming, all-cleansing explosion that resulted in IBM losing a good slice of its customers in the aftermath of its 1970s and early 1980s "connector conspiracies", and racking up the biggest quarterly loss in U.S. corporate history.

Predictions

I realize only too well that this article's argument is extremely simplistic, so please don't bother pointing this out to me on that little feedback box. And I am now going to make a prediction based on this simplistic argument. But you see, all great predictions are based on simplistic reasoning. The trouble is, the same thing can be said about all terrible predictions. But may we ignore this annoying fact for the moment?

I predict that Linux's share of the desktop market will begin to grow, slowly at first but then steadily, just as soon as:

(1) Corporate purchasers and consumers start to feel the pull of Linux. This won't happen unless Microsoft succeeds in its bid to greatly reduce the incidence of unauthorized software duplication. I am not certain that this will occur.

(2) Ill will toward Microsoft builds to critical mass. I am certain that Microsoft executives are sufficiently out of touch with reality that this one is a safe bet.

If (1) happens (possible), and (2) happens (probable), then Law No. 3 kicks in, push magnifies pull, and the move to the Linux desktop accelerates. And as the phenomenon mounts, all the other so-called indispensable "pull" components--filesystem standardization, a growing pool of great applications, enhanced ease of use, and readily available peripherals--will fall into place. I hope.

Bryan Pfaffenberger is Associate Professor of Technology, Culture, and Communication at the University of Virginia, and a user of UNIX--and UNIX-like operating systems since you were in diapers. Deluged with e-mail, he apologizes profusely if he fails to respond to messages you may send concerning this article, but rest assured--they are read, and the complimentary ones are saved and admired during periods of diminished ego.

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Re: Linux on the Desktop--an Impossible Dream?

Anonymous's picture

Here I am reading this article near the end of 2003 and the predictions look pretty on target. Microsoft did succeed in cutting down on consumer copying, with its activation technologies, and there's a lot of push/pull towards the Linux desktop, which, in the meantime, has matured considerably.

I just upgraded from Mandrake 9.1 to 9.2, and the KDE 3.1 desktop is smoother than ever. I lost some icons and sound, during the upgrade but just using GUI-based tools, got everything back. Not any harder than tweaking the Windows registry (ugh).

So Bryan, congrats on a well thought out argument that appears to have been prescient.

PS: It was fun reading about WordPerfect 4.2 again -- brought back the memories (ah, Reveal Codes...)

Re: Linux on the Desktop--an Impossible Dream?

Anonymous's picture

As an IT consultant, I'm reading this via my first install of Red Hat 7.2 and I believe your right on the money. For the small and mid-sized businesses I support, once they realize they can't take their software home and install it on their home computers, or use one copy of office and install it on 50 workstations, the pull will be there.

I for one am migrating to Linux so that I can be ahead of the curve and lead my clients to Linux. The only hurdle that remains is software to some extent. The basics are covered, e-mail, browsing, etc. Unfortunately, some apps though will require some hurdles to get through, e.g. Quickbooks, etc. I know there are some great accounting applications that run on Linux, but ultimately the client is going to want Quickbooks.

Great article and insight!

Re: Linux on the Desktop--an Impossible Dream?

Anonymous's picture

You opened my eyes to see a brighter future. You are so right, and I hope that the guys at MS won't wake up too soon.

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