October 2005: From the Editor - rm -rf /opt/bs

From the Editor.

To understand the IT industry, start with On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt. Prof. Frankfurt poses, but doesn't answer, the question of why there is so much B.S. in our society. He compares his subject to shoddy construction, and that's an analogy we can work with, because in software we're working at the thrilling edge of language and craftsmanship. We have the tools for dealing with B.S. in computer languages. Try to B.S. a compiler and that's a bug. It's time to tackle the B.S. problem head-on and start reporting bugs in human communications too.

Consider this filler, I mean essay, to be a bug report on the big companies that are doing Linux for the desktop. “Let's 'position' Linux as a simplified desktop for 'transactional users'”, they say. That's right—employees, if your company gives you Linux, that means Management thinks you're a human servlet. Decision-makers and content creators get a proprietary desktop OS.

Of course, offending the employees' pride might not show up on a TCO spreadsheet. But no executive would want to admit to running a division full of transactional, replaceable, outsourceable “human resources”.

But what about Clayton Christensen, disruptive innovation and The Innovator's Dilemma? Doesn't the cheap, good-enough contender always grow the features and stability it needs to win? Yes, when it lets in the customers left pressing their noses against the Expensive Stuff Store window. The Macintosh lets you do layouts even if you can't afford phototypesetting. Linux lets you put up a Web server without blowing the price of a Coupe De Ville on a UNIX box.

But selling less-capable products to customers who can get the good stuff doesn't fly. Seen an F-20 at an air show lately? It was a capable airplane, but it was positioned as an “export fighter” for air forces that weren't allowed to have, or couldn't afford, the F-16. Naturally, countries held out for the “real” fighter. Information freedom ideals can only go so far when vendors are patronizing Linux customers. “Aww, the little transaction worker filled out a Web form! Isn't that cute?”

Desktop Linux marketing is doing more harm than good, but work is under way to make Linux out-perform the other OSes. Robert Love's Project Utopia is bringing together the desktop interface and the necessary tweaking of hardware to make things work smoothly, not just securely (page 66).

Michael George has an example of how a thin-client environment almost works to solve a problem, but the project needed one key local app, the soft phone. See a hybrid approach to a VOIP station that works as a phone and a PC on page 72.

One of the projects where software excellence, not transaction-workerism, has triumphed, is Mozilla Firefox. Mozilla expert and author Nigel McFarlane died last month, leaving us with one last article (page 52). Let Firefox serve as an example for the standards the desktop is coming to meet.

Don Marti is editor in chief of Linux Journal.



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man how true. One of the clas

Anonymous's picture

man how true. One of the classic BS arguements that I get caught in:

"The Oracle thick|thin driver is X% faster than the thin|thick driver"

"Java is write once..."

talk about the ultimate stink pickle

> "The Oracle thick|thin driv

Anonymous's picture

> "The Oracle thick|thin driver is X% faster than the thin|thick driver"

try some benchmark.
depends on what kind of benchmark you use, thick|thin driver can be faster than the thin|thick driver.
this may be true for him/her..

"Java is write once..."

why not? it's also true for my c / pascal / perl program .. ( after i adding millions of if statement handling MAC/UNIX/WIN dissimliary .... and, don't forget novell and vms ... )

Almost on target

Robin Sheppard's picture

"But selling less-capable products to customers who can get the good stuff doesn't fly."

But what of the "good stuff" that still doesn't fly?

I run Ubuntu Linux on one of my laptops because it's the only one of 3 distros I tried that was able to detect my DSL setup. Unfortunately, even though it correctly identified my printer, it still won't print.

I tried SuSE 9.3 on my other laptop. It identified and configured my printer correctly, but failed to detect my DSL setup.

I've posted various requests or help on various Linux boards. The answers fall into 3 broad categories:

1. People who offer helpful sugestions that don't work
2. People who tell me to use a different distro
3. People who tell me to buy new hardware
4. People who tell me to go back to Windows, since I'm too stupid to use Linux.

I reinstalled Windows over the SuSE setup; Windows did a bang-up job of detecting all of my hardware and configuring it.

I've read a lot of articles on the 'net about why Linux hasn't made the predicted inroads on desktops, despite being a superior product. I think the answer is quite simple: Unless and until someone comes out with a distro that is as easy to install and configure as Windows, people will continue to use an inferior product *that works.*

I *hate* Windows. I'm fed up with the whole Microsoft "We know what's best for you" approach to computing. But the fact remains that I *have* to keep it on at least one machine just so I can print.

I shouldn't have to find a Linux guru for something as simple as getting a printer to work. I shouldn't have to pack up my system and haul it to an Installfest in the hopes of finding someone who can make my DSL work under Linux. I *should* be able to install Linux and have it detect and configure my hardware.

Or is that asking too much?

try MEPIS instead (based on Debian Linux and Knoppix)

Anonymous's picture

try MEPIS instead (based on Debian Linux and Knoppix)

WORKSFORME does not work for me

I don't know what's wrong's picture

I hate WORKSFORME. I think it is the epitome of developer arrogance. I know it works for you, otherwise you would be reporting the problem!

Linux as a disruptive desktop innovation

Tom Foale's picture

Interesting article. You have sort of answered your own issue, with "But selling less-capable products to customers who can get the good stuff doesn't fly." Disruptive innovations initially either target non-use, or those for whom the (good?) more expensive stuff is overkill (overserved customers). That in itself, in a world in which network externalities like being able to share documents with other users drive consumption choices, would incentivise a commercial company to improve its product to be good enough for even more of the market. It is in the overall interest of the open-source community to keep improving Linux and its other software offerings to capture more of the market. Microsoft's only response appears to be to carry on over-featuring its operating system and productivity tools. Microsoft's inevitable destination is in other, higher-end enterprise solutions, not basic office productivity - the juice has been sucked from that market.

However, is that possibly the achilles heel of the open source movement - it's motivations are not commercial? Does it have the interest to keep incrementally improving products when other more exciting projects beckon? Or is that an advantage - having no commercial masters to answer too, the community will know when to stop tinkering?

Commercial motivations

Don Marti (really)'s picture

The "movement" includes people with all kinds of motivations. Some motivations are commercial, some motivations are based on curiosity and love of hacking, and some motivations are based on love of freedom. Most of the Linux people I know, both on the technical and business sides, have some mix of all three.

If you look at the articles in this issue, there's some tinkering (the Greasemonkey article) but also the important work of cleaning up the rough edges to create a usable, supportable product (Project Utopia).

The true strenght of Linux

Anonymous's picture

> Some motivations are commercial, some motivations are based
> on curiosity and love of hacking, and some motivations are
> based on love of freedom.

Perhaps this is the true strenght of Linux
since no other major OS can do this.

If I may go out on a limb here...
- Windows is only commercial
- OS X is commercial with some love of hacking
- BSD is mostly freedom and not so much commercial
- OpenSolaris is commercial and freedom, but not so much hacking yet
- The others seem to be mostly hacking and curiosity

I no it is to simplify things a bit, but I believe it is mostly true.