/var/opinion - Long Live the Freedom of Linux

by Nicholas Petreley

Microsoft is running scared, and has many good reasons to be afraid. Vista is destined to be a disappointment, an expensive one for Microsoft, OEMs and customers. I'm not saying it will flop. Vista will find its way onto many desktops because it will be preloaded on computers. But aside from one single Microsoft groupie, I don't know anyone who cares about Vista, let alone anyone who is excited about its release. Microsoft knows how much the Windows line has been botched. That's one reason why Microsoft is now trying to make money off every copy of SUSE sold by Novell. For more details, see my Web article on the Linux Journal Web site, “A Five Year Deal with Microsoft to Dump Novell/SUSE” (www.linuxjournal.com/node/1000121). Praise God, Red Hat flatly refused to sign a similar deal with Microsoft.

This inevitable botch job gives Linux an invaluable window of opportunity to grab desktops away from Windows. Why migrate to an expensive, bloated, poorly designed Windows when it's just as easy (or hard) to migrate to Linux on the desktop?

The best way to seize this opportunity is to make Linux distributions even more free, as in freedom, than they are now. Here are the freedoms I propose:

1) As stated in the Web article referenced above, make all your computers free of any Novell/SUSE software.

Don't pay Novell to funnel protection money to Microsoft so Microsoft won't sue you. Make Microsoft sue someone over patent infringements. I say “someone” because that someone really isn't likely to be customers. Such a bad PR move would bury Microsoft, and everyone at Microsoft knows it. Microsoft might sue someone over some patent or another, but let's get these issues in and out of court once and for all and have the issues settled for eternity. You can't make that happen if you pay Novell to support Microsoft's protection racket.

2) Make Linux free of anything that Microsoft can claim is a patent infringement.

Meanwhile, scour the code for anything that Microsoft might claim infringes upon its patents and replace it. OpenGL is a good place to start. Microsoft bought the patent for OpenGL from SGI in one of its many bail-out deals.

3) Make Linux free with every computer.

Linux distributors, both commercial and free, need to band together and pressure hardware OEMs to preload a preconfigured version of Linux. This is a difficult step because it calls for selfless cooperation between distributors, knowing that a rising tide lifts all boats. Red Hat should be content if its part of the joint effort causes Dell to preload Ubuntu instead of Red Hat or Fedora. Once Linux becomes a standard preloaded operating system, that is the time for individual distros to start fighting to sway the OEMs toward their respective products. Until then, they must fight as a group to get anything preloaded on the systems.

4) Make the Linux desktop and common applications geek-free.

I'll be optimistic and assume more Linux will get preloaded. In such a case, far more computer-illiterate people will use Linux. So rip the geek out of the desktop and the handful of the most popular end-user-oriented applications. Take these applications and bring all the most commonly used features to the surface. The photo management program LPhoto is an excellent example of one way to do this right. Things like red-eye reduction, print photo, e-mail photo and other common functions appear in four tabs of big buttons at the bottom of the window. You have to go to the menu for less popular operations like rotating a photo.

Don't remove features or skimp on advanced features. Just don't shove them in the face of the end user. You'd be amazed how much friendlier a program can be if you simply consolidate and organize the features that exist into easy-to-use tabbed dialogs and wizards.

Developers are already hard at work making improvements like these, but many are not moving quickly enough. It's not fun to pump true usability into an application, but it is absolutely essential in order to take advantage of this window of opportunity.

5) Fill in the gaping holes in free software with more free software.

Free up some developer time to create robust equivalents for the remaining Windows applications for which there are no reasonable equivalents—iTunes and Quicken, to name two examples. Yes, there are personal finance applications, but developers need to catch up enough to compete with things like Quicken.

Java will be free, as in GPL, soon. All distros should start installing Java by default now, in anticipation of when most if not all of the JVM will be GPL—add to that a number of excellent Java applications now missing from distros.

These are but a few suggestions, but they are necessary and require urgent attention. Given enough time, people will migrate to Vista by default, simply because they upgrade their computers. If we can take advantage of the window of opportunity soon enough, we could see a Linux desktop revolution in the very near future.

Nicholas Petreley is Editor in Chief of Linux Journal and a former programmer, teacher, analyst and consultant who has been working with and writing about Linux for more than ten years.

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