Linux needs to disappear

by Nicholas Petreley

Okay, I confess that I chose this headline to draw you into this blog entry. A more accurate headline would be "Operating systems need to disappear". But I don't want my meaning to be misconstrued. The term "operating systems" would have to include proprietary operating systems. If I say "proprietary operating systems need to disappear", I mean they should be wiped off the face of the earth. When I say Linux should disappear, I mean that end users shouldn't need to know it's there. Big difference. Add to that the fact that I would love to see Linux as the operating system for all computing devices, and there's not much left to use as a headline except "Linux needs to disappear".

Be patient, please, because this is about much more than Linux disappearing. It's primarily about Network Computing, with Zimbra as an example of why this is the future.

I began to preach this philosophy many years ago, and I've promoted it from different angles. Back when I worked for InfoWorld, well before the Evolution client was ready, I stated that Evolution was the wrong approach to email and calendaring for this very reason. Please don't flame me for dissing Evolution. As of the latest versions it has turned into a truly wonderful application. This isn't about how good Evolution is compared to any other client, open source or proprietary. I also understand the motives that drove the desire to create Evolution, and I think it was created with good intentions. It's also a very good thing that it came out when it did. The alternatives to Evolution that I had in mind weren't available yet, so Evolution, Thunderbird, KMail and other clients were great interim solutions, and still are.

Here is the right way to do email, calendaring, and other messaging and collaboration tasks: Zimbra. No, I don't mean the specific product, Zimbra. I mean the philosophy behind it. It is a prime example of why network computing is superior to platform-dependent, OS-dependent computing.

You can finish this blog entry now, or if you want to get an idea of what I'm talking about, visit the Zimbra demo page. If you're not anti-Flash and have Flash installed, then I strongly suggest you view the Flash Demo. It illustrates features you might miss if you simply try the Hosted Demo. But if you're anti-Flash or simply do not have Flash installed, then go for the Hosted Demo.

More anti-flame disclaimers

Again, this isn't about Evolution or Zimbra. I don't use either as of this moment. For the record, I use Thunderbird and Mutt as my email clients. I've toyed with the idea of switching to Evolution, so I don't want you to get the idea that I have gone out of my way to avoid it. I just haven't gone out of my way to use it, either. It would take too long to explain why I use both Thunderbird and Mutt, and I'm already going on too much of a tangent.

I have CommuniGate Pro installed on my local server, and I use it to pull down mail from almost every one of my email accounts, and I have many. Yes, I know CommuniGate Pro isn't open source, but it's a terrific server and it has been working flawlessly for years. Whenever something works this well, it takes a very compelling reason to "fix" it, especially since I have better things to do with my time. I know there are excellent open source alternatives, and there have been for a long time. I used an old version of Cyrus IMAP along with Procmail and Fetchmail before I switched to CommuniGate Pro. It was a lot more work to set up this combination, but it was worth the trouble even back then. I'm sure it has improved a great deal since. I'm not even sure what else is available today since I haven't been motivated to switch from CommuniGate Pro.

Work with me on this

I used to access my own personal IMAP email server from the web when I travelled because I had a dedicated line and a static IP address. I've moved around a lot since then, and I've been using Cable access to the Internet ever since. I could get around the dynamic IP address and open up a tunnel to my IMAP server so I could access it remotely, but there are too many downsides to this approach. So I use Gmail when I travel. I'm a Gmail junkie in spite of the fact that I am used to working with IMAP folders. I love the interface and the way it handles conversations. I also like the Google calendar and Google chat. Maybe you prefer another web mail service. Again, this isn't the point.

Here's the point. It is insane to have to switch between Thunderbird, Mutt, Gmail, Yahoo, Evolution, Microsoft Outlook, or anything else in order to handle multiple email accounts, manage their schedules, chat, or what have you.

The Utopian view

In an ideal world, you should be able to walk up to any computer, any kiosk, any thin client, and access your mail (all of it), schedule, chat, and communicate using the same basic interface. You should be able to flip open your phone and do the same thing. In addition, the connection should be secure, and the message store should be secure. When you log out from a "foreign" computer, kiosk, or thin client, you should leave nothing behind for anyone else to know you were there. There should be nothing left in disk cache or memory for someone to decipher.

The problem with Evolution was that it was simply another client that has dependencies out the wazoo, just like Microsoft Outlook, Thunderbird, Mutt and just about every other client application. These programs don't lead the way to the ideal solution I described above. I can't depend on a Hotel having a business kiosk with Evolution installed on the computer. I can depend on the kiosk having a browser, so I can run Gmail, but Gmail isn't the ideal answer to companies that want to host all their email on their own servers, or provide specialized vertical-market features as part of their communications.

Zimbra makes this possible. That's because Zimbra is browser-based, and relies on AJAX and web services for its remarkably feature-rich interface, and it provides hooks for the kinds of specialized features anyone might need. For example, the demo will show you how you can click on a purchase order number in the text portion of an email and process that order.

I confess that when I used to talk about the ideal web-based communications application, I envisioned that it would be done in Java. As it turns out, AJAX is proving to be a powerful way to provide a (mostly) platform-neutral and (mostly) browser-agnostic rich client application. And since (mostly) is all Java ever delivered, anyway, who cares which wins?

Poof goes Linux?

Okay, time for another disclaimer. I just downloaded Zimbra and I haven't installed it yet. So I don't know if it's secure enough, fast enough, or powerful enough to make me want to use it as my one-and-only communications program. It doesn't matter. The idea is spot on, and that's the point.

And for my final disclaimer, I'm afraid I can't make good on my premise that only Linux should disappear. Not everything runs on Linux - yet. As much as I'd love to see the day when every computing device has Linux at its heart, that day will not arrive soon, if ever. Even if every device ran Linux, I would still like to see it disappear. I see no reason for anyone but developers, power-users and OS enthusiasts to be aware of an operating system. Make it visible to them (and I'm one of them most of the time), but hide it from the rest of the world.

But the fact that Linux is not yet ubiquitous is simply another reason why the Zimbra approach to a communications client is such an ideal way to make operating systems disappear. It is a prime example of how a browser really can make an operating system irrelevant, which is a good thing. And it is a prime example of why network computing should be a significant part of the future. It has as its goal a world where you don't need to care what computer or device you happen to have at your fingertips at the moment. You can still read your email, schedule a meeting, chat with a friend, and do it all using basically the same interface (limited only by the capabilities of the device itself).

The fancy features of Zimbra are simply icing on the cake. I love the way it lets you mouse over a street address to see a map showing the location of that address. It does much more - just view the demo for yourself. I truly hope that Zimbra or some other browser-based client is good enough, or becomes good enough for me to give up Thunderbird and Mutt forever. If not, then I'll wait patiently for that day to come. I maintain that the day is coming, and it will be a great day when it arrives.