Why was Linux Successful (and will it stay so)?

    August 21, 2006

Internet News reported on a panel discussion of the reasons why Linux was successful. I had been thinking about that myself recently, and had earlier found an older but more detailed article on the same subject.

That timing had a lot to do with this is obvious: the hardware was at the right power/price point, the Internet made communication possible, and even the BSD lawsuits added impetus by at least temporarily spreading FUD over BSD efforts and perhaps even moving a developer or two from that camp.

The impression that Linux was more receptive to new ideas and less demanding about their implementation is alluded to :

It has also given the illusion of a kernel and OS more open to the individual developer. The BSD variants have all come about from splits out of one or the other ‘core’ teams. Linus take patch submissions from anyone – within his vision of where the kernel should go.

But why splits? My impression has been that BSD developers lean more toward purity while Linux has been much more pragmatic. The willingness to explore other directions is sometimes upsetting – breaking backward compatibility isn’t an unusual occurrence in the Linux world – but it also keeps up the excitement and interest. For example, see this rant against xinetd. Even its author seems to recognize that xinetd is neat, though he carps:

It’s Cool, not stability nor security that has the most cachet when living la vida Linux.

He goes on to say what has been said about many Linux changes:

If you have an application which is used by thousands perhaps millions of hosts, it’s replacement had damn better be backward compatible. The more entrenched the application, the greater the need for transparent backward compatibility.

There’s truth there, but the rigid adherence to the status quo is what caused BSD development to appear stagnant when contrasted with Linux. Yes, convention and expectation are important, but it’s also true that some things really need to be changed. Inetd needed changing and xinetd addressed its deficiencies.

I have to say that Linux has upset me from time to time: when I first encountered that “I_WANT_A_BROKEN_PS” message, I was actually angry. But when I investigated more, I found I agreed with the changes. For me, the arguments for change made more sense than the arguments against.

The Desktop

So, here we are in 2006, and Linux is successful, at least in the server arena. Moving into desktop territory is more difficult, and that difficulty causes some arguments in the Linux camps. From the Internet News article referenced above:

Raymond got riled up as he proclaimed what he thought was necessary to be done for desktop Linux to be successful.

“We need to do whatever compromise is necessary to get full multimedia capability on Linux so non-technical users don’t dismiss us out of hand,” Raymond shouted.

That’s the argument in a nutshell. The other side of it is “We shouldn’t compromise security and integrity just to attract more users”. I tend to agree.

Fighting Microsoft for dominance is bad enough, but now Mac is catching a lot of attention from the geekish crowd and the “dumb user” population. I’ve switched to Macs myself (causing barely audible muttering that sounded like “more money than brains” from some acquaintances) and have noticed more than a few Mac notebooks at geekish events I’ve attended. Of course some of those may have been running Linux, but there’s no doubt that I’m not the only Unixish type who found the Mac an easy way to retain my need for Unix while also having a media capable machine. And it’s not just geeks: I’ve had more interest from non technical users and several have bought Macs recently.

But Macs aren’t the perfect answer. For every I’m sick of doing things the hard way, there’s a Why I Might Switch Back to match it. I waffle on this myself, and could easily slide into Linux desktop land. But.. geeks don’t count. The great mass is people who don’t understand any of the pro and con arguments and who aren’t likely to download and install new operating systems over what they have. That’s where Mac has a big advantage over Linux: you can buy a Mac. Now and then you have been able to “buy a Linux”, but not as easily, and for the mass market it’s always been on the cheapest hardware – little choice for the buyer who might want a better machine – and no advertising pushing them toward this to start with.

Certainly there’s a market for ultra-cheap. But that market isn’t going to propel Linux into the mainstream.

It’s possible that redefinitions of what a desktop needs to be may provide a competitive role for Linux. Some think we will be moving toward web based and/or thin client computing. Dibona’s comment in response to Eric Raymond’s call for “whatever compromise” points toward that ( “Develop for the Web,” DiBona said. “People can switch to Web applications from their desktop more easily.).

I don’t see that happening. My judgement may be clouded by a geekish prejudice toward power under my tapping fingers, but I don’t think thin client is our future. It’s part of it, certainly, but I think we still will want real computers and our own local applications. And that’s where Linux has the most to overcome.

*Originally published at APLawrence.com

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A.P. Lawrence provides SCO Unix and Linux consulting services http://www.pcunix.com