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Is it ready? Do I really care?

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One of the never-die subjects that seems to grace every other Free Software/Open Source/GNU/Linux/Geek/Technological publication since whenever is the “Is GNU/Linux ready for the Desktop”?
It might be “It is ready”, “is it ready to take on Microsoft/others?” or “It isn’t/will not be ready” or “Why isn’t it ready”, or “This year it will be ready” or one of the dozen or so variations on the subject.

The question I’m trying to understand is, why are everyone so concerned about it?
And by “everyone”, I’m not referring to Red Hat, Novell or Canonical, but to the everyday user of GNU/Linux, or even to the everyday non-user. Will GNU/Linux’s “readiness” for the desktop make more people switch? Do GNU/Linux users even want more people to switch? (again, users, not commercial distributers).
The immediate answer is the herd effect, nobody wants to be the only one to do something; we are social beings, after all, and like to know we are part of a communitee. The other side of it, or the practical view, is that more users create what is called the “network effect”, making it the “industry standard”, which is a de-facto standard based on the simple reasoning that “Everyone uses it”. For example, try sending your CV as an .odf file. You’ll probably will get a “please use standard formats” as reply, and by which people mean Microsoft Word .doc format. More users of GNU/Linux on the desktop would mean that open formats will become “industry standards” based solely on the large amount of people using them. Same goes for .ogg instead of .mp3, open video formats instead of the proprietary ones in use today, and so on.
Problem with this argument is that it doesn’t work like this. Being “ready for the desktop”, it seems, mean that people can switch to GNU/Linux without any “loss” on their side. This means that GNU/Linux distributers are allowing restricted/Non-Free formats, drivers and codecs to be installed on the distribution, or even package them with the distro. Open-Office, the GNU/Linux de-facto standard Office Suite jump through every hoop possible to support Microsoft’s proprietary formats such as .doc and .xls.
In fact, it appears that being “ready for the desktop” actually means “being able to play proprietary audio and video formats, and support proprietary document formats such as .pdf and .doc” this in itself is a paradox, because it means creating a network effect on product A, which only exists to re-strengthen product B. In this sense, ESR’s argument that for Linux to survive, it must support proprietary, closed-source and restricted format is actually dangerous, as it means that the stronger GNU/Linux becomes on the desktop, it will only cause Microsoft and other proprietary formats to continue its domination.

The second argument for “being ready for the desktop” is that it will make GNU/Linux more User-Friendly and easier to work with. Question that arises is “who for?” I don’t really see people marching through the streets in anticipation of GNU/Linux being “friendlier” so they could finally make the switch. In fact, most people I know are currently drooling for Vista, not for SUSE. It won’t make much difference for GNU/Linux users, since they already are using the “non-friendly flavour” of GNU/Linux and are, apparently, quite happy with it. Some have even argued (very reasonably, in my opinion), that making GNU/Linux “friendlier” means that basic elements of the system will have to be bended, or broken, such as the multi-user system and the security model, which would, in turn, make GNU/Linux as vulnerable as Windows.

The third argument is that for GNU/Linux to “survive” as an OS, it must become desktop friendly. Sadly, this is as far from the truth as can be. GNU exists for almost 25 years. Linux has just celebrated its 15th year. It may not be “successful”, or take over Microsoft (or Apple)’s place, which, to corporate America is what “survival” means (as in “grow or die”), but the fact being, GNU/Linux isn’t about market share and expansion charts, its about Free Software (GNU) and getting the best tools possible out in the open (Linux). Those won’t vanish even if all commercial distros vanish. In fact, at some levels, losing the commercial support, GNU/Linux might actually florish. Not being forced into the desktop playing field/battleground will “release” GNU/Linux from the need to cater for flashier desktops (i.e. XGL/Compiz and their dependancy on closed-source, proprietary and restricted 3d video cards drivers), or to more media formats, and returning to the Free Software alternative routes, which, in eventuality, might fully realise the true revolutionary potential of the OS.

Fourth, and final, is the “being ready for the Desktop meaning becoming a mature, better OS”. To this we say “Linux != Windows“. Or, more to the point, since “mature” meaning “stop wearing sandals and shorts and start hiring double and triple speaking marketing guys with hairgel and 3 piece suits”, I say, “if the infantile, inherently broken, swiss-cheesed unusable piece of jukny-gunk called windows is what one consideres as a ‘mature operating system’, then I don’t want to grow up.

Written by Erez

Saturday, September 16, 2006 at 17:10

Posted in GNU/Linux

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