Originally Published: Tuesday, 25 September 2001 Author: Rudy de Haas
Published to: opinion_articles/opinion Page: 1/3 - [Printable]

Pessimism at LinuxWorld Misplaced

In this startling essay author Rudy de Haas lays out his strategies for the future of Linux and open source technologies both at home and in the corporation. Haas exhibits an uncanny understanding of the factors that motivate companies and individuals, and this thought-provoking essay should be required reading for anybody who thinks of themselves as an open source advocate.

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The Future of Linux

Many of the comments emanating from LinuxWorld in San Francisco at the end of August seem subdued, even depressed, as if somehow the money is gone, the excitement is over, and only the hopelessly loyal are left to fight on. That's nonsense, the future of Unix, including Linux and FreeBSD among others, has never been brighter with all of the needed technological pieces now in place for a Unix takeover of most corporate computing.

That Unix is better, cheaper, faster, and more reliable than Windows does not suffice as the basis for nation-wide defenestration (the throwing out of Windows). For that to happen we need a cultural change, a massive social movement in which non technical people shift their allegiance from one set of ideas about computing to another.

The emotional basis for that change, the anger and resentment users feel about dealing with shoddy products, ever escalating costs, and companies (or systems departments) that couldn't care less about the customer, is solidly in place; but the alternative vision, the set of ideas that crystallize the issues and precipitate action, is not.

Earlier this year I wrote a book - The Unix Guide to Defenestration - on using Unix to deliver increased value from corporate computing but it wasn't until I read a quotation attributed to Jeremy Allison at the latest LinuxWorld to the effect that Linux, to succeed, must take over the client, that I finally understood what a comprehensive alternative to the Windows monopoly might look like.

I think he's right, Unix does need to take control of the corporate desktop, but I don't think we can do it with Linux because better, cheaper, faster, just isn't enough of a motivator for most of the decision makers involved.

The Linux desktop scenario, in which users are offered a choice between a low cost, high reliability system that works and a high cost, low reliability one that often doesn't has been played out before. In January of 1985 buyers were confronted with two main personal computer architectures:

  1. the MacXL, at a list price of $5,495, offered 1MB of RAM on a MC68000 16/32bit chip at 7.54Mhz with a 10MB disk, a 720K 3.5" floppy, the MacOS GUI and a full suite of graphical applications on a 480 x 640 screen; but,
  2. for only five dollars more, the IBM PC/AT offered a maximum of 256KB of ram on a 16bit chip running at 5.77Mhz with a 10MB disk, a 360K 5.25" floppy, PC-DOS, a BASIC interpreter, and a 24 x 80 green screen,

and not only did they overwhelmingly select the PC but then they massively endorsed magazines that argued that the PC was cheaper [!] faster [!] and came with more software [!]. (And they're still doing it, see the note that the end of this article)

Today's Linux PC (or Mac G4 - now also a Unix PC) is in the same position: yes, it's better, cheaper, faster; but no, corporate personal aren't buying it and for the same reason: there's no compelling personal motivator for them to respond to and business reasons just aren't enough to balance out the personal risk of being seen as stepping outside the bounds of majority opinion.

That the alternative vision must include better technology, better management, and obtaining a better return on the systems dollar is a given but these things are clearly not enough. That's because, at least in my experience, people justify their decisions to themselves and others in terms of these kinds of publicly recognized values but make them more in terms of the effect they expect each choice to have on their perceived position relative to the people they know, or know about.

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