Originally Published: Thursday, 23 December 1999 Author: Dale Franks
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Hyping Linux

This article originated in osOpinion and is provided under the OpenContent License.

It seems like everyone in the computer industry is championing Linux to sound the death knell to the Microsoft Windows monopoly. Yet, despite the hype, a large percentage of the user community doesn't even know what Linux is. Ask ten average computer users about Linux, and eight of them will tell you that it is a character in "Peanuts."...

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This article originated in osOpinion and is provided under the OpenContent License.

It seems like everyone in the computer industry is championing Linux to sound the death knell to the Microsoft Windows monopoly. Yet, despite the hype, a large percentage of the user community doesn't even know what Linux is. Ask ten average computer users about Linux, and eight of them will tell you that it is a character in "Peanuts."

It doesn't really matter whether Linux is a good Operating System. This is about user acceptance, not quality. If quality were the standard, we'd be corresponding on G4 PowerMacs using Quickmail. But we aren't, because the marketplace often puts a premium on things other than quality.

The average user doesn't care about SQL Server, Oracle or DB2. The average user wants to install Tomb Raider III quickly, and get right to the serious business of ogling Lara Croft's breasts. The average user wants all of his plug and play devices to work automatically. He wants to do his little Excel spreadsheets, and his little Word documents. The average user doesn't want to get past the point of frustration with Linux, and won't use anything that forces him to. The average user doesn't care that configuration files are in /etc, because the average users (a) don't know what configuration files are, and (b) don't care to know how to find "/etc". Not only that, they don't care to learn about it, any more than they care to learn what "cd", "pwd", mkdir", "touch" or "ls -l" means.

60% of the web servers on the Internet use Linux. Why? Because Webmasters are geeks. Linux has cool database stuff. Well, DBAs are geeks, too. In fact, anyone who gets really excited about any OS is, by definition, a geek. Being a geek isn't a bad thing. As a full-time software developer, I am a full-blown geek myself.

But I don't care that Linux is faster. I don't care that WordPerfect Office or StarOffice runs on it. I don't care that it's more secure. I don't care that it uses software with the same functionality that is available with Windows. The reason that WordPerfect Office is being ported to Linux is that the user community has decided that they are loser applications, and the makers can't even give them away to business users in the Windows world. So the fact that applications that no one wants to use are being ported to Linux is simply a silly selling point. If people wanted to use those applications, they'd be using them now.

Companies have spent billions of dollars training their people to use Windows. Even if they could get all the software for free, switching to Linux would entail extra billions of dollars in end-user training alone. Not to mention compatibility concerns with Microsoft Office between them and their clients and vendors. I doubt that most CFOs are going to approve such a switch for that reason alone.

All major software developers port to Windows. All major hardware manufacturers port to Windows. All the games are on Windows. People are already entrenched in their Windows habits, and they are going to resist changing all their habits and software just because the geek community says, "Linux is better". The average user just doesn't care. He is already comfortable with what he has.

I am not knocking people who use Linux. What I am knocking is the superior attitude that Linux will triumph over Windows simply because "it's better." It's the same naively foolish idea that Steve Jobs had about Macintosh. Even though the Macintosh was clearly superior to DOS-based PC's in every conceivable technical way, it was never anything more than an "also-ran".

History shows little support for the idea that the user community will be attracted solely by Linux's greater quality. Novell NetWare was better than Windows NT (at least in certain areas). Macintosh was better than Windows. Amiga was better than Windows. In my opinion, GEOS was better than Windows. Yet, in every case, Windows won.

Why? Because the market places value on many things other than simple technical superiority. What if Mercedes came out with a $15,000 car next week? It would be just like a regular Mercedes, except that it wouldn't have an air conditioner, heater, automatic transmission, or a radio. And you couldn't install any of that stuff after you buy it, because it wouldn't be available yet. Would many people buy it? I mean, after all, it IS a Mercedes. It would be an exceptionally well-built car. It would be faster than most other cars on the road. It would have a very low sticker price and, being very reliable, would also have a very low cost of ownership.

Still, I doubt that sales would be very brisk, outside a small band of Mercedes enthusiasts. I suspect that most people would choose to pay more for the Chevy, or Ford. Not because they are better cars, but because they aren't. But because they offer the features that people are comfortable with. It doesn't mean the Mercedes is a bad car, it just means that it doesn't give people what they want.

Linux will never eclipse Windows in the general user population until users are assured that they can get the same hardware, software, technical support, ease of use that Windows offers. Until then, Linux boxes will always be geek machines that the majority of the user community never even sees. Not because Windows is better, but because that's how the world works.

Dale Franks is a full-time software developer. He lives in Southern California where, in addition to software development, he often writes on political, technology, economic, and policy issues.





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