Originally Published: Monday, 20 March 2000 Author: Stanislav Kelman
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

A Sober Look at Linux

The initial push that reinforced this ambitious effort came from Linux's ability to carve itself a niche among those most dissatisfied with the predominance of MS-DOS and Windows, myself included. Not even in our wildest dreams could we imagine that our new play toy would eventually become "the next big thing."

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The good ...

Let's start with a brief history review. Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, somebody had a bright idea to create Linux, a "UN*X for the masses." As the story goes, the development process was initiated by a worldwide team of dedicated hobbyists who embarked on a noble quest to craft the best operating system ever. Considering the humble beginnings, it is amazing that this once purely recreational project is still going strong after all these years.

The initial push that reinforced this ambitious effort came from Linux's ability to carve itself a niche among those most dissatisfied with the predominance of MS-DOS and Windows, myself included. Not even in our wildest dreams could we imagine that our new play toy would eventually become "the next big thing." At the time, all we really wanted was to have some fun with software that was very much like the stuff that only the chosen few network administrators were allowed to touch.

Then suddenly, a mere decade after Linux was conceived, all hell broke loose. Nowadays, even in the darkest corners of the Net, one can't help but hear about the modern-day miracles of Open Source. The word is out there that Linux has evolved into one of the most crash-resistant platforms ever. Some of the most vigorous defenders of the Open Source notion go as far as to declare that their beloved system is so good that it can run a Web server for a large e-commerce venture off a single 386-based computer. While these and other exaggerated claims might not be entirely true, the fact is that this allegedly ground-breaking software is still readily available at no cost whatsoever.

The bad...

Inspired by Richard Stallman's altruism, a handful of daydreamers continue to concentrate on writing free code in a vain attempt to make the world a better place. However, for many of their colleagues, Linux is all about gaining market share, setting IPO records, executing corporate takeovers, and boosting egos. Out of the blue, it also turned out that the operating system, which was brought into the spotlight by a relatively small group of part-time hobbyists, needs hundreds of millions of dollars to continue to evolve.

In a few short years, Linux has grown from a mere curiosity into a multi-billion business that is now poised to take over the entire industry. The early nineties idealism has largely cleared the way for a corporate greed fest for the new millennium. Almost overnight, the cute little penguin has started to resemble a hungry wild predator, while also gaining the notorious status of a heavily guarded "holy cow." Anybody brave enough to say something remotely critical about Linux is risking being "flamed" to death.

Not only that, but the one attribute of the original Open Source movement that remains intact is its bitterly anti-Microsoft nature. The main difference is that it is no longer fueled by a desperate crusade of some disgruntled teenagers against the "Evil Empire." Instead, all the corporations that were once bruised by Bill Gates' furious marketing machine, are starting to see Linux as their newfound weapon. Companies like Sun, Corel, Inprise (Borland), and Caldera (Digital Research), have been selling proprietary software since the beginning of time, are unexpectedly coming out of the closet with a pledge to "reinvent" themselves as energetic Open Source supporters.

...and some more food for thought

The situation wouldn't be so alarming if not for three additional factors that must be taken into consideration. First of all, I have yet to see a solid proof that any business model based on trying to make money on something that is 100% free is sustainable in the long run. According to IDC, Linux already controls 25% of all server OS shipments yet accounts for far less than 1% of total revenue in the market. Over time, more people will get broadband access and discover that Linux can be downloaded for free. That will make it increasingly more difficult to sell any boxed CD sets at all. Furthermore, if the Linux community can deliver on the ease-of-use promise, the market for related support and maintenance will continue to shrink as well.

Second, it is still premature to claim that publicly developed products will always have some inherent advantages over their commercial counterparts. In fact, so far Linux is one of only a small number of Open Source projects that have proven to be victorious, if only in the server arena. One notable fiasco that comes to mind is Mozilla.org, a volunteer-driven organization that has yet to come up with a single meaningful upgrade to the once-dominant browser.

Third, we must not lose sight of the fact that beyond the far fetched philosophical implications of the Open Source arguments lies recycled UN*X technology, which is literally decades old. In reality, from an ordinary end user's perspective, there is hardly anything unique (or "innovative," if you allow me to use this tired word) about Linux's look-and-feel. For some unknown reason, all of the popular Linux GUIs are disturbingly similar in appearance to, of all things, Microsoft Windows. And, while Linux's interface is almost infinitely customizable, it lacks consistency that many of us have grown to appreciate. Moreover, as a matter of opinion, few of the usability improvements are revolutionary.

Isn't it ironic?

This whole story is jam-packed with paradoxes. A product that was developed in an attempt to fight market monopolization, is quickly elbowing its way to becoming the next monopoly (Assuming that term can be applied to open source software). The Open Source movement, which was originally positioned as a non-profit alternative to the opulent establishment, is soaking in money. And, the same people who, not so long ago, aspired to make Linux strive on its technological merits alone, are now often resorting to the same dreaded marketing tricks that turned them away from earlier commercial operating systems in the first place.

As they say, what goes around, comes around.

Stanislav Kelman is an active osOpinion.com contributor who is neither paid by nor affiliated with any of the evil Linux-hating forces. He is a big fan of BeOS, a Mac addict, an occasional Linux-Mandrake user, an OS/2 admirer, and a Windows detester. Although his primary computer is a Mac, he has recently put together what he considers to be The Perfect BeOS and Linux-capable dual-Celeron PC. Angry responses and death threats inspired by this article should be directed to Flames@LetItBe.org, while all your thoughtful commentary is welcome at osOpinion@LetItBe.org.

This article first appeared on osOpinion and is provided under the OpenContent Public License.

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