Originally Published: Monday, 17 April 2000 Author: Tom Dominico, Jr.
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Reversing the Feedback Loop

Upstart operating systems such as Linux and BeOS have difficulty competing against entrenched companies such as Microsoft. One large reason for this is the "feedback loop" between consumers and developers. Consumers are hesitant to migrate to the OS because of a perceived lack of mainstream applications, and some developers are hesitant to create Linux apps because they are waiting for a larger consumer user base. The result is a deadlock that has, in part, prevented Linux from widespread consumer adoption.

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Upstart operating systems such as Linux and BeOS have difficulty competing against entrenched companies such as Microsoft. One large reason for this is the "feedback loop" between consumers and developers. Consumers are hesitant to migrate to the OS because of a perceived lack of mainstream applications, and some developers are hesitant to create Linux apps because they are waiting for a larger consumer user base. The result is a deadlock that has, in part, prevented Linux from widespread consumer adoption.

The tide seems to be turning, though. Developers, sensing that Linux is not just a passing fad, are starting to jump on the bandwagon. Recently, we've seen a flurry of announcements and software releases from major mainstream software developers. Here's a small list:

  • WordPerfect 2000 (Corel)
  • Quake 3 Arena (id Software)
  • Canvas 7 (Deneba)
  • Numerous games ported to Linux by Loki, such as Myth II

These releases are important because they are the sort of applications that mainstream consumers expect to be able to run on their computers: word processors, games, graphics tools, and more. While there are open source projects that fulfill some of these needs, or that intend to do so eventually (the GIMP, AbiWord, etc.), users switching from other operating systems will appreciate being able to use the same tools they are already familiar with. This is crucial to the mainstream acceptance of Linux as a desktop operating system. Additionally, more developers will follow suit, now that others have taken the plunge.

Now, I should mention that not all of these releases are open source, or free (as in beer). While I doubt this matters to people coming to Linux from other operating systems (in fact, they may be more comfortable with commercial software), I do think it is important that we encourage these companies to contribute to the open source community. Perhaps they could be convinced to release the source to their software after a certain time period, or make some other compromise.

I don't believe that the open source business model is viable for everyone at the moment, and we have to commend these companies for taking the first steps towards supporting Linux. Perhaps in time they will see the benefits that open source has to offer.

Applications aren't enough, though. We also need to commend companies such as 3dfx for releasing open source drivers. Mainstream consumers expect not only a wealth of desktop applications, but support for popular hardware as well. Also, companies such as Inprise/Borland are supporting Linux with their development tools, making it even easier for developers to switch platforms, Hopefully, these trends will continue, going several steps further towards reversing the "feedback loop."

This is a very exciting time to be a part of the Linux community. Support for Linux from major companies is the key to attracting consumers, which should in turn attract even more developers to the platform. Now that the feedback loop has been reversed, it will continue to gain momentum in the opposite (positive) direction. I believe we are about to witness the "snowball effect," and I'm looking forward to watching this particular snowball pick up speed and grow.

(Thanks to Rob Bos for the term "feedback loop.")

Tom Dominico (tomd@linux.com) is a programmer, database administrator, and Linux convert. Cursed with insomnia, he spends his sleepless nights chatting on IRC, tweaking his Linux box, and reading everything he can get his hands on.





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