The skinny on desktop Linux

Summary:There are all sorts of stories whirling around the Internet regarding the pros and cons of desktop Linux as well as its chances of adoption (or track record so far) that I thought I'd try to connect the dots to form a more coherent picture (well, perhaps a confusing picture).Our thread starts at Tim Bray's blog.

There are all sorts of stories whirling around the Internet regarding the pros and cons of desktop Linux as well as its chances of adoption (or track record so far) that I thought I'd try to connect the dots to form a more coherent picture (well, perhaps a confusing picture).

Our thread starts at Tim Bray's blog. Tim is Director of Web Technologies at Sun. But he's also geeky enough to get anything to work on Unix or Linux, even if he has to hack something to make it happen. To give you an idea, one of the little known hacks Tim came up with is XML.  You know. The technology that makes anything interesting on the Web these days tick? Does iTunes work on WINE or will it work with iPods if it's running in a Windows virtual machine on top of Linux? Yeah, like, he's the co-inventor of it.  Anyway, Tim's coveted Powerbook recently went down for the count when he tried to open a Word document and it took two weeks to get it repaired (sidebar: Tim's not the only big time blogger to talk about crashing Macs. Saying "Yes Virginia, Macs crash too," Dave Winer tackled the subject earlier this week).

So, what do you do when your main system goes AWOL for half a month? Well of course! You do what Tim did: you load Ubuntu Linux onto a Sparc-based Ultra 20 system. That of course, was the first thing that came to my mind when my Thinkpad T42 went down for the count. I just didn't happen to have an Ultra 20 laying around. Tim claimed this Plan B was involuntary (kind of like the subconscious response of his autonomic nervous system). 

But, in a series of posts that culminated with his return to the lap of his Powerbook's luxury, Tim has been talking about his trials and tribulations with Ubuntu (widely regarded as one of the more revolutionary and promising versions of desktop Linux) and used two words -- "wrangling" and "gyrations" --  in his last post that leap off the page as having long been (in my mind) desktop Linux's key stumbling blocks.  Those two words perfectly describe every one of my attempts to work with desktop Linux. They may not apply to everything about desktop Linux and in fact, in the experiences of most people, only to very few things. But those things are usually so important that many people who are not nearly as capable as Tim see an uphill battle of wrangling and gyrating that's not worth the effort. Tim, by the way, never got Flash to work on his setup [Somehow left in the clipboard but supposed to have been pasted here when I originally published: That said, Tim did lead off his latest My mac is back post with "On balance, the Mac experience is better. But Ubuntu is not that far behind, and it’s catching up."]

Our thread now switches to Eric Raymond, regarded by many as the father of open source due to, amongst other things, his authorship of The Cathedral and the Bazaar.  At this week's LinuxWorld, Eric has apparently issued a gloomy report card for desktop Linux's prospects unless certain compromises to bridge the gap between open source and proprietary systems are made very soon. Echoing in some respects the barrier problem when it comes to people without the know-how, time, or patience to wrangle or gyrate, The Register's report of what Eric said goes something like this:

Raymond said the community is not moving fast enough to engage with non-technical users whose first-choice platform is either an iPod, MP3 player or Microsoft desktop running Windows Media Player...With iPod holding a massive market share and Windows Vista coming down the pipe, Raymond warned that Linux risks getting locked out of new hardware platforms for the next 30 years unless it proves it can work with iPods, MP3s and WMP....Raymond, a champion of all things open, said it is vital to the future uptake of Linux that the community compromise to win the new generation of non-technical users aged younger than 30...."The end of the 64-bit transition happens at the end of 2008. After that the operating system gets locked in for the next 30 years. I'm worried we are not doing enough to appeal to non-technical users. I'm worried we will be locked out of the desktop for a very long time," he said.

Massive market share? He wasn't kidding. Today, InfoWorld has a story citing Apple's share of US digital music player market at being larger than 3/4ths the entire pie:

Apple Computer continued to lead the U.S. digital music player market in the second quarter with a 75.6 percent share, according to the NPD Group....SanDisk followed Apple in the second quarter ranking with a 9.7 percent market share, according to the NPD Group, while Creative Technology took third with 4.3 percent of the U.S. digital music player market.

 

The ramifications of that sizable marketshare (which is similar in Europe) are not widely understood. Whether people want to believe it or not, Apple has a monopoly -- one that's harmful to the marketplace because of how certain technologies like desktop Linux are prevented from playing (more on that in a second). And it can maintain that monopoly -- illegal according to US antitrust law -- simply by refusing to license its DRM technology (which it is doing). Norway, Denmark, Sweden and France, all of whom want Apple's grip broken, know what I believe to be true: at this point, market forces may be incapable of leveling the playing field and government intervention may be the only choice.

Back from that digression, I wasn't there to witness Eric's presentation so I'm not sure how deeply he delved into the underlying issues, but it must be noted there's an unbelievably complicated subtext to what he's talking about that has to do with Digital Rights Management (DRM).  The iPod/WMP angles are not to be underestimated.  Today, the primary channels for a la carte purchases of downloadable music and video (including full-length movies) are also channels (eg: Apple's iTunes Music Store) that saddle their content with proprietary DRM copy protection technologies (eg: Apple's FairPlay) that can only be unlocked with authorized software and devices. Not only doesn't that authorized software exist for Linux, the lack of that software's existence is what prevents the interoperation of Linux with devices like the iPod when it comes to the management and transfer of DRM-saddled content to those devices (question: Does iTunes work on WINE or will it work with iPods if it's running in a Windows virtual machine on top of Linux?).

Every day, as consumers purchase more and more of that DRM-saddled content (there are endless stories that talk about the growth and success of Apple's iTunes Music Store), the less and less viable desktop Linux becomes since it's fundamentally incompatible with that growing "installed-base" of content.

Further exacerbating the problem could be the direction that the next version of the GNU General Public License (version 3, now in draft mode) takes with respect to proprietary DRM technologies. So far, in drafting new language for the GPL, the Free Software Foundation (keepers of the GPL), has taken a fairly rigid position that creates an oil and water relationship between DRM and GPL-licensed open source software. Linux (technically, "GNU Linux") is currently licensed under the GPL. But, with folks like Linus Torvalds (the father of Linux) recently promising to stick with version 2 of the GPL for licensing Linux, the new draft has flushed out some deep divisions within the open source community regarding the handling of DRM.

Eric's "compromise" discussion apparently touched on 64-bit drivers as well. But the point is that the word "compromise" barely scratches the surface of what may need to happen for desktop Linux not to get severely marginalized given some of the current trends in consumer computing.

That said, not all the news regarding desktop Linux adoption, particularly among the younger generation, is bad news.  Under the auspices of its ACCESS program (Affordable Classroom Computers for Every Secondary Student), Indiana's Department of Education is rolling out desktop Linux for access by more than 22,000 students.  According to CRN's Edward Moltzen:

Mike Huffman, special assistant for technology at the Indiana Department of Education, said schools in the state have added Linux workstations for 22,000 students over the past year under the Affordable Classroom Computers for Every Secondary Student (ACCESS) program. And that could expand quickly with several new updated Linux distributions, such as Novell SUSE, Red Hat and Ubuntu....Huffman said he's eager to get a read on student acceptance of Linux. In surveying one classroom last year, he asked a student what he thought of using a Linux desktop vs. a Windows desktop, and the student responded, "Who cares?"

Answer? OK, no big deal if it's Linux in the classroom.  But take that machine home and get it working with that student's iPod, and see how quickly the attitude changes 180 degrees from such indifference. 

Also on the younger generation front -- albeit a generation of young'ns that's less concerned about fashion and iPods and more concerned about access to the world -- it looks like Thailand will be taking delivery of 530 laptops from Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project.  Thirty prototypes will be delivered in October with another 500 to follow in November.  That makes Thailand the first country to acquire the OLPC laptops which as many people already know, run Linux. Should OLPC laptops make serious inroads on the global front, Microsoft and Apple could theoretically feel some heat.  According to a ZDNet UK story published in June:

"AMD is our partner, which means Intel is pissing on me. Bill Gates is not pleased either, but if I am annoying Microsoft and Intel then I figure I am doing something right," [Negroponte] said....Microsoft allegedly offered to build the operating system for the machine but was rejected by the OLPC project. Negroponte added that the project required an extremely scaled-down OS to enable the eventual machines to run at a decent speed, while using very little power. "About 25 percent of the cost of a laptop is there just to support XP, which is like a person that has gotten so fat that they use most of their muscle to move their fat," he said.

That has to be the quote of the year so far.  Desktop Linux.  Alive or dead?  You tell me.

Topics: Open Source

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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