The skinny on desktop Linux

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.

TOPICS: Open Source

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.

Topic: Open Source

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  • It is all about compatibility and interoperability. MS understands this all

    too well. That is why they are rushing to create freebies (bundled with Windows) to get people to use MS proprietary apis and protocols in place of standards. This may work for them.

    But, Apple should be making the Ipod work with Linux as a way to reduce Microsoft's power against Apple. Unless they think that Linux is a bigger threat to them than Windows?????

    In general, Linux without DRM to play all content types is dead on arrival, but, the experience is getting much better. If you install Ubuntu, then use EasyUbuntu to download all of the codecs and stuff that are not part of the base distribution, life is good . . . .
    • Ummm, bad idea...

      "But, Apple should be making the Ipod work with Linux as a way to reduce Microsoft's power against Apple."

      Ummm, you do understand that Microsoft supplies Apple with MS Office for the Mac and it out sells ALL OTHER Apple software combined, right?

      In other words, Apple NEEDS Microsoft.
      • Hmmm

        So you are suggesting that MS is using it's monopoly on MS Office to illegally to keep Apple form releasing iTunes to Linux users.

        Sure you are.
        Edward Meyers
        • A fool might make that assumption.

          A businessman understands you don't screw your partner when you need them.
          • I suppose that a business man would understand that MS will break antitrust

            laws to punish people that help reduce the compatibility / interoperability problems with Linux. These busisment understand very well that MS does NOT want to compete on the merits against Linux. They MUST use dirty tricks.

            And, MS needs Apple more than Apple needs MS in the fight agains OpenDocument. Apple would throw their weight behind OpenDocument if MS did anything with Office on Mac. Heck, Jobs might do that anyway.
          • Problem

            There are numerous articles, lawsuits and so forth against Microsoft for partnering, then stealing what it was they were partnered on and breaking their agreement or partnership in a move to shaft the other party. This is not bashing, this is fact. <b>
            Any company doing business always checks with the patent office on pending and existing patents on design, Microsoft doesn?t seem to know or care to check first whether or not a patent exists before going ahead with productions, implementations, and roll-outs. Since Linux OS is by default, bound by the GPL, Microsoft is free to analyze it and utilize portions of it without fear of a lawsuit. However, since Vista is based on the old kernel from past versions of Windows, it will once again be condemned by the same standard Versions of Windows has already faced. <p>
            With the advent pats on DRM, unless Linux partners with DRM in coming out with either something compatible, or better a program specific to DRM standards for Linux would go a long way in making Linux more of a choice and challenge to the other big players. I believe Microsoft will once again, thwart patents and welcome yet another lawsuit in pursuit of dethroning Apple?s grip on the ipod market with their own version of the ipod: . <p>
            I?m sure some of the zealots for Microsoft would refute this, but I don?t just speak out of the side of my face, I try to backup what I say with facts. Microsoft is a bully in the largest sense, and has no intention of stopping. Whatever gets in its way, whether it?s a country?s rules, or a programmer or programs, if it feels it could benefit, it will steal that technology for itself and just pay the fine and be done with it. The amount of money they make on one product, whether stolen or contrived through unethical means, outweighs the lawsuit fine by many folds, so in essence, its good business for Microsoft. Its easier and cheaper to steal the technology then it is to partner and share the wealth.

          • You don't grasp competitive vs anti-trust.

            That much is obvious.
          • A crimminal

            May consider breaking the law to be legal ordinary business.

            FYI not selling in a market because another vendor will not sell to you violates the Clayton Act if they can prove it.

            Ethically it's still wrong, though.
            Edward Meyers
          • One-way street

            [i]A businessman understands you don't screw your partner when you need them.[/i]

            I notice that when it's a Redmond knife in another company's back your story is, "Hey, it's business and business is cut-throat. If you can't take it, stay out."

            When it's another company looking out for its own interests instead of subordinating them to Microsoft's, the story changes to "You don't screw your partner."
            Yagotta B. Kidding
          • You didn't read it very well.

            A businessman understands you don't screw your partner when you need them.

            WHEN YOU NEED THEM.
          • A fool?

            Uhm. Apple is more than willing to screw MS, gleefully and in large print.

            'Redmond, start your photocopiers'

            Want more? Watch the recent WWDC keynote video.

            (Sorry, I posted another copy of this to the wrong place, mistakenly.)
          • One Moment While I Catch Up

            Maybe I clicked too fast. We are talking about Apple not screwing its partner "Meet the iPod killer Zune our next attempt to slow you down Steve" Microsoft. Okay, just checking.
        • A monopoly...

          ...on Office? I think not. Microsoft created the intellectual property known as Microsoft Office. They do not hold a "monopoly" on it.
          • Are you daft

            Novell is suing them right now, and they paid IBM and Corel off not to sue, for leveraging MS Office.

            Also FYI a copyright and patent is a time limited monopoly in you're so called "IP". A copyright in fact is a government granted monopoly on a work.
            Edward Meyers
          • copyright is a monopoly?

            What are you smoking? The copyright only protects that individual work of art (be it software, books, paintings, etc.) it doesnt' have anything to do with market share.

          • Indded it is a monopoly

            Copyright is a limited government granted and enforced monopoly to engage in six exclusive rights on any one expression. As these rights are exclusive (With some limitations) the copyright holder controls 100% of the market for said acts in the work, hence minus the limitations (Like compulsory licenses on Music) a pure monopoly. One of those rights is the ability to create derivatives and as such the protects more than just the exact expression EG; Fanficts technically are illegal unless they fall under fair use.

            The fact that you don't know this/refuse to admit such shows... well that you don't have a clue about what you are talking about or are just trolling.

            Finally the Clayton act doesn't have much to do with Market Share, except for a company gaining it through prohibited means, and falls under anti-trust. The Sherman act has to do with illegally maintaining your market share by leveraging it, most common through tying. Microsoft is accused of violating both antitrust acts in the Novell v. MS case.

            If it is true that MS is pressuring Apple to not produces iTunes for Linux and is threating to discontinue MS Office for Mac as leverage then it violates anti-trust laws.

            I don't think this is the case though. I personally don't think that Apple needs any pressure from Microsoft to not produce iTunes for Linux and if MS Windows didn't have as large of a share of the market as it does I honestly don't think there would be an iTunes application for Windows either.
            Edward Meyers
          • Read the Constitution

            The wording in the Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, sub paragraph 8, is: ?To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive rights to their respective writings and discoveries;?

            This is most definitely a monopoly. It was also clearly intended to be time limited to give the author or inventor an initial period of exclusivity in development and marketing to recover costs and make a profit on the investment. It was also limited to grants to the inventor and the author and was never intended to become a stand alone entity that could be owned or sold to anyone else, nor was it intended to be a permanent exclusivity that survived the author or inventor or could be used to prevent others from developing the idea beyond the ?limited time?.

            The congress of the U. S. has bastardized the idea of ?limited time? with their extensions that now make ?lifetime plus 70 years? a limited time. Unfortunately, the courts have interpreted ?limited time? to mean ?finite time? even though this clearly requires transfer of the monopoly granted to the author or inventor to another entity.

            Perhaps we need to require a Ph D in American English History for qualification as a Judge.
            Update victim
          • A monopoly is defined by market share, it can be gained legally, as with MS

            So, even if Microsoft created it, if they have enough market share, it is a monopoly. Of special note is that a court has not officially declared MS has a monopoly in office suites yet, but there is no requirement for courts to declare monopolies for them to exist. As Microsoft found out, the court can retro-actively find that you had a monopoly, and thus that otherwise legal activity was illegal.
          • DonnieBoy, get a freakin clue

            You are truly talking out of your backside. Before you condemn yourself any more, why not spend some time reading this suit, and then comment: <p> <p>

            Microsoft not only created a monopoly through leverage, through unethical means but it?s all documented in court papers in countless suites all over the world, not just with the patent office or the United States. <p>

            On April 27, 2001, Microsoft tried to undermine DRM ( in this lawsuit alleging that Microsoft infringed on InterTrusts US Patent 6185683. This is not the first and seems to be ?like? business for Microsoft. This is nothing new and definitely nothing old. They will continue to do business because the fines don?t inconvenience them. Matter of fact, it?s of little or no consequence to their bottom line. <p>

            It?s just another day of business:,1895,1988066,00.asp
          • But they do hold.....

            In the lawsuit Microsoft did willingly thwart competition by making Word Perfect incompatible to WORD through its programming. Again, this is FACT. Microsoft will have you believe that an innocent mistake occurred when it fact, that mistake happened numerous times and with different companies and vendors. I can list a whole list, but I?m not going to waste time with links no one wants to click on. It?s easier to condemn the messenger then it is to read FACT. <p>