A recipe for the failure of Linux

A recipe for the failure of Linux

Summary: Paul Murphy thinks Linux needs to become less like Windows. I think that's a mistake as big as ignoring the innovations of Japanese automobile companies.


Paul Murphy wrote a post today explaining what Linux needs to do to beat Microsoft. After some unsubstantiated claims about the skiing ability of Microsoft employees (I prefer snowboards, by the way), Paul closed with this:

Want to fix it? stop trying to make Linux look like Windows, don't put those people in charge, and don't let anyone pretend that Linux is some kind of cheaper Windows replacement. Linux is what it is: Unix, and it takes different reflexes, different ideas about networks, about the role of the computer, about data storage, and about application management to make it work.

I have my opinions about what Linux needs to do to beat Windows. A corollary to that is a point I've made in other posts, which is that Linux would attract more Windows customers by figuring out what those customers like about Windows, and riding that wave into Windows' users homes.

Paul Murphy's proposal, however, essentially says that it doesn't matter what Microsoft does right, we're Unix, dammit, and we gotta be what we gotta be. Why that's a bad idea is best understood by comparing it to other markets.

America's auto industry was, and still is, getting beaten up by Japanese automobile firms. There are two ways to deal with that problem:

A) Argue that Americans cars are what they are, and buyers need to have different ideas about driving and quality if they want to use them.

B) The Japanese are on to something, and it would be useful for us to figure out what that something is so as to copy it in our own automobiles.

I think B) is the best option. Customers are buying Japanese cars for a reason. We could argue that customers are buying Japanese cars for the WRONG reasons, but that isn't very helpful, as it doesn't change the fact that customers want those things.

It needs to be considered that the reason Microsoft is doing so well in servers and desktops is that customers DON'T LIKE the Unix way of doing things. If that's the case, then emphasizing the essential Unixness of Linux isn't a recipe for success. Maybe Apple's approach is better, taking the good things of Unix and wrapping it in a pleasant-tasting candy coating.  On the other hand, maybe that's not enough, as Apple hasn't exactly torn the Wintel tapestry from the walls of business.

As I've argued before, the problem with the open source world is they insist that everyone do the equivalent of ditching English in favor of Chinese. Well, instead of trying to pound square Windows pegs into round Unix holes, why not make it easier for those pegs to fit in the first place?  That means avoiding the "Linux is what it is" frame of mind, and orienting yourself around what CUSTOMERS want.

If those customers want Windows, ask yourselves:  Why is that?  Answering that question may require an honest assessment of the relative merits of Windows vs. Linux, but hey, no pain, no gain, right?

Topic: Operating Systems

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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  • Linux looks at creating endless debate!

    Linux lacks substance other than creating endless debate which is good for this blog!
    • Linux lacks substance

      I'm curious what processors are in the machine you posted from. Would you care to guess why that's relevant?
      Yagotta B. Kidding
    • And the scared say 'Nothing to see here folks'

      Only those with something to lose say Linux is not a threat. Microsoft being a prime example. First you deny, then you spread FUD. The eventual outcome is acceptance.

      Linux is a software. Open source is a movement. You can destroy a software but not a movement. At any given time, there are 10 times the number of programmers working on Linux than there are on Windows.

      And don't give me this 'hobbyist' crap; Tim Berners Lee had a hobby project too called the 'world wide web'. I think that speaks for itself.
      • Microsoft is not being a prime example...

        > You can destroy a software but not a movement.

        Of course you can destroy a movement. Have you ever heard of communism? It's a movement. It's kinda destroyed. I'm not saying by any means that OSS equals communism (it would be stupid to suggest so).

        > At any given time, there are 10 times the
        > number of programmers working on Linux than
        > there are on Windows.

        ... and yet we hardly see an effect on the desktop.

        That certainly explains the 350+ Linux text editors I read about 2 ot 3 years ago in DDJ :-) I use only 3, so I cannot tell from my own experience what the advantage of the other 347 is, or if it will ever make any difference for me.

        > Only those with something to lose say Linux is
        > not a threat. Microsoft being a prime example.
        > First you deny, then you spread FUD. The
        > eventual outcome is acceptance.

        Well, Microsoft stated over a year ago that Linux is a threat. Your prime example is over 1 year old, so are your other arguments from this or other posts. How about plugging that Fedora box to the network once a year, and reading some news?

        > And don't give me this 'hobbyist' crap

        Are you answering a question that hasn't been asked on this thread?
        • Communism is Destroyed???

          >Of course you can destroy a movement. Have you ever heard of communism? It's a movement. It's kinda destroyed.

          Oh so communism is DEAD? Don't you think someone should tell the Chinese, Cuba and several others countries. Hell China alone who is one of the worlds strongest powers would most definitely like to know that communism is dead, don't you think?

          But thanks for proving my point even further. Like I said, you can't kill a movement.

          >... and yet we hardly see an effect on the desktop.

          We? Do you have split personallities now? Looks like IBM, Motorola, Sony, Siemens, Walmart and several others have noticed the effect on the desktop. Looks like growth rate in the product sales have noticed it. Looks like adoption of it in the workplace is a sign of it being noticed.

          Looks like you are the only one who hasn't noticed. But that's not surprising because you fail to notice that communism isn;t dead either.
          • Better to say Communism is dying, on life support.

            [b]Oh so communism is DEAD? Don't you think someone should tell the Chinese, Cuba and several others countries. Hell China alone who is one of the worlds strongest powers would most definitely like to know that communism is dead, don't you think?[/b]

            Look at your examples of Communism today:

            Cuba: A disaster by any stretch of the imagination. People there can't even get basic tools to make what little food they've got available so Uncle Fidel is giving all families in Cuba a rice cooker. Why? Because people have been Mickey Mousing (yes, that's a technical term) together their own home made rice cookers. And that's leading to an underground market for the darn things. In effect - he's not in control.

            China - The Chinese are slowly moving away from their hard core Communist manifestos and slowly are adopting a more western economy.. There's a lot of work to be done, but given the dissatisfaction of the Chinese people, its only a matter of time before it implodes, much like the USSR did.

            So who else is left? There's Vietnam. They're softening up. When China falls, Vietnam will follow suit.

            North Korea. Great example of Communism's virtues. Run by an insane nerd, the people are being starved to death. This one is gonna either collapse when there's no one left to do anything in the country (they've all starved to death) or someone goes in with a few megatons of whoopass and takes the powers that be out.

            And then there's Laos.. Like it's neighbor, Vietnam, it will, collapse once China's seen the light.

            And that's the entire list of countries that are running under Communism today. Out of 191 countries, principalities and what not, only FIVE are actively run where communism is the only game in town.

            And everywhere it IS the only game in town, the leaders that be are dictators who run their people into the ground.

            Arthur C. Clarke said it best in his novel 3001. Communism IS the most efficent form of government. However, it is only suited to social insects.

            Given that Linux and the Linux "movement" is anything BUT a dictatorship, it would not be fair to compare it directly to Communism. They are as different as night and day.

            On the other hand, it would be more accurate to say that the comparison was more toward Communism as a movement to Linux as a movement.

            In that case, the analogy is fair. Movements can be stopped and destroyed. They can also be splintered and cease being what the orignal movement was all about - witness the Catholic church over the past 2000 years. After the Romans adopted it, the Roman empire was split in two. The eastern Roman empire begat the Greek Orthodox church. The western part begat modern Catholicism. And in the last few hundred years, we've seen the Catholic faith splintered through the Protestant Reformation into the Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and a plethora of other branches of the faith out there.

            THIS is a real danger for Linux. People get dissatisfied with the way things are developing for "straight" Linux and then they begin to splinter off (and in a way, we've already seen a LOT of this with the plethora of distributions available).

            Of course, this isn't anything new. CP/M did much the same sort of thing 25 odd years ago. The original personal computing market had at least a dozen flavors of CP/M that, while mostly the same OS, were made incompatible by having different standards for hardware. One manufacturer's floppy drives were not compatible with anothers. You couldn't take a diskette from a Kaypro and read it on an Osborne I without going through a bunch of hoops. I doubt that there will be quite the same schism with Linux, but it can be pretty close - apps not running because they're not compatible with the OS.
      • Well, then...

        ...given that "At any given time, there are 10 times the number of programmers working on Linux than there are on Windows" but that there are at least 10 times as many Windows users as there are Linux users, wouldn't that then imply that Microsoft programmers must be at least 100 times more effective in the software they write than Linux programmers? Actually, I wonder about your numbers. Can you provide a source?
      • "10 times the no. of programmers"

        So what if Linux has 10 times the number of programmers. Does that make a difference? What if majority of those programmers do not know how to make efficient codes or do not know how to do documentation (this is just a hypothetical question).

        And have you heard about Microsoft Research. Have you heard about next generation technologies related to Computer Vision, Pattern Recogntion, etc. Sooner or later, we will get to this stage of technology and Microsoft is doing big time research on this field right now.

        and what the Linux movement will do when that time comes is still debate on open source and OS brouhaha.
  • Why is that?

    It's pretty simple: customers want x86 boxen, mostly because they're cheap and heavily marketed.

    Business customers want x86 boxen from major manufacturers, mostly because they're [i]really[/i] cheap compared to RISC boxen.

    Major manufacturers (the ones with advertising budgets) load MS Windows on x86 boxen. In fact, even if you don't want MSWindows you get it. Even if you buy an Itanic machine that's only suited to stomping high-end applications where there [i]isn't[/i] any MS-based software [1] you still get "HP/IBM/Dell recommend Microsoft Windows" when you try to order the box.

    Gee, I wonder why customers buy boxen with MS Windows?

    Tell you what, John -- someday try putting groups of people who've never used a desktop computer in front of a mixed group of unlabeled MS and SuSE boxen. Compare results. [b]Then[/b] we can talk about consumer preferences.

    [1] Because you're buying it for an engineering workstation, a market where the vendors tried switching to MSWindows in the 90s and dropped it because it didn't work for them. Linux does, BTW.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Gee, I wonder why customers buy boxen with MS Windows?

      I Think your missing something YBK. You state
      "someday try putting groups of people who've never used a desktop computer in front of a mixed group of unlabeled MS and SuSE boxen. Compare results. Then we can talk about consumer preferences" You should probably add now have them go and buy a new USB wireless keyboard and mouse, Digital camera, photo printer, and an external cable TV card and plug them in and see witch ones work right out of the box. I did and suse 9.3 did not reconize any of them. I reformated my hard drive and reinstalled WinXP which did reconize them all right out of the box! Thats what consumer want!!!!

      P.S. I still plan on using suse 9.3 as soon as i can find a free partion and boot manager that does not screw up my windows boot like the one that came with suse 9.3 did. If it's not free it's not worth it to use a less user friendly OS.
      • detect everything... except security loopholes

        And that exact same technology that allows them to plug in anything and instantly hook it up is one of the main security loopholes with windows.

        Think of a computer like a house. Do you want anyone with a car to be able to drive into your garage? Do you want any package left in your mailbox to be immediately brought into your house? Do you want any neighborhood dog to instantly be able to get through your dog door?

        Well they all can and often do if you are running Windows. It is INSECURE BY DEFAULT! Allowing all applications to run as root, allowing single users to be root by default and integrating TCP/IP technologies into the kernel of the OS all create a wonderful user experience... they also create a wonderful hacking experience.

        To have that level of QUICK and EASY integration, you have to fudge on security.

        But to counter your point, I run Fedora Core 4. It autodetects my iPod, my USB key, my scanner and more. I just have to give them access and give permissions to interact with my system. They don't do what they want; they do what I WANT!
        • Think of a computer like a house.

          I guess if I wanted to have to unlock my door every time i wanted to get in my house when I was outside working in the yard that would make sense. But I'd just as soon not. What I Want is for things to work out of the box when I plug them in. PERIOD!!!!!!!!!! And every body I Know wants the same!!!!!!!!!!!!!
          • Where are you?

            If we are talkign about Linux as a house, yes it can stay open as long as you like. You can run everything as root if you want. You don't have to make it secure if you don't want to. You can run it just like your windows machine.

            So I don't see how you say it isn't as good as windows. It gives you the choice of being secure and the choice of being stupid... and you get to decide. It just assumes that you are stupid by default and secures everything for you.
        • Are you seriously suggesting

          that the LACK of hardware support is a SECURITY FEATURE? With attitudes like that, no wonder Linux is having a tough time catching on...
          Real World
          • Are you seriously suggesting that the LACK of hardware support is a SECURIT

            Amen, some people just dont get it!! Linux is a wonderful os for the techie types how like to fiddle, but joe consumer wants more, alot more. And linux will not have any great market share until joe cosumer get what he wants!!
          • You Infer

            Nope. I don't imply... you infer.

            And there is no lack of hardware support. Pretty much everything you can load in Windows loads in Linux. It doesn't doesn't have the right to connect and do whatever the hell it wants like ever Windows program in existence.

            In Linux, when something connects, it has only the rights I have approved for it. In fact, it autodetects my iPod and USB key perfectly fine... it just doesn't let them access anything until I decide to allow it.

            You can set it up by default if it is a trusted devic. In fact you can set up Linux to trust everything and run everything under ROOT like Windows. Of course, then you'll have about the same security as a windows machine too.
          • LIAR LIAR!

            Quit spreading FUD. There are enough virtues about Linux that you don't need to make stuff up. FACT: hardware support is considerably better in Windows. As I've said many, MANY times before, you can attribute this to whatever you like, but it is true. More devices 'just work' under Windows than Linux. I'd go so far as to say that for any given hardware device you can buy (whether new or legacy), there is a higher chance that it will work with Windows that ANY Linux distro.

            I love Linux, and encourage it's use whenever I can. I will not, however, lie to get people to switch. Hardware support, IMO, is the single largest factor keeping desktop Linux from going mainstream.
            Real World
          • FUD?

            Talking about the abilities of Linux is spreading fear uncertainty and doubt? I'm sorry but you have a wierd definition of what FUD is and should return to the Microsoft School of FUDery.

            Fact: Hardware support USED TO BE better in Windows. You can think that modern kernels are the same as older ones but that doesn't make it true. I installed a Fedora desktop in a company of 500 employees with a Windows network setup. It instantly detected the network, the printers and my connection. I was then able to hook up to every device on the network without a problem... literally.

            Sounds to me like the person who cried FUD is spreading it themselves. Tell the truth... you work for Microsoft don't you? :)
          • Yes, FUD

            That's your experience, good for you. I've had the exact oppostie experience using Dead Rat, Mandrake, SuSe, and Gentoo. Trust me, slick, you would have to pry my Gentoo boxen from my cold, dead hands, but I believe in calling a spade a spade. Hardware support is lacking.

            Remember when I said you can attribute this to whatever you want? I attribute it to lack of support from mainstream hardware vendors (are you listening, Lexmark?). The Linux support just isn't there. For example (and this isn't even hardware), Google applications are few and far between for Linux (desktop search, Google Earth, etc.) Before I tell my non-technically-inclined mother to use Linux, I need to know that her hardware will work with it as well as it works with Windows. Right now, it just plain doesn't.

            To give you the benefit of the doubt, maybe there is a greater chance that 'business hardware' will work than 'home hardware', and that's great. You have to start somewhere. But there needs to be a concerted effort to support consumer devices (like GPS units and digital cameras, et. al.) before Linux becomes a viable alternative to Windows.
            Real World
          • Facts

            Windows has for the most part great hardware support. About time too. Back in the day windows had hardware issues and resource conflicts. Glad that's over with, I hated those days!

            Linux supports alot of hardware and more than some may care to venture. Second, in most cases you can get the hardware to work with a little bit of searching (google). You can also get help from a list or forum. But that may be too much for some and no it shouldn't be that difficult.

            It's also a good idea to check the system requirements of a distro before installing. Last, remember that there is a lot of one time onboard junk chips. Good hardware is well supported. I can plug in my crapy samsung digimax 130 and it gets mounted under /media stright away.