I just finished reading Chris Dawson's article "Will your students be using Linux in 2007?" and, as usual, I agree with him 100% -- until he says
"Businesses who have successfully made the switch to Linux often have a culture that caters to said enthusiasts and/or have dumped enough effort into training to get users up to speed."
His statement goes to the core of the problem with this debate -- and the misunderstanding that surrounds the debate. Linux was invented to offer an alternative to UNIX -- not Windows. It does everything UNIX does -- INCLUDING running browsers and personal productivity suites.
Until Windows came along, there was no perceived need to run personal productivity applications on UNIX. Similarly, there was no perceived need to run a web browser on Windows until Universities started sharing information on the World-Wide-Web. Linux jumped on the open-source personal productivity bandwagon to keep abreast of UNIX, not Windows. And Linux has done an excellent job in that regard!
UNIX was born at AT&T but matured into a useful operating system at universities around the world. That same educational setting became the birthplace of the open-source movement and Linux was spawned.
To be fair, in his article Chris Dawson is talking about Desktop Linux -- not Linux in general. However, as soon as he brings up business, Chris muddies the waters somewhat. To me, business is not the "Mom & Pop" grocery down the street. (They are still using Windows -- and to a lesser extent, the Macintosh.) No, business means enterprise -- where IT provides a great deal more than just personal productivity.
I work in an enterprise too. A university is an enterprise just as surely Toyota is an enterprise and the enterprise has a wide range of needs. In order to meet that wide range of needs, the enterprise IT department cannot look at the Linux vs Windows debate as the jihad it has become. It needs to look at the scope of its needs and determine rationally which tool best meets the specific needs of the application -- and at what cost over a predetermined life-cycle. That's why I take exception to Chris's choice of words. The enterprise does not SWITCH to Linux, they INCORPORATE Linux into their environment.
Of course, Chris is correct that until Linux vendors make Linux on the desktop as easily accessible to the consumer as Windows (meaning full OEM support from mainstream vendors, including preloaded systems at competitive prices), adoption will remain limited to 'geeks like us' and to the enterprise -- which remains driven by need, in the context of ROI.
In the end, the university, like any other enterprise, employs Linux and Windows side-by-side with UNIX -- in the machine room. Academic requirements drive the deployment of desktop systems. Not just personal productivity.
Sure Windows, Linux, Macintosh, and even UNIX, are virtually interchangeable in terms of functionality in meeting 90% of the personal productivity needs of students and faculty. But those other 10% are academic needs. Those needs cannot be met by just any choice of workstation.
In the broader academic environment of a university, many textbooks are accompanied by Windows-specific software. Many discipline-specific applications utilize software only ported to Windows or Macintosh. Most of these applications do not have Linux ports available -- even though they may have their roots in UNIX (and thus COULD BE ported to Linux). In the end, Desktop Linux is not widely used in an academic setting because Linux vendors are not making their products useful to a broad academic audience. In such a setting, personal productivity is not enough! And that goes back to Chris's point.
The dilemma Education IT faces in Chris Dawson's setting (secondary education), even more so than in primary education, is that information technology is under-utilized. Academic opportunities are lost because educators are poorly trained in the use of the technology. Under-utilization of hardware further perpetuates the perception that additional funding is not needed. Obsolete equipment is worse than useless because it feeds a false perception that up-to-date tools are not needed because no one is using what's already there.
When Education IT leaders stop thinking like consumers ("Should we buy this OR that?") and start thinking like CIOs ("We need this for project A, AND that for project B."), they will begin to recognize the potential of these tools. Not before.
In a setting such as the one Chris works in, there is room for Desktop UNIX/Linux, right along side Windows, and Macintosh:
- UNIX and Linux in the labs the computer classes and science classes use,
- Windows in the library and in general purpose labs, and
- Macintosh in the multimedia and creative arts labs.
- And, in the machine room, all platforms!
But, if Chris has to choose between platforms, he needs to choose the platform that meets the greatest need. Today, that platform is Windows. Why?
- There are more academic titles available for Windows and Macintosh than for UNIX/Linux.
- There are few, if any, ADA-compliant tools ported to UNIX/Linux.
- UNIX/Macintosh costs more for the same functionality. (Performance is not an issue in this setting.)
- Students, faculty, and staff are unfamiliar with UNIX/Linux.
- UNIX/Linux training costs are high and take time away from student instruction.
- Technical support people with UNIX/Linux experience are more costly.
In a nutshell. The current battle between the Linux zealots and the Windows zealot is a waste of time and energy. Only the Linux vendors can succeed in moving Desktop Linux to the forefront of consumer consciousness -- and they will do so when they choose to do so. For now, Linux vendors do not care about the commodity consumer desktop.
The Macintosh zealots are no better. The Macintosh is arguably the most user-friendly platform available today and now that Mac OS X is ported to Intel, there is but one explanation for their absence from the commodity marketplace. Like the Linux vendors, Apple does not wish to compete for the commodity desktop (or they could do so).
So let's all stop arguing about what's better and start encouraging our favorite vendors to sell their wares to our neighbors and our friends -- not just to 'geeks like us'.