MacOS and the Linux desktop lunch

I think x86 scale change coupled with the emergence of Linux as a smart data center choice helped drive the renewal at Sun - and it's possible to hope that the same thing happens to the Linux desktop community as MacOS X eats its market share.

One side effect of Linux marketing by Red Hat and others has been the widespread belief that people transitioning from expensive old Unix servers running on proprietary chipsets to Linux on x86 do so mainly to get Linux. I don't believe that; on the contrary I think that most people assume x86 based hardware and then choose among available operating systems capable of running their applications mainly on cash cost, old antagonisms, recent disappointments, and their beliefs about how others will view each choice.

The x86 assumption works at the hardware level because the cost of everyone's hardware has come down much faster than the jobs have grown - basically a job that required a half million dollar Sun or HP machine in 1997 can now be done on a dual Xeon for less than three thousand bucks, including storage. Add the misconception that x86 is somehow a non proprietary industry standard along with the easy availability of good software for Linux, and what you get is what we see: ever increasing corporate commitments to Linux on x86.

Personally I think that's great - but Red Hat's corollary about Linux eating Sun's lunch leads the phenomena more than it describes it: the anti-Sun stuff is a marketing strategy aimed at slotting the credulous into a process that leads to a Linux decision by reinforcing the anachronistic comparison between late nineties server costs and today's x86 costs.

With that in mind I want to venture a total speculation: that the same forces have created a situation in which MacOS really has started to eat the Linux desktop lunch.

Be aware, however, that this is purely speculative at this point - there's no evidence yet, just my interpretation of the fact that I keep running into more and more comments along the lines of this extended extract from Tim Bray's "Ongoing" blog:

This is the second of five predictions for 2008, expanded from the short form generated on short notice as described here.

Prediction · The short version: ¶

The strain due to the fact that most business desktops are locked into the Microsoft platform, at a time when both the Apple and GNU/Linux alternatives are qualitatively safer, better, and cheaper to operate, will start to become impossible to ignore.

Experience · Around our house, we have screens connected to Windows XP, OS X, and Ubuntu GNU/Linux. Ubuntu and OS X are easier to install, less trouble to maintain, and more pleasant to use. If we were tracking the time we spend maintaining these things, I'm willing to bet that Windows takes more care & feeding than the other two put together. Down the road we'll have Windows only for games, I think. ¶

We also provide tech support for our mothers, a local Pilates studio, and various random friends, local and remote. Wherever we can, we're steering them to OS X just because they'll experience less pain and be more productive.

Pain · These days, when you live mostly on OS X & Ubuntu, XP is just incredibly irritating. There's always something pestering you to update it: Adobe, Java, Norton, whatever. Plus random other whining from the bottom right corner of the screen, about unused icons and firewall security and so on. ¶

As for my family & friends who aren't pros, and who haven't been under the tutelage of one either, their Windows boxes are mostly smoking, diseased, quivering heaps of goo. Who's got the time to deal with that shit?

Why I Might Be Wrong · I haven't spent any time with Vista. Possibly, after a couple of releases, it'll make Windows competitive again. ¶

From the Business Point of View · I talk to the individuals and small businesses who are still running Windows, and I compare them to those who've escaped, and it's just not close. Recently I was helping Mairin get her system set up a Mac mini, which BTW is a fabulous computer for a small business and was showing her how to do something and she said "But that's so easy? Why?" and I said "Well, that's how things work on this system" and she said "Well, why are people still using Windows then?" ¶

What I think is happening is a spill over effect of the x86 assumption as people whose beliefs about hardware both led them to Linux and prevented them from seeing Apple's value in the PPC days are now comparing the two desktops - and not just finding in favor of MacOS X but influencing others to that same choice too.

So if true, is this a good thing? I think it could be: I think x86 scale change coupled with the emergence of Linux as a smart data center choice helped drive the renewal at Sun - and it's possible to hope that the same thing happens to the Linux desktop community as MacOS X eats its market share.

And the $64K question: where's Microsoft in this? It's been obvious for some time that they've reached the limits of what can be built on the old VMS framework - and correspondingly that their options are to invent something new or switch to Unix in the same way that Apple did. Emotion aside, that's a no brainer - their "something new" isn't working while OpenBSD networks nicely on the Xenon.