Should OS vendors limit your choices?

COMMENTARY--Somehow, a comparison of Microsoft to Powdered Toast Man (PTM), the deep-voiced superhero from the Ren and Stimpy cartoon series, seems more than a bit absurd.

COMMENTARY--Somehow, a comparison of Microsoft to Powdered Toast Man (PTM), the deep-voiced superhero from the Ren and Stimpy cartoon series, seems more than a bit absurd.

Yet it was a recurring theme to me as I digested news about Redmond's decision to drop support for USB 2.0 and the Bluetooth peripheral connection technology in its upcoming Windows XP operating system.

In the Ren and Stimpy episodes, PTM is forever rescuing the world from problems of his own creation, repeatedly offering the catchphrase, "Leave everything to me." The words sound eerily familiar to those coming from Redmond as Microsoft soothes the huddled masses by deciding for them which technologies it will support and which it won't.

These recent attempts by Microsoft to play technology favorites put to rest, beyond a shadow of a doubt, any pretense that the company actually encourages innovation in the marketplace. Rather than let the marketplace sort out whether USB 2.0 is better than FireWire, Microsoft prefers to dictate what's best for you.

Hmm. So far we've had to deal with choices between SCSI and IDE, serial and parallel and USB, ISA and PCI and AGP, and the industry hasn't fallen over as a result. Sophisticated users have been able to make their own informed choices; those who don't care about the innards leave the choices to retailers or integrators.

This represents a major culture clash between Microsoft and Linux worldviews. To those craving simple solutions, Linux offers too much choice. Microsoft, on the other hand, places unnecessary (and arbitrary) limitations on choice, especially for those capable of making informed decisions.

All things equal, would you prefer too much choice or too little? Do you want a choice on Election Day? Would you prefer that your carmaker dictate what brand of gasoline you use?

In the Linux world, just about every open source driver of sufficient quality is included with a kernel distribution. Even if the kernel team wants to play favorites among, say, file system designs, it doesn't offer just one and leave out support for the others. And even if the team leaves out a driver, distribution makers can add the software later.

The Linux emphasis on choice has confounded those who are used to a single vendor leading them by the nose. But, given all that computers do for people now--everything from run machinery to exchange mail to provide security--why must people operate on the principle that one size, one vendor, must fit all?

It's a feature, not a bug, that Linux is about choice. Recently I wrote about the increasing progress being made by the Linux Standard Base, a group that seeks to make life easier for software developers while encouraging diversity among Linux distributions. And I've been happy to hear reports coming from this month's GNOME developer's conference, GUADEC II, where interoperability was a major concern.

While GNOME moves full steam ahead to be the best desktop that it can, developers know that it's not the only game in town. According to an account by Red Hat's David Mason, the effort to make GNOME and KDE more interoperable is progressing. This mood was echoed to me by Borland's Simon Thornhill, vice president in charge of RAD products, who said that he's confident and optimistic that the two projects will work more closely together while they continue to move ahead as rivals.

This combination of competition and cooperation is good news for users and developers alike. While I've been critical of the GNOME Foundation in the past, I must give credit where it's due. And credit is due by the bucket-full for the following statement, detailed in Mason's report:

We believe that for GNOME to be successful, it needs to interoperate with other computing environments and services platforms.

Thus, we are in favor of increased collaborations with KDE to ensure that end users will be able to seamlessly mix GNOME and KDE apps.

Such strategies give us the best of both worlds. They show that choice--coupled with interoperability where it counts--offers the best innovation. It also allows user demand--not vendor decree--to determine where technology will take us.

And that sounds a lot more palatable than powdered toast to me.

Will cooperation and competition give Linux a fruitful future? Tell Evan in the TalkBack below or in the ZDNet Linux Forum. Or write to Evan directly at