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The StartX Files: The Linux Uncertainty Principle - page 2

In Which The Author Tells Doomsayers To Go Jump in a Lake

  • May 22, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

Many might object to the wording of the above heading, but you know what? It fits. Whether we like it or not, the community surrounding Linux has set up Microsoft as the standard for which Linux must surpass--especially on the desktop.

Don't believe me? We have made many of the popular X environments and window managers near-clones of the Windows interface. Many people (including me) have cited the lack of useful applications as the reason Linux has not taken off on the desktop. And what do we mean by useful? Why, the equivalent of popular Windows-based apps, of course: like Office, Quicken, and Explorer.

My question is: have we set our goals in the wrong direction?

Notice that I did not say "set our goals too high." That implies a superiority on the part of the Windows apps that automatically makes them more tempting to emulate. No, the Windows apps I have mentioned have taken one path to presenting their users with a set of functioning (for the most part) tools. Why does Linux automatically have to take the same path to success?

Pundits point to the success of Linux in the server and embedded arenas and say "See? Linux is doing well here. Enjoy its success. Be happy with what you have." There is, I must admit, some logic to this argument. The flexibility of Linux lends itself well to running in the micro (embedded) and macro (enterprise) environments so we should enjoy the fruits of the developers' successes.

But let's be clear here: there is no reason to give up on the desktop. If that is truly where Linux should be.

There have been many times when, deep in my small heart, I have wished there were some central Linux authority that could steer the Linux ship towards the far and distant land it needs to be. This is a pleasant metaphorical substitute for "rule Linux and its minions with an iron fist."

These are the same type of evil thoughts I have when I start wishing all the negative talkbacks for my articles would mysteriously be translated to Mandarin Chinese. (Evil, my friends have come to learn, is not so much a world view for me as a hobby.) Regardless, this kind of idle thought is not constructive, so I try to set it aside and deal with reality as it comes.

As I was sternly reminded last week, there is no one person or organization, really, to call the shots for the entire Linux operating system. Linus Torvalds rules the kernel, nothing else. The various distributions control their fiefdoms. There is no generic "Linux" operating system at all. In the minds of many people it doesn't exist. As soon as you put together a certain collection of files around the kernel and call it Linux, who's to say that's the "official" Linux operating system? The Linux Standards Base will close to naming a core set of operating system files for its model Linux system, but that is a while in coming and many will dispute it.

Some would argue that GNU/Linux is the generic representation of this operating system and while I am close to the point of admitting that's true, I wonder if the label "GNU/Linux" would ultimately become just another label for a distribution? After all, what would make GNU/Linux more official than any other flavor of Linux?

There is no One True Linux operating system, I have come to learn. There are merely collections of files pivoting around a central Linux kernel. Some collections are called "Red Hat." Others "Debian GNU/Linux." Still others "Yellow Dog."

Underneath all of this confusion lies, I think, Linux's ultimate salvation: that Linux (or GNU/Linux or whatever you want to call it) may be the best example of quantum mechanics we have in our macro-scale universe. I call it the Linux Uncertainty Principle: "The more precisely the composition of Linux is determined, the less precisely the usability of Linux is known." In other words, try to pin down what the official Linux version is and you'll shut the door on some pretty remarkable things that Linux could do if given have the chance. Leave the definition alone and it will soar.

This is why arguments about where Linux belongs and where it can go next frustrate me to no ends. Linux the kernel can be scaled to any environment--all developers have to do is build a good set of tools around the kernel to make the resulting operating system thrive in that environment.

And doesn't that just make your inner geek quiver with excitement?

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