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.comment: If Not Now, When? - page 3

Desktop Confusion

  • May 23, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Whenever people who write about Linux for a living get together, it's not long before the distribution rumors are brought up. For the last six months or so, this has dealt largely with which ones are expected to disappear.

The Mandrake tales of late are sad. Mandrake was tied to a publishing company, the idea being that if your distribution is going to be stuck into the back of a Linux primer, it ought to make life easy for the desktop user. I have no idea as to the specifics, but this apparently did not work out well, in no small measure because the publisher has lost interest in Linux. On the other hand, Mandrake was Red Hat based, and Red Hat is not the steadiest of distributions, even though it has a lot of money, being first out of the box with its initial public offering, when investors were throwing around money in a manner found in nature only when a monkey falls into a pool that's drying up and that is full of pirahna.

Several months ago I opined that Linux distributors could succeed if and only if they specialized. Caldera did this, targeting the enterprise. Red Hat is busy seeking a Linux monopoly while at the same time doing its best to make that monopoly worthless. Debian is doing what Debian always does and always will do until its people lose interest and go on to something else. Progeny is to Debian as Mandrake is to Red Hat. There are some distributions, so specialized as to particular industries, that we seldom hear about them. In my view, this leaves the desktop to SuSE, and in this I disagree with several well-connected Linux reporters, including Kevin.

I think that SuSE shows the greatest promise in achieving a successful desktop Linux. Its installation program is the best around, though lacking a little bit here and there. It wants for its odd file system, but perhaps this will change -- perhaps it must change -- as the weak sisters among distributions are winnowed out. Its president not long ago said in an interview that it's madness to think of making a profit selling Linux, or words to that effect. But in the intervening weeks the competition has diminished, and pushing the desktop is a clear field for SuSE.

Which isn't to say that it's a thing easily done. It involves subsidizing, cajoling, begging a lot of hardware makers to contribute support. It involves similar efforts in trying to convince software developers that all available evidence is wrong, and that producing Linux versions of their applications can succeed. It involves a bunker mentality, because the Redmond leviathan has billions of dollars in its FUD budget.

Which means, too, striking at Redmond's weaknesses -- third-world countries, places that have money but no software budget. It means taking some additional losses before there are any gains. But it can be done. It requires a failure to mishandle technical superiority, provision of an incentive for users to change, and, unhappily, willingness to ignore some of the loudest segments of the community.

Will it be done? I haven't the foggiest idea. It has to be disheartening to know that half the battle is against the community itself. I know, because it's disheartening here. I would hate to see the work of the KDE developers, many of whom I've known for years, not find the audience it deserves; though I've not been tied to Gnome, I'd hate to see its developers suffer a similar fate.

But the opportunity exists. Moreover, it beckons.

And with that, I'm going to get a beer. A beer I paid for.

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