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Fire in the Hole

  • June 11, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

Here's what I have been thinking throughout this whole "GNU/Linux is weak in the desktop" argument. On the macro scale, KDE, GNOME, and the rest of the bunch are way behind the offerings of Windows. This is a hard pill to swallow, but if we set ourselves up for comparison, we will be lacking.

But... what if we could stop holding our products up to Windows? What if we started making a different path? A path of our own?

Take a look at the average, off-the-shelf PC. Typically, it is pre-loaded with Windows, Microsoft Works, Internet Explorer and a whole host of games and utility software that power users tend to uninstall within the first hour of using the new PC. It's usually crap and there are almost always better apps out there that can do the same thing. The average home user, though, may not be aware of this fact and will keep this stuff sitting on their machine because they don't know any better or simply don't care.

Home users are the real key to all of the arguments against GNU/Linux's adoption. These are the users that use a very wide variety of esoteric software that my colleague Lou Grinzo has termed "greeting card software." This is the software that home users think they have to have on their PCs: encyclopedia software, mapping and GPS software, and--of course--actual greeting card software.

GNU/Linux doesn't have this kind of stuff and why should it? There have been some attempts: like the recent porting of MusicMatch's audio jukebox to GNU/Linux. But these are just small bites out of the huge market that home PC users form. The variety and sheer number of applications available for the home user is huge. And GNU/Linux is supposed to catch up with that?

Well, forget it. It's not going to happen anytime soon. Not until there's a huge shift in user interest (read: money) into X application development. Anyone who thinks differently is in denial.

And yet, this is the very standard the other pundits hold X and its applications to when they start spouting off about the "lack of Linux applications." This is the very standard we find ourselves arguing for time after time, as volleys of FUD are launched at our side of the OS fence--volleys that surely as the sun rises in the East, we will collectively rise up our invective and righteous anger and discuss new and interesting ways to try to humiliate some Microsoft executive. Little realizing that while we buzz around like angry hornets we are getting a lot less work done and are losing our sense of mission.

If we had a sense of mission to begin with.

I think the developers did--to make GNU/Linux an excellent operating system to run excellent software. But somehow the whole operating system has been dragged into the commercial realm and people are expecting some kind of Microsoft-killer. This reminds me of those fights we used to get into in grade school. Words would be exchanged, usually about the other person's mother. Nothing specific, of course--just the phrase "your mother" was often enough to arouse grand passion. A crowd of fellow students would quickly gather, taunting the two arguers to escalate the war of words into a real fist fight. This stage is what I call a pushy-shovey, when halfhearted attempts to shove the other person down onto the playground blacktop would begin.

Once in a while, one or both of the combatants would actually listen to the taunts and cheers from the gathered little crowd and foolishly believe that they could knock the other guy's block off. Suddenly, what started as a minor infraction of horse basketball is now a full-fledged fight, complete with bruised knuckles, a cut lip, and suspension from school. And I speak from experience.

I look at the confrontation going on right now and I can put myself right back into the middle of one of those pushy-shoveys. Some people seemed to have noticed that there was a competitor for Microsoft have surrounded that competitor with yelps of "Fight! Fight!" And the competitor (which would be the collective Linux community) are starting to believe they can take on the schoolyard bully. But pound for pound, meanness for meanness, they can't. Which leaves us with two choices: the ethical choice of walking away and leaving the confrontation altogether (the one our parents always hoped we would do). Or, the sneaky, underhanded choice: change the rules of the fight so you could walk away the winner.

I hold little hope the community surrounding GNU/Linux will walk away. Nor do I think we should, because this schoolyard bully is not going to go away until we are run out of the playground for good. Like it or not, GNU/Linux is here to stay. But we cannot try to compete on the bully's terms. We must change the rules of the fight.

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