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The StartX Files: Kick Butt and Take Names, Young Grasshopper - page 3

Fire in the Hole

  • June 11, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

Here is one idea.

Once upon a time, I used to be a manager of Configuration Management and Quality Assurance for a pretty large real estate company. This company had its own in-house development team and a mind-boggling number of projects to juggle. Part of my job was to monitor and streamline the development process and then direct a testing team to check for quality along the way. The other part of my job was to help the operations people come up with a standardized platform for each employee--the idea being that one or two client platforms would be a heck of a lot easier than the 40-50 different platform types we had when I started.

I mention this little excerpt of my resume to establish my bona fides. This is not just Brian the Loud and Obnoxious--this is Brian the IT Manager writing, too.

Earlier in this little diatribe I mentioned the relative strength of the Windows platform on the home PC arena and how GNU/Linux is getting crucified. But what about the other path I mentioned? My idea is this: don't put X up against the entirety of the Windows software library. Take on a subset of applications instead. Demonstrate the power and stability of our operating system in one area, not the whole shooting match.

My idea is this: position the X platform and applications as a business users platform. This would not take a lot of effort, either, because in my opinion we are almost there now.

When I worked as a CM Manager, the average PC client needed just a few application types: an office suite, an e-mail client (usually coupled with a personal information manager), anti-virus software, and a browser. Every once in a while, they would need something more, like a flowcharting application or project management software. But these were exceptions to the rule.

Now, what the users needed and what they wanted on their PCs were totally different. Some users had to have this great new multimedia client they downloaded off the Web, for example. This would be the bane of my job, since I had to track down such miscreants and give them a stern talking to about the joys of conformity. Brian Proffitt, officious ninny.

I have seen this kind of ubiquitous client platform in nearly every company I have worked for. Just a few basic applications that were easy to maintain, easy to train, and easy to use. No greeting card software in sight.

Applications that Linux already has very good entries.

The office suite application can almost be filled by StarOffice, OpenOffice, WordPerfect, or KOffice. The e-mail/PIM client can almost be filled by Evolution. The browser can almost be filled by Opera or Netscape. And we won't even justify the need for anti-viral software.

I used the term "almost" in that last paragraph because I think that none of these products are up to commercial-strength yet. But they are damned close. Close enough that each one of the development teams behind these projects should be congratulated for their efforts--then set right back down in front of their terminals to keep working on them. Because these apps--the ubiquitous business client applications--are one of the keys to GNU/Linux's ultimate success. If I were a developer or a business whiz, I would start up a new GNU/Linux distribution that carried nothing but these apps, with perhaps a solid file manager and remote admin and update tools, and market this distro as a turnkey GNU/Linux solution for a business machine. (If anyone uses this idea and gets stinking rich, please buy me a Cessna 182 airplane.)

From an administration point of view, a simplified platform would be easy to maintain. The increased uptime from the stability alone would be worth the migration. The security benefits are obvious. From a CM standpoint, the ability to lock down a user's desktop to just the tools they need is a Godsend. No more frog-in-a-blender software. No more greeting card apps. Business computers for business users.

Someone is about to remind me that Windows NT and 2000 can do this stuff already. Yes, but look at the costs involved there. And Microsoft is planning on moving to subscription-based licenses in the near future.

Of course, I am not trying to suck all of the fun out of a corporate cubicle-jockey's life. All IT departments have their own leeway with how much nonproductive time can be spent on the PC and personally I encourage this practice. All work and no play and whatnot. The ultimate point is, this kind of a GNU/Linux platform could be better managed than a willy-nilly Windows platform. And you would not need a certification to do it.

This is not going to be uniformly easy, I know that. User change resistance and retraining are real and formidable obstacles to this kind of migration, let's not kid ourselves. But if a business is truly dedicated to losing the fat from its IT systems, then this is certainly one way to go. And whoever said dieting was easy?

This is, of course, one idea. You, no doubt, have others. I encourage you to voice them. Get people to listen to you, act on your ideas. I also charge the GNOME Foundation and the KDE League and all of the other development teams and user groups to start thinking about some way to tighten the focus of GNU/Linux on the desktop. For a tighter focus is what is needed, not a broad, ineffectual defense. There is already a historical example for this. Just look at the Mac platform. Somehow, the Mac platform has managed to survive assault after grueling assault from its competition. Because the developers on that platform picked their graphics niche and held onto it like a pit bull. And today very few small- to midrange machines can match a Mac for graphics work.

Developers need to develop and the rest of us need to pitch in where we can with testing, documentation, and yes, even kibitzing.

We need to find our niche. Find the focus for GNU/Linux.

And events in the schoolyard will take care of themselves.

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