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.comment: Linux Lewis vs. Microsoft Tyson - page 3

The Smart Money

  • January 30, 2002
  • By Dennis E. Powell

We have hoped that the government would come in and knock down Microsoft. Now we hope that companies will come in and knock down Microsoft.

It's true that those things can help. But they'll not do it all.

Imagine for a minute that the positions were reversed, that Linux in its current incarnation owned the desktop by virtue of its having been shipped on every computer and that Microsoft were attempting to make inroads. What would it take for Microsoft to gain a substantial market share, to get people to wipe their hard drives, install something new, and learn and use it?

What complaints would people honestly have about Linux that Microsoft could answer? What does Linux offer that Microsoft's products don't?

Think about it for a few minutes. I don't propose to provide answers to those questions. But I do have a few observations that I think bear scrutiny and some discussion. You may well disagree -- probably will, which is fine -- but I think they're worth some honest consideration.

There is a good argument to be made that Linux-2.4.0 is about ready to ship -- only it's called 2.4.18. The 2.4 kernel has been an embarrassment in a lot of ways. More was bitten off than could be chewed (the lone place where Linux parallels Tyson). That it took 14 releases or so to get anything approaching a handle on something like virtual memory is just appalling. That we only now learn of a bug that can cause tremendous trouble on a widely used brand of processors is just as bad.

In applications, we face feature creep. Most of us know someone who proudly presented his or her first Visual Basic program, all full of bells and whistles and knobs and buttons. Some application that was simple in concept but that grew as the fledgling programmer discovered more and more that could be done, paying no mind to whether it was actually of any use or not. The example we love to point to in the commercial software world is the animated paperclip character -- the grown up vestige of Microsoft Bob -- in Microsoft Word. Well, we're starting to do that, have been for awhile, actually. We do not need and aren't going to pay for music to play when the mouse pointer passes over the icon of a music file, as one defunct corporation learned in the last year. We do not need, or even mostly want, the ability to play a music CD and also hear, at the same time from the same speakers, the music and sound effects of a game we're playing, and many of us would go to considerable effort to avoid this happening, especially if it consumes system resources. And we sure as hell don't need that kind of thing when we're short of good import-export filters as well as whole classes of applications. There are a lot of people working very hard on very tight code, but they're mostly involved in projects that aren't the first thing that users see.

It was not so long ago that Linux users complained that the newest equipment was not supported. That is not the chief complaint now, because now, little except the newest computers are supported. Yes, you can build a kernel for a 386 with some obsolete hard drive. Whoopee. Drag out a 386 and install a modern Linux distribution on it. Try to run KDE in VGA. Try to do anything useful with anything under a 300mHz Pentium and anything under 128 megs of memory. Microsoft has good reason to keep upping the hardware ante -- they sell more stuff, say to hell with owners of older stuff, and gain the good will of hardware makers, who also get to sell more stuff. But Linux is supposed to be different. It's just that anymore it mostly isn't. Of course Linux is looking more attractive to computer makers -- you have to buy a new computer to run it!

And all this is beside the suicidal practice of distributions to do all they can to fork Linux into a multitude of incompatible operating systems, after the schismatic behavior in the Unix world a couple decades ago that did so much to make it the dominant operating system that it is today.

This will seem to many a harsh and unfair attack on Linux. Maybe it is; obviously, I don't think so. My point is that in order to take advantage of such opportunities for widespread adoption as may present themselves in the coming months, we need to be more than not-Microsoft.

No matter how it turns out, the U.S. Department of Justice will not ordain widespread Linux adoption. No matter how enthusiastic the computer makers are about Linux, or how crippling private lawsuits against Microsoft may prove to be, it will take more to win.

As with Lewis-Tyson, the most Lewis can expect is the opportunity to climb into the ring and give it his best shot.

Even if all the events of the next few months unfold as we would wish, all we're gaining is the chance to compete.

Winning is still up to us, and if we take winning for granted, we lose.

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