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Editor's Note: Reinventing the Wheel, Openly

Why Linux is failing on the desktop

January 16, 2001

In the Open Source ethos, there is a tendency to a) eschew commercial-software developers and b) assume that the Open Source community can work together to create software that is just as good as commercial-software offerings.

I won't go into why a) is true (free beer! free beer! free beer!), but I will try and explain here why b) is a dangerous assumption -- one that could truly threaten the future of Linux and Open Source, especially when it comes to Linux as a desktop operating system.

The fact that b) is a dangerous assumption was really brought home to me after reading Dennis E. Powell's review of HancomOffice. When Dennis sent me the article, he included a rueful little note to the effect that the search for the perfect Linux word processor continues.

My standards are considerably lower than Dennis's. I don't want the perfect Linux word processor: I'd settle for a good one. This is going to be heresy to many readers, but there's nothing in the Linux world that works as well as Microsoft Word when it comes to corporate-level word processing. WordPerfect comes close, though both the native Linux version and the version running under WINE are a little too flaky and pokey for my tastes, and there's a lot to like about the word processor within Applixware Office. (Note, however, that a Linux version and an Open Source version are two different things, and that neither Applixware Office nor WordPerfect are Open Source products.) Heck, I'd even settle for something that's the equivalent of the original XyWrite.

Not that there aren't a raft of developers working on Open Source word processors: OpenOffice, AbiWord....these word processors show a great amount of potential. I really do want to use them. Really.

But I can't use "potential" when I need to crank out a long, detailed report that's full of charts and formatting. And "potential" doesn't cut it when I need to share documents with those computer users who are not as pure as I am when it comes to computing tools. So I struggle on, withstanding the temptation to fire up that unused Windows box in the corner and run Word.

The truism -- a truism that helped catapult Microsoft to its current position -- is that applications drive OSes. I see nothing in the current market to dissaude me of that truism. The best end-user applications still exist in the Windows sphere: Quicken, Microsoft Word, etc. The best graphics tools exist in the Macintosh sphere (although that may change when color and printer support improves in impending releases of The GIMP). The best server applications exist in the Linux/UNIX world. And guess what? Microsoft dominates end-user computing, Apple dominates the graphics world. and Linux/UNIX rules in the server world. Ideology doesn't carry the day for server system admininistrators: performance does.

While the folks working on OpenOffice and AbiWord are working hard, there's just not enough of them, and development is more slow than in the commercial sphere. That's where commercial software like WordPerfect and Applixware come in: because there's the potential for profit in the end, companies are willing to hire programmers and assume a financial risk. Coding is done on a structured, deadline-driven basis.

But unfortunately the Open Source community has eschewed these commercial word processors. In two weeks Corel will announce a restructuring that more than likely will involve the sale of WordPerfect, while Vistasource sees its future in ASP-style Web-based tools. In both cases, I think it's safe to say the sales of their word processors to the Open Source community weren't in line with expectations. Other commercial-software vendors -- most notably, the folks behind Quake III and Adobe with FrameMaker -- have withdrawn from Linux commercial desktop software, while others like Intuit have flat-out decided to avoid the Linux/Open Source market. With characteristic cockiness, Open Source developers have vowed to create their own competing packages, but's let face it: something like GNUCash has to be better than Quicken in order to attract the casual user who isn't passionate about their desktop OS.

This, I would argue, is why Linux is still largely a failure as a desktop operating system. Yes, as an OS, Linux is more stable than Windows 98/2000, and it's just about as easy to use as the Macintosh. But applications drive the market, and until there's a compelling reason to use Linux on the desktop, it will remain a fringe desktop OS. (This is the same reason why Solaris on the desktop failed, by the way.) Linux's future as a server OS remains solid thanks to the many splendid server applications (Apache, Oracle 9i, et al), but if we want to see Linux break through as a viable desktop OS, the Open Source world needs to realize that commercial software is not an evil thing to be derided or ignored. Heed the lessons of OS/2: in the absence of a killer application, it doesn't matter whether an OS like OS/2 is certifiably better than the status-quo Windows.

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