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The StartX Files: Word to the Wise: Wrapping Up and Picking a Winner

None Dare Call it Settling

November 30, 2001

I have been thinking a lot about my uniqueness in the universe this week. Turning 35 will do that to you. It's not quite old enough to have a mid-life crisis, but not exactly one of those party-with-the-boundless-energy-of-youth events, either. It is just enough of an event to pause and take stock in the world around you--before getting pleasantly toasted with a bottle of good Merlot.

Compounding this problem of uniqueness is the fact that I have been informed of the existence of yet another Brian Proffit who is also a technical writer (on wireless communications). Between me, the OS/2 guy, and now the wireless guy, that makes three Brian Proffit(t)s running around writing about things computer-ese. I am used to getting confused with my OS/2 colleague and the New Guy has often been mistaken for one of us. We are contemplating showing up at Comdex next year with T-shirts that say something along the lines of "I'm the other Brian Proffitt" or "I have an Evil Triplet."

Still, even though we share names and occupations, we are all very unique people in our own rights. So, freakish as this coincidence is, it's not exactly a world-shattering event.

The value of uniqueness hit me in another way this week. As I sit down to pull together this review, I am recalling a recent John Dvorak column I read about LindowsOS, a new operating system venture being put forth by Michael Robertson and the rest of the Lindows.com firm. In the column, Dvorak is rather upbeat about the prospect, which is more than he usually is about Linux-related projects. Personally, I don't hold this against him, since he has his opinions and I have mine.

There are two sentences from that column, however, that keep reverberating in my head (along with so many other things in such a large, echo-y space): "...But the Lindows team still must make its OS run the key versions of Microsoft Office. Once the Lindows team starts talking about running StarOffice applications, then you'll know the developers have failed."

Of course, the immediate knee-jerk reaction I had when I read that was to send scathing messages to Dvorak and the rest of his Ziff-Davis cronies decrying him as being a paid shill for the Microsoft Establishment. I quickly gathered up my righteous indignation and prepared to launch my flame attack...

...until I realized he may have had a point. At least with his perceptions.

Over and over during this Word to the Wise mini-series, I have made direct comparisons between the word processor applications I looked at and how they interact with and compare to Microsoft Word. Many readers called me on this, raising accusations of shill on their own. My response has always been the same: for better or worse, Word has become regarded as the gold standard for word processors--particularly in the business world. For any word processor to have a hope of pulling customers away from Word, such applications are going to have to at least be the equal of Word in terms of features. Stability, speed, and open standards are all going to be secondary to feature set. This is not necessarily the Right Thing, but it is the reality of a working in a capitalist market, where people always want to get more for their money.

This is not a happy concept for devotees of Linux and Open Source to embrace. In a perfect world, people would judge a product based on its overall quality and its lack of proprietary standards. In such a world, Linux and its application set would fare much better than they are today.

Instead, we live in a world where a (fictional) product like GNUWrite would be fast, small, stable, and free but hardly anyone would buy it because (non-fictional) products like Word can come up to potential GNUWrite customers and say things like, "yes, GNUWrite is fast, small, stable, and free, but can it create an index?" That's a good question, these potential customers think, especially after Microsoft makes the ability to create an index the most important thing in the world. The customers go back to the GNUWrite developers and put the indexing question to them.

"Er, no..." the GNUWrite developers puzzledly reply, since they know that in their experience, only a handful of users would ever need to create an index. "Oh, well, thanks!" the customers cheerfully reply as they march off to fork over their hard-earned money to buy Word so they can create their bloated, proprietary-format documents--that have no indexes and never will.

This is the unfortunate reality that we live in, one that Dvorak recognized in his statement about StarOffice. Even though we, as Linux users, can point to any one of our favorite word processors and say without hesitation that "[insert word processor] is more than enough to serve my needs as a first-class word processor," the overall perception of Linux-platform office suites is that because they are not as feature rich, they are somehow sub-par.

I am not advocating that we start cranking out applications that are overloaded with features, just so we can match commercial applications feature for feature. That would be the easy way out, since there's no secret formula to plugging in useless features for an application. This methodology, while simple to implement, would be an anathema to everything Open Source and Free Software represents.

Instead, it becomes necessary for us to keep building on the quality of Linux's application set and, at the same time, implement a marketing strategy that simply says to these potential customers, "yeah, we know [insert closed-source software here] has all of those nifty features, but do you really want to pay for something you're never really going to use?"

Proponents of Windows will immediately label this as getting users to "settle" for something less, but in reality, Linux will be getting people to come over to a platform that is something more: where users have much stronger say in the features of an application than any consumer of a closed-source application ever would.

Such an approach would have to get some of us to swallow our pride. After all, we don't want Linux applications to be perceived as "less" than Windows applications--ever. Again, it would not be a question of "more" or "less." It's a question of which platform is better suited to the customer's needs. The more/less argument is a losing game for either side, as U.S. carmakers found out to their dismay in the 1970s, when they initially launched ad campaigns that ridiculed the tiny little foreign cars that were invading "their" turf. Japanese and German marketers did not take the bait and repeatedly emphasized their products' price and fuel efficiency. Their message began to be heard over the US car manufacturers' and the rest was history.

In many ways, Linux is in a similar position to the Japanese carmakers at that time. What we must not do is take the Microsoft bait and try to beat them at their own game. In that case, Linux would surely lose. And, Linux applications would cease to be unique; they would be clones of Microsoft software. Linux developers must instead keep an eye on the competition and tailor their applications to meet the needs of potential customers.

It's a fine line, but one I think we can walk. The current crop of word processors reviewed here, for the most part, gives me a positive feeling that Linux can succeed on the desktop eventually.

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