Saturday, October 14, 2006

Windows, Linux, Cars and Lego's (Part 5 of 5)

Problem #6: Imitation vs. Convergence

An argument people often make when they find that Linux isn't the Windows clone they wanted is to insist that this is what Linux has been (or should have been) attempting to be since it was created, and that people who don't recognize this and help to make Linux more Windows-like are in the wrong. They draw on many arguments for this:

Linux has gone from Command-Line- to Graphics-based interfaces, a clear attempt to copy Windows

Nice theory, but false: The original X windowing system was released in 1984, as the successor to the W windowing system ported to Unix in 1983. Windows 1.0 was released in 1985. Windows didn't really make it big until version 3, released in 1990 - by which time, X windows had for years been at the X11 stage we use today. Linux itself was only started in 1991. So Linux didn't create a GUI to copy Windows: It simply made use of a GUI that existed long before Windows.

Windows 3 gave way to Windows 95 - making a huge level of changes to the UI that Microsoft has never equaled since. It had many new & innovative features: Drag & drop functionality; taskbars, and so on. All of which have since been copied by Linux, of course.

Actually. . . no. All the above existed prior to Microsoft making use of them. NeXTSTeP in particular was a hugely advanced (for the time) GUI, and it predated Win95 significantly - version 1 released in 1989, and the final version in 1995.

Okay, okay, so Microsoft didn't think up the individual features that we think of as the Windows Look-and-Feel. But it still created a Look-and-Feel, and Linux has been trying to imitate that ever since.

To debunk this, one must discuss the concept of convergent evolution. This is where two completely different and independent systems evolve over time to become very similar. It happens all the time in biology. For example, sharks and dolphins. Both are (typically) fish-eating marine organisms of about the same size. Both have dorsal fins, pectoral fins, tail fins, and similar, streamlined shapes.

However, sharks evolved from fish, while dolphins evolved from a land-based quadrupedal mammal of some sort. The reason they have very similar overall appearances is that they both evolved to be as efficient as possible at living within a marine environment. At no stage did pre-dolphins (the relative newcomers) look at sharks and think "Wow, look at those fins. They work really well. I'll try and evolve some myself!"

Similarly, it's perfectly true to look at early Linux desktops and see FVWM and TWM and a lot of other simplistic GUIs. And then look at modern Linux desktops, and see Gnome & KDE with their taskbars and menus and eye-candy. And yes, it's true to say that they're a lot more like Windows than they used to be.

But then, so is Windows: Windows 3.0 had no taskbar that I remember. And the Start menu? What Start menu?

Linux didn't have a desktop anything like modern Windows. Microsoft didn't either. Now they both do. What does this tell us?

It tells us that developers in both camps looked for ways of improving the GUI, and because there are only a limited number of solutions to a problem, they often used very similar methods. Similarity does not in any way prove or imply imitation. Remembering that will help you avoid straying into problem #6 territory.

Problem #7: That FOSS (Free Open Source Software)thing.

Oh, this causes problems. Not intrinsically: The software being free and open-source is a wonderful and immensely important part of the whole thing. But understanding just how different FOSS is from proprietary software can be too big an adjustment for some people to make.

I've already mentioned some instances of this: People thinking they can demand technical support and the like. But it goes far beyond that.

Microsoft's Mission Statement is "A computer on every desktop" - with the unspoken rider that each computer should be running Windows. Microsoft and Apple both sell operating systems, and both do their utmost to make sure their products get used by the largest number of people: They're businesses, out to make money.

And then there is FOSS. Which, even today, is almost entirely non-commercial.

Before you reach for your email client to tell me about Red Hat, Suse, Linspire and all: Yes, I know they "sell" Linux. I know they'd all love Linux to be adopted universally, especially their own flavor of it. But don't confuse the suppliers with the manufacturers. The Linux kernel was not created by a company, and is not maintained by people out to make a profit with it. The GNU tools were not created by a company, and are not maintained by people out to make a profit with them. The X11 windowing system. . . well, the most popular implementation is xorg right now, and the ".org" part should tell you all you need to know.

Desktop software: Well, you might be able to make a case for KDE being commercial, since it's Qt-based. But Gnome, Fluxbox, Enlightenment, etc. are all non-profit. There are people out to sell Linux, but they are very much the minority.

Increasing the number of end-users of proprietary software leads to a direct financial benefit to the company that makes it. This is simply not the case for FOSS: There is no direct benefit to any FOSS developer in increasing the userbase. Indirect benefits, yes: Personal pride; an increased potential for finding bugs; more likelihood of attracting new developers; possibly a chance of a good job offer; and so on.

But Linus (Linux) Torvalds doesn't make money from increased Linux usage. Richard Stallman doesn't get money from increased GNU usage. All those servers running OpenBSD and OpenSSH don't put a penny into the OpenBSD project's pockets. And so we come to the biggest problem of all when it comes to new users and Linux:

They find out they're not wanted.

New users come to Linux after spending their lives using an OS where the end-user's needs are paramount, and "user friendly" and "customer focus" are considered veritable Holy Grails. And they suddenly find themselves using an OS that still relies on 'man' files, the command-line, hand-edited configuration files, and Google. And when they complain, they don't get coddled or promised better things: They get bluntly shown the door.

That's an exaggeration, of course. But it is how a lot of potential Linux converts perceived things when they tried and failed to make the switch.

In an odd way, FOSS is actually a very selfish development method: People only work on what they want to work on, when they want to work on it. Most people don't see any need to make Linux more attractive to inexperienced end-users: It already does what they want it to do, why should they care if it doesn't work for other people?

FOSS has many parallels with the Internet itself: You don't pay the writer of a webpage/the software to download and read/install it. Ubiquitous broadband/User-friendly interfaces are of no great interest to somebody who already has broadband/knows how to use the software. Bloggers/developers don't need to have lots of readers/users to justify blogging/coding. There are lots of people making lots of money off it, but it's not by the old-fashioned "I own this and you have to pay me if you want some of it" method that most businesses are so enamored of; it's by providing services like tech-support/e-commerce.

Linux is not interested in market share. Linux does not have customers. Linux does not have shareholders, or a responsibility to the bottom line. Linux was not created to make money. Linux does not have the goal of being the most popular and widespread OS on the planet.

All the Linux community wants is to create a really good, fully-featured, free operating system. If that results in Linux becoming a hugely popular OS, then that's great. If that results in Linux having the most intuitive, user-friendly interface ever created, then that's great. If that results in Linux becoming the basis of a multi-billion dollar industry, then that's great.

It's great, but it's not the point. The point is to make Linux the best OS that the community is capable of making. Not for other people: For itself. The oh-so-common threats of "Linux will never take over the desktop unless it does such-and-such" are simply irrelevant: The Linux community isn't trying to take over the desktop. They really don't care if it gets good enough to make it onto your desktop, so long as it stays good enough to remain on theirs. The highly-vocal MS-haters, pro-Linux zealots, and money-making FOSS purveyors might be loud, but they're still minorities.

That's what the Linux community wants: an OS that can be installed by whoever really wants it. So if you're considering switching to Linux, first ask yourself what you really want.

If you want an OS that doesn't chauffeur you around, but hands you the keys, puts you in the driver's seat, and expects you to know what to do: Get Linux. You'll have to devote some time to learning how to use it, but once you've done so, you'll have an OS that you can make sit up and dance.

If you really just want Windows without the malware and security issues: Read up on good security practices (CISSP); install a good firewall, IDS, IPS, malware-detector, and anti-virus; replace IE with a more secure browser like Firefox; and keep yourself up-to-date with security updates. There are people out there (myself included) who've used Windows since the 3.1 days right through to XP without ever being infected with a virus or malware (although I have experenced system crashes): you can do it too. Don't get Linux: It will fail miserably at being what you want it to be.

If you really want the security and performance of a Unix-based OS but with a customer-focused attitude and an world-renowned interface: Buy an Apple Mac. OS X is great. But don't get Linux: It will not do what you want it to do.

It's not just about "Why should I want Linux?". It's also about "Why should Linux want me?"

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