Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

ESR's Desktop Linux 2008 Deadline

Link to Slashdot | ESR’s Desktop Linux 2008 Deadline

Aha, the discussion continues. Eric S. Raymond released the fox in the hen house when he started promoting the inclusion of proprietary drivers and codecs in Linux distributions in order to increase the critical mass of users. Without such a critical mass companies will not be inclined to provide open source drivers and/or codecs. The entire argument with the title World Domination 201 can be found here. An interesting read but I doubt whether most of the critics at Slashdot actually read the article in it’s entirety.

As far as I understand there are two main arguments. One, in 2008 the transition to 64-bit computing will be complete (or at least reached a critical mass). Previous hardware transitions also saw a definite shift in main operating systems. If Linux can not dominate the 64-bit market this window of opportunity closes. Second, the average desktop user is spoiled with his/her multimedia experience (either under Windows or Mac OS X) and this will determine the succes or failure of Linux on the 64-bit hardware platform. The story is not all bleak though for Linux. When it comes to driver support, the strength of the developer community and legacy emulation Linux has a head start. Multimedia is a serious weak point, mostly the result of the strong root and presence in the server market.

ESR is no fool and he is certainly someone we should listen to. I don’t agree with his choice for Linspire as the flag bearer for Linux in this regard, but I do agree that the inclusion of proprietary drivers and codecs would benefit adoption on a larger scale. Larger than now that is. I also feel that far more is needed to reach the large scale adoption that ESR wants to achieve. The inclusion of proprietary elements would improve the first impressions of W2L migrators and make life easier. But will this alone convince Auntie Agatha or Joe Smith to install Linux on the box? Nope, it removes but one obstacle. ESR treats the issue of desktop domination as a technical issue, but he fails to take into account a much larger ecosystem perspective. Yes, the technological side is important, as is user exeprience. But without childhood adoption, without teaching and educational aids for schools, companies and individual, without ubiquity of Linux in all facets of life, without decent promotion or marketing only a small niche of new W2L migrators can be reached. Mac OS X is a great operating system with all the nice things ESR wants in Linux and even that never led to mass adoption. Yes, the iMac and the iPod are icons, but most people use the iPod in conjunction with their Windows PC’s. They are not buying iMacs in droves. So far -and this for a long time already- desktop computing equals Windows, both in the 16 bit as in the 32 bit world.

No, forget about the 2008 deadline. Forget about the hardware issue. Focus on ubiquity. Create digital playgrounds and internet café’s in the neighborhoods, in pubs, in libraries, in schools, supported and maintained by local Linux user groups. This costs money, so set up an international infrastructure for funding, for buying used hardware and redeploying them as Linux boxes. Companies like HP, Sun and IBM will have to be convinced to put their weight behind it as part of a long-term strategy. Realizing a paradigm shift takes time and effort.

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