Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Linux will never beat Microsoft

I know you've been waiting for me to say something profound. After all, I'm a former pundit, right? That means I should have some earth-shattering opinions, right?

Try this on for size:

Linux doesn't have what it takes to beat Microsoft on the desktop.

Not all that earth-shattering, I suppose, unless I also mention that I'm a big Linux fan. Yep! Got it right here, dual-booting SuSE with Windows 2000 Pro on my notebook. Been playing with it for about two years.

But, see, I'm being realistic. As much as I'd love to see Linux kick MS around, I don't think any distro of Linux has what it takes. And having said that, I'm duty bound to explain.

There isn't any one thing that makes the difference. Oh, if only it were that simple. And it isn't all technical, or it would probably already be done. In fact, it isn't even something entirely in the Community's control. It'll take maneuvering by a bunch of people and some dreadful mistakes by Microsoft to displace Windows.

It can be done. But I wouldn't hold my breath.

It's been said that Linux needs a killer app, or that Linux needs a decent e-mail client. I don't necessarily agree or disagree. The terms "killer" and "decent" are subjective; one person's "killer" app or "decent" e-mail client is another person's "ho-hum" development. Here's the truth:

A killer app can create a market for an operating system, but the operating system goes a long way toward making the killer app. Before Windows, we had DOS, and we had DOS apps. We also had hardcore computer users, and tossed in a group that depended on menus, being totally uninterested in learning/using DOS. Windows came along, but Windows didn't catch on with most computer users of the day until Microsoft provided Microsoft Office (particularly Word and Excel) for Windows. The killer apps, one might say.

Yet, was the advent of Microsoft Office sufficient to switch DOS users to Windows? No, of course not. It required finding other publishers to bring their software to Windows, or reasonably competitive substitutes, so users could give up their DOS applications in favor of the aesthetically nicer Windows.

And even with a growing library of applications, Windows wouldn't have caught on, if it weren't for one more thing.

The manufacturers, who were pushed by Microsoft into putting a copy of Windows on every PC they made.

Now, if you're a new home computer user, clueless to the realities of the world, and you just bought a new computer, are you going to look for an operating system to replace the one the computer came with? Of course not! You'll leave Windows in place, then look for programs that run on your brand new Windows computer.

Is the situation really any different today? The family that has never had a computer before and knows nothing about computers will have the choice between Windows and... Windows! (Apple users are actually in a similar boat, but by choice.) To my knowledge, only Linspire has had the foresight to get their distro of Linux pre-installed on a brand new PC, but you have to work to find those machines.

And even though PCs have been popular appliances for many years now, how many of the principal owners of the in-place home PCs actually know how to use them to their best effect? Not many, as evidenced by the proliferation of viruses and spyware on these machines. Do you think Microsoft wants to correct this shortcoming? Of course not, as knowledgeable users can choose to change, and that isn't in Microsoft's interest.

So Microsoft makes Windows so smart that the home users can remain computer-illiterate. When a Windows user wants to install a new program, what does he or she need to do? Buy a CD containing the new program, set the CD in the tray, close the tray, and follow the prompts that magically appear on the screen. When a Linux user wants to install a new program, what does he or she need to do? If your answer starts with "that depends...", you've demonstrated my point. Can a computer-illiterate comfortably use a Linux PC? Even one running a distro as dumbed-down as Linspire? Only until he or she has to perform any non-menu-based maintenance.

The question isn't one of killer apps, decent e-mail, easy availability, or even cost. The question isn't even ease-of use, although this is the biggest single obstacle in my mind.

No, the question is all of the above. Simply put, there isn't enough reasons for the mass market to justify changing operating systems. Microsoft got there first, got entrenched, and barring some serious errors, will be there for some time to come. The public is in their comfort zone, and the only way for Linux to supplant Microsoft on the desktop is for Linux to become more comfortable than Windows and its successors. Linspire is closest, but comfort is not defined as look and feel. Comfort is a state of mind. Microsoft has achieved it. Linux hasn't, and Linux will play second fiddle to Microsoft until:
  1. Linux is comfortable to use (and maintain) by the computer-illiterates,
  2. Linux is as easy to find, pre-installed, as Windows is today, and
  3. Linux has a sufficient developer-base as to guarantee each person's own subjective killer app is available for easy installation (per #1, above).
I still like Linux. I'm still a huge fan of open source. But there isn't any way Microsoft's monopoly over the desktop can be broken unless these three conditions are met.

I don't see it.

And I'd love to be proven wrong.


Cesium said...

Do you want to update this now that it's a few years later?

The major flaw in your analysis is that clueless home users don't need to displace Windows at home. Corporate IT departments could push Windows out at work.

As a person who has *never* used Windows at work, I cannot understand why corporations would shell out $200 to $300 per seat in order to license Microsoft software. Especially now. I can read Office documents using OpenOffice, and I can write data out in a format that OpenOffice can read.

Ubuntu is now easy enough to use (my 9 year old daughter uses it!) for the corporate environment. Software is rapidly moving to the web where it is accessed through a browser. Flash and Java are OS agnostic, and Google is releasing NativeClient which is OS agnostic and high performance.

Corporations will start to push out Linux to save money. Residential users will then move to Linux because they are used to it from work. More and more residential users will also move to Linux by experimenting with it on old, spare, hardware where Microsoft no longer runs. (My 9 year old daughter is running Linux on a 7 year old computer. XP was just too slow on that hardware.)

Also, Microsoft pushes customers toward Linux. I once added hardware to an XP machine, and afterwards MS told me I didn't have a valid license. They wouldn't fix it when I called. I had to write the BBB and wait four days for a response. By the time they responded, I had Linux on that computer.

It may take better games (WOW for Linux), a better version of OpenOffice, and even easier to use software for Linux, but that's all coming. In the meantime, MS is leaving some big niches wide open for Linux to exploit.

Alan Frayer said...

Thank you, Cesium, for your thoughtful remarks, but my three criteria for a turnaround are still waiting:

Linux applications are still difficult for non-techs to install. You point out your children can do these things, but keep in mind our children are being raised to be techs in their own right, these days, so perhaps this requirement will fade away with the idea of non-technical computer users.

Linux is hard to find pre-installed. Not impossible and getting better, but I've only found it in the wild at WalMart.

Killer apps continue to be MS based. Yes, programs like and Wine make a dent, but as long as people are forced by app developers to use Windows through calls that Wine can't support, people will continue to use Windows.