A long time ago in a galaxy far away.. I used to compare the LinuxWorld Conference “Golden Penguin Bowl” geeks vs. nerds quiz show. My greatest coup was arranging a “Microsoft vs. Google” grudge match with a team from each company. (Image - Right Credit: Wikipedia)
All credit to the Microsoft team for getting into the spirit of things. Bill Hilf, at the time their head of Windows Server Marketing, came dressed as Star Wars “Darth Vader” with a couple of white-suited Storm Trooper buddies. I was dressed as the “black and white” Star Trek alien character. The Google guys just came in jeans and T-shirts, and proceeded to wipe the floor with the Microsoft Team. “Never mind,” I told Bill, “the third time you compete you'll probably win”, echoing a popular joke about Microsoft's products at the time. But LinuxWorld as a conference ended before they got the chance.
One of the questions I asked still strikes a chord with me though. It was about the current ranking of the worlds fastest super-computers, and which of them ran which operating system. It was a trick question, as none of them ran Windows of course. Over ninety-nine percent of them ran Linux.
Needled by the question, Bill announced, “I'd rather have ninety-nine percent of the desktop than one-hundred percent of the super-computer market” which got him a lot of laughs. At the time he was right of course. Linux at that time was really a server-only operating system, with a very small desktop presence. Windows owned the desktop completely (and still does for that metter). If you've read the Geoffrey Moore book “Crossing the Chasm” you'll recognize Linux was still in the technology enthusiasts stage, yet to make the leap to mainstream acceptance. It was nowhere on the desktop.
Around that time every year was heralded as “the year of the Linux desktop.” Strangely enough, every year still is. At the time I was completely confident that this would eventually occur. “If you haven't used a Linux desktop yet,” I would say, smiling smugly, “just wait. Give it five years, give it ten, you eventually will.”
I'm now not so sure of that claim. But not because Linux hasn't taken off or gotten mainstream acceptance. Because in five to ten years time there just won't be as many people running conventional desktop PC's. The landscape has completely changed. I first noticed this a few years ago, when flying to a conference and looking around the main cabin (I don't get to fly business). There were only two people using a laptop, and both of us were old. Everyone else was using mobile devices, phones or tablets. I think these days I could safely make the prediction “If you haven't used a Linux device yet, within five to ten years you will.”
Are you winning if you own ninety-nine percent of a moribund market ? I don't think so. Linux and Open Source/Free Software has crossed the chasm now. It has become the mainstream. Every Android tablet or phone out there is a Linux and Open Source/Free Software platform, and in the next few years I fully expect this to become the most common form of computing for most people worldwide (disclaimer, I do work for Google so please take such predictions with the pinch of salt they deserve).
For Free Software advocates like myself this is a tremendously positive change. The dirty secret of Samba, my own Free Software project, is that for a while the developers only ever run Windows ourselves in order to test Samba (which is an interoperability solution). Mostly everyone uses a different variety of Free Software desktops and servers (with the odd Mac or Solaris/Illumos user thrown into the mix). The default at least for us has become Free Software.
So have we won ? Should we just pack up the advocacy tent and go home ? Unfortunately not. Most of the applications running on these devices are still proprietary. Most people using mobile devices, although they might be running a Free Software operating system underneath, still don't realize why Free Software is important.
You could argue that Free Software is an exotic subject, that most people just don't care, but I disagree. Everyone understands why having a wide network of car repair shops where you can take any car is important to keep the economics of car maintenance reasonable. But few seem to understand why having the source code of the programs that you run on your computer is important. Most important of all is the freedom to modify and install changed versions as you wish. Even if you can't or don't want to do it yourself, having the source code enables you to go to the Free Software equivalent of the local car mechanic and get the changes you need made.
My hope is that this is a generation gap that will eventually close. A lot of older people know how to work on cars. When I grew up it was common for many car owners to be able to do simple repairs to their own vehicles. A younger generation raised on computers and the Internet should feel the same way about the mobile computing devices they own.
There are some good signs in this direction. The recent “We the People” petition requesting the US government to allow unlocking of cell phones from carrier network restrictions shows that people do understand the restrictions that can be placed on their freedom to use their devices as they wish, and want them removed.
Another positive sign is the backlash against the hideous Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill that would have added restrictions to the Internet, our primary source of communications freedom. The reaction was so strong that even the US Congress ran screaming from the rage of their own constituents.
What I'd love to see is the Internet generation feeling that same sense of outrage when their computer or mobile device tells them some version of “I'm sorry Dave, but I can't let you do that.” Because it doesn't fit the business model of the vendor, or the restriction will somehow make them more money.
The world doesn't have to be that way. Many of us have moved from a proprietary operating system platform onto a free one, now let's push up the application stack and make all the software we depend on Open Source/Free Software. We've crossed the chasm, now let's climb the mountain of proprietary applications that still lies ahead of us.
Just using the software and reporting bugs is very helpful to the developers. We can all help make Free Software programs better for us to share with our friends and neighbors !
14th March 2013.