The Limits of Linux's 'Live Free or Die': Page 2

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A major PC maker like Dell may sell Ubuntu-equipped PCs and netbooks, but few users seem willing to embrace a wholly new, largely backwards-incompatible ecosystem for the sake of either saving a few dollars or being more secure. The Mac offers them all of that and more, albeit at a premium cost. But still, the perceived value associated with buying into Apple’s walled garden has created many more satisfied customers than disgruntled refugees.

Apart from servers, the other biggest area where Linux has made inroads has been in mobile technology. And even there, it’s only been after major third-party work was involved. This isn’t itself a bad thing; Linux’s big appeal has always been its malleability. But it hasn’t created an end-user market for Linux as an ecosystem unto itself—just as a development toolkit, or raw material to be further processed.

Google’s Android and Chrome OS, for instance: Android doesn’t replace anything except other phones, and even Chrome OS’s own makers are clear that it is an adjunct to the desktop and not an attempt to usurp it.

Another major fallout from Linux’s open-only stance: the most robust hardware support for Linux comes only come from those who are using it as raw material for their own devices (as in the examples above). The rest will simply ignore Linux, or will throw only the most minimal effort behind a “community-supported driver.”

The reason: Linux’s marketshare, apart from places where it’s institutionally legion (mainly servers), isn’t big enough – or growing enough – to risk a viable business model on what amounts to good intentions.

Blaming hardware manufacturers for not getting with the open source program is myopic. There are far more people making hardware that uses closed-source binaries—and making money from that hardware—than there are people whose livelihoods depend on open source. They should have the right to choose whether to open their hardware (isn’t “choice” a big open source buzzword, anyway?).

By and large they have opted not to do so because there’s little or no tangible advantage for them. There are hardware makers who support Linux. But they do so because it matters to their business in some way—not because they earnestly believe they can reach a state where hardware can be subsidized wholly through support contracts.

Keeping an open mind

None of what I have written here should be construed as an argument that Linux has no value, or that it has no future. The sheer weight of the evidence to the contrary would break the pans of any scale. Its malleable nature—or rather, the fact that it has been mandated to be malleable—offers immense value.

What I am arguing is that Linux’s current position creates as many strictures as it does possibilities. The insistence that everything begins and ends with source code is of great value in the development sphere. But in the messier, far less structured real world, results count more than potential.

For proof of this, look no further than one project on Linux that has generated both great enthusiasm (among programmers) and controversy (among die-hard open-source supporters): the Mono project, an implementation of Microsoft’s .NET stack in Linux.

Mono allows an easy, consistent way to deploy proprietary apps on Linux in high-level languages, without having to deal directly with the shifting tectonic plates of different distributions and kernel versions. The project’s been attacked for its Microsoft roots. But that distinction means little to most of the computing world, which uses Microsoft along with a great many other closed- and open-source vendors. The world wants to use a mix of open-source and proprietary solutions whenever possible, and Linux—both the platform and the culture around it—makes that more difficult than it needs to be.

Linux’s maintainers need to be honest with themselves about how realistic it is to continue employing a strategy that essentially guarantees that Linux will forever be a development platform, rather than a deployment platform.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Linux desktop, linux salary, kernel

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