Well, three months into 2007 and very few mass migrations to desktop Linux have been announced. A few thousands here and there, but not the millions we all want. Its beginning to look like our hopes for 2007 as the Linux Desktop Year (TM) have been misplaced yet again. The algorithm for the Linux Desktop Year is becoming clear now: N + 1, where N is the current year. Yep, its always next year. What's going on here? Are we never going to have Linux on the desktop? Products like Ubuntu and Novell are looking more and more solid, why aren't people installing it en masse? What about World Domination?
Lets start by defining what we really mean by "World Domination". It is unlikely that we will see a world where Linux has 90% of market share across all segments, in particular on the Desktop. There's just too big an installed based for that, and inertia is too strong. Nor would that happen overnight, as any migration at the corporate level can take years to plan. My personal definition of World Domination is much more pragmatic:
- For every new PC being sold, the buyer would consider whether to install Windows or Linux, basing his or her decision on technical and financial aspects;
- For every migration to the latest version of Windows, the IT department would consider migrating to Linux, basing his or her decision on technical and financial aspects.
In other words, I want to join a company and be asked whether I want Linux or Windows on my desktop, rather than just be given Windows and be told to shut up. And when I go to PC World, I want to be asked if I want Linux or Windows. A lot of people think that these things are not happening because a) Microsoft is putting illegal pressure on vendors to stop Linux adoption b) there are too many Linux variants so vendors don't know what to do (DELL was a good example). Actually, whilst I think these two factors are important, they are also very misleading. For starters, that didn't stop Linux in other market segments. Lets look at the recent history.
A few years ago, fifteen or so, Linux was virtually unknown in all computing markets (call it markets, call it segments, you choose). The mainstay of Linux support were the college dorms and the homebrew engineers. If you were to read the articles about Linux in those days, the few that existed, they all said that Linux would never leave the college dorms. Not so long after that Linux became one of the most popular platforms for ISPs and web servers in general, in partnership with Apache. We were then told that Linux would never be more than a platform for web-serving. Fast forward a few years more, around the turn of the century, and we were then told that Linux would never leave the server room. This was a time were Linux proved itself as a good file and print server, and a good citizen on a Windows network, all thanks to Samba. It was also the time when Linux's presence in the clustering, super computing and the embedded markets was consolidated. Around this time we also noticed Linux's presence in the high end server market, in databases and proprietary server applications. Fast forward again, now to the present time. To all these segments we've now added POS, kiosking and other more restricted desktop markets. We are now told that Linux will never leave the restricted Desktop markets.
If you consider my narrower definition of world domination, then one can say that it has been obtained in all these markets. In all of these, people spend time looking at alternatives before settling in Windows or Linux. In some cases Linux has got more than 50% market share, in many other cases it has not, but there is an ongoing battle for market share.
But let's have a closer look at the database segment, because many lessons can be learned from it. The high end is dominated by colossus such as DB2 and Oracle. Here Linux is extremely successful, mainly because people don't really care about the operative system; they care about the database product. Move over to the middle and low ends of the market though, and Linux penetration is very small. Yes, MySQL and PostgreSQL are making inroads, but the truth is they are yet to make a dent in the market share of SQLServer and Access, both Microsoft products. The same principle applies: people don't want to run PostgreSQL, they want to run SQLServer; and since it only works on Windows, well, that means they can only consider Windows.
The lesson to take home from all of this is simple. Linux is extremely competitive in markets: a) that have no installed base, or where the field moves so fast that the installed base is obsoleted quickly and has to be replaced (embedded, clustering, supercomputing) b) that depend only in standard protocols or protocols that can be legally reversed engineered (file serving, web serving, authentication) c) that depend on applications which have already been ported to Linux, and where the port is of the same grade or higher as the original version (Java Application Servers, SAP, Oracle, DB2, bespoke applications, game servers) d) where there is a clone of a key application, and the clone offers a superset of the features of the original application, providing full compatibility e) where there is a compatibility layer that allows Linux to run applications designed for other platforms (.Net SWF GUI applications, Wine).
All these are pretty self explanatory, with the exception of d) and e) so lets have a look at those.
In terms of d), I don't mean cloning here like the GIMP is a clone of Photoshop; I mean cloning like EnterpriseDB. EnterpriseDB, the PostgreSQL derivative which aims to be fully compatible with Oracle, is experiencing huge growth, and the root cause of this growth is the claimed drop-in Oracle compatibility. It appears companies are buying the product in droves, trying to save money in Oracle licenses. In my personal opinion, whilst the principle is brilliant, EnterpriseDB made a mistake by going after Oracle. Most people that buy their products have money to spare and are not worried about costs. This does not mean there aren't many people who buy Oracle because they have to, but the number of people in this situation is rather small. However, if EnterpriseDB were to offer a drop-in SQLServer replacement, I am convinced their demand would have been much higher, by many orders of magnitude. I am talking specifically about a product that can: talk TDS, requiring no modification from clients to connect to it; import stored procedures, data and schemas from SQLServer with one click; be managed from Enterprise Manager and any other SQLServer tools as if it was another instance of SQLServer; run TSQL stored procedures without modification. Such a product would sell a lot more because people that buy SQLServer are much more cost sensitive than people that buy Oracle. But the principle here is that a clone can open a lot of doors.
As far as e) is concerned, this hasn't been proved yet because the emulation layers are not 100% complete. The big difference between .Net and Java is that many .Net GUI applications rely on Windows Forms (SWF), which means they are a lot more Windows dependent. Mono is working hard in getting a good SWF implementation, but this is a hard task and 100% compatibility will take a while. The same can be said for Wine, on the making for over a decade, forever getting closer but still struggling with compatibility. IMHO, all big Linux companies should get together and finance Wine, either through investing in CodeWeavers or by having their own Wine developers. If Wine was able to run _all_ windows applications say up to XP, and do so smoothly, without any problems, this would open many, many doors to Linux (and all other operative systems with Wine). I'm not talking about "it almost works, or it works sometimes" type of compatibility, I'm talking about rock-solid, uncrashable, perfect, flawless support. This will require huge amounts of investment. However, such level of compatibility would allow IT departments to consider Linux/Windows migration separately from the migration of Office and other key windows applications. To migrate everything in one go is just too deep a plunge for many people, too much risk. It's not that OpenOffice and other applications aren't good; its just a question of reducing the amount of change required in one go. Both approaches are good and should be pursued, for different reasons. OpenOffice caters for a less demanding segment of the population, Office on Wine caters for a totally different segment.
One last rant goes for the multimedia situation. We need to have _all_ popular codecs available in Linux legally and Fluendo's work is a significant milestone in this regard. Ubuntu is also making strides in this department, and pragmatism is the only way to win the day here. Don't take me wrong, there is a lot of merit in a lot of the religious causes. OGG over MP3 any day. Software patents are evil. GNU rules. But to create an operative system that ignores the current state of the world and is instead designed for the world we all would like to live in, is to doom it to failure. A case in point: last year the basketball World Cup was on, and I desperately wanted to watch Angola play. I then found out that the games were available on-line, but could not get any of the existing Linux media players to work with FIBA's website. Yes, proprietary codecs are evil but this is the World Cup we're talking about and I'm not RMS, so I compromised. Since we don't have anything else other than Ubuntu at home, I ended up having to watch the games at work. Fortunately I had understanding bosses, but is it really fair to demand this sort of commitment from the mass market? And to shut this people from Linux is not beneficial for us because, as we all know, critical mass is important. If Linux had 20% of the desktop market we would get a lot more attention from hardware companies, media websites, game developers, the world at large. They would think about us when they release new products. Would we really care if 19% of the 20% didn't know anything about freedom and GNU? Would we be worse off with them on board than without? Besides, it is a lot more likely that they would find out about freedom once they've started using Linux. "Who are this people who give their time for free to create such a good product?"
Forget about all the religious wars for a moment and lets put our business hats on. The truth is, the _vast_ majority of people out there never heard about Linux. Let me tell you this, I have walked around Africa for four months and met _two_ people that heard about Linux, and even then only vaguely. "Like Mac right?". A girl asked me if my Debian t-shirt had anything to do with lesbians. Even in South Africa, the home of Ubuntu, I've seen nowt, not even a single mention of it. Not on telly, not on the shops, not on the streets, not on the cybercafes, not on the big supermarket chains. You ask about Ubuntu on the streets and people think you're trying to learn Zulu or Khosa and you mean peace and unity. If we want mind share we need to be able to be functionally equivalent to Windows, with no excuses. You have to understand, from an outsider perspective religion _is_ an excuse. You can't really promote Linux to this people and then say "but you can't really play proprietary media without breaking the law, and even then it will take you days to configure". To start promoting Linux we first need the ability to play all the popular media formats, and to do so legally and without placing _any_ configuration demands to the user other than clicking a button. Keep in mind that when we do get to this level, we still have a long mind share struggle to face; it will take years to get the word out there, to get people to try.
So when are we going to get world domination?
- When we can run all the popular applications faultlessly, in particular the Windows ones, regardless how that is done (port, emulation);
- When we can play all the media formats flawlessly and legally;
- When Linux is mass advertised.
We are getting close. But remeber the rule of credibility: "The first 90% of the code accounts for the first 90% of the development time. The remaining 10% of the code accounts for the other 90% of the development time."