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Linux and the "Mainstream"

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It’s not terribly often I have a “get real” moment with Linux in general and the community in particular (the latter more often than the former to be sure), but I am at that point again.

My thought exercise deals primarily with desktop computing, not the server-space.  Why, you may ask?

In the server space, you rarely have the OS wars, zealotry, flame-fests, and all-out fanboy-ism.  Server admins do their jobs, install, deploy, commission, decommission, and serve the user space quite happily from their distro of choice, oftentimes with the users blissfully unaware of the underlying technology.  All they know is that their application is up, available, and it just works.

No, my thoughts are on the user space…the desktop.  The wild west.

If you look around, there is a large base of desktop Linux and UNIX users out there.  From RedHat to Ubuntu or straight Debian, to Slack, SuSE, or Gentoo (to name but a few) there is every shape and color of environment to choose from sporting an innumerable selection of implementations of X, Windowing environments, and associated “enabling” technologies.

It often seems that here is where the largest OS wars are waged.  The Desktop Space.  It even appears that more and more the server side is firmly entrenched in business at all levels, yet the advance and hold of the desktop space is tenuous as ever.  Why?

The Apps

There was a time that it was believed it was all about the apps and the platform didn’t really matter.  As long as the user could get their email and browse YouTube, it didn’t really matter how they got there, as long as they did and piano-playing cats satiated their need for video novelty.

Problem is, that turned out to be far from the case.

No one can deny that with the appropriate gyrations, anyone can use an installation of Linux.  There’s apps there, web browsers with all the lovely plugins we’re used to and with analogues to just about everything we could need in a 21st century computing world.

Still, Linux makes no advance.

The Community

The Linux community is somewhat of a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, you have the largest user community (and by implication, support community) ever to come together for any technology.  It is lauded as the best operating system because of this community in particular.  All this is true.  You can find as many people as you can computers in this world, all with their own take on Linux and it’s place in the world.  From the anti-“other guy” fanatics to the “it’s just the best” aficionados, there is more than you could ever want in the way of free (not $1.00/minute) support you could ever want.

Still, Linux makes no advance.

The Administrators

In the admin’s world, everything is very easy.  You use kickstart to clone machines to a similar (or identical) base installation upon which to work your techno-sorcery for your employer.  You may use puppet, opsware, or other tools to unify configuration management across the enterprise.  You manage your ticket tracking on open-source products running on Linux systems providing sometimes millions of pageviews to the public.  But sitting on your desk, usually mandated by the selfsame company, is a Windows laptop or desktop issued to you by your overlords to use as your primary desktop.

Still Linux makes no advance.

Jobs

You are looking for work.  From your Linux laptop you surf the sea of recruiting sites looking for that perfect Linux gig.  Suddenly, you find it.  All the pieces are there for you to really help make a difference and make this environment just sing.  The money’s good, and the hours and dress code are outstanding.  Best yet, they have a clue and allow you to have a Linux desktop and you even manage the mail,  and calendaring  servers that all fully support Linux!  You click the link, are redirected to the recruiting website, and are greeted with a “Sorry, but this is an Internet Explorer Only Website.  We are sorry for any inconvenience.”

Internet Explorer Only.  For a Linux only job.  At a Linux shop.  Serving a Linux infrastructure.  Let’s say you manage to wrangle an email address of a recruiter and get through… He asks for a resume.  You provide your normal PDF, TXT, or HTML resume for his convenience only to be told “We require Word 2007 format.  It’s all our system understands, and we cannot get you into our system without it”.

Still Linux makes no advance.

Inertia

All these things happen in myriads of ways to different people in different enterprise situations every day.  Either one piece of the puzzle isn’t there, or some part of the communications chain departs from Linux compatibility, or some other vital piece of the puzzle has gone missing, leaving Linux professionals adrift on a desolate, isolated (albeit huge) island that the rest of the world has no problems visiting, but they don’t want to own land there.

The server space could transform into a world where Linux held 75% of the server space, and I still don’t think you would see any more serious penetration into the end-user world than you do today.  Why?

Integration & Documentation

One thing Microsoft has done correctly is build an end-to-end playground for it’s users.  Sure, some of the swings are broken and if you don’t use that merry-go-round quite right it could kill you, but it is a complete playground, and it is the prettiest one on the block.  You don’t need to have directions, you just know how to use all the toys, and you can get around without any training or supervision.

On the other hand, out there in the Linux playground there isn’t the same set of toys, and some of the slides don’t go all the way down. You have to be careful on those monkey-bars since the rough edges haven’t been sanded and painted like you’d expect and nothing really works like anything you’ve seen and there’s none of those cool little signs along the playground showing you how to navigate around and get from game to game.

This can be frustrating enough to make you want to walk back across the street to the lesser sized, lesser featured, lesser capable playground where everything is neatly painted and clearly marked.  All the slidesgo all the way down, and little to no work is necessary on your part other than to just play and have fun.

What?

Ok, what did my putrid attempt at metaphor say?

Simple.  Given enough time, research, and effort, you can do ANYTHING with Linux you set your mind to do.  From browsers to flash to office suites to just about anything you can think of. (even including running many Windows games and tools through amazing products like Crossover)

But there’s one thing there that we forget (especially in America) regarding that whole experience…  It requires work, forethought, research, inference, a little ingenuity and a lot of  what no Windows or Mac box ever requires of you…  effort.  (stick with me for a moment)

The effort in Windows/Mac-land has been moved.  It’s on the “have problems” end.  The second or third experience set you have with your system.  In Linux-land, it’s all been front-loaded.  You have to climb all those hills and overcome all those obstacles first before you get anywhere.

The Way Forward

The only way that Linux will start to proceed and ultimately overcome on the desktop is when the effort bubble moves further away from the initial experience.  The user will have to be able to sit down and do absolutely everything they’ve ever done before with a limited amount of effort just to get going, and while most anyone is willing to learn new things, it’ll take them being mostly trivial learning events (not ever amounting to a learning curve) before users will flock en-masse to Linux desktops.

As much of a Linux fanboy as I am, I’m also sort of realistic.  Until the whole experience from start to finish is at least as smooth as a Windows or Mac world (not the same, but as smooth), lazy users will still tend toward the entropy of “easy to use” most every time.

What Can We Do

This is rather simple, actually.

Get on board with a project or two.  You don’t have to know how to code, just help write documentation.  Learn how the product you’re supporting works inside and out.  Hang out on the chat rooms and support boards, and any and all questions you can answer, do so.  Help out with local Linux install-fests, and don’t be afraid to help a local rookie personally.

The easier adoption becomes, the better for obtaining new “lookers”.  But the easier the entire process becomes, the more long-term converts you’ll have.

The Linux Community can indeed grow and the products we use can, with time, become dominant.  But it starts with each of us doing everything we can to make the adoption and retention process as smooth as, or dare I say it smoother than that of the Windows and Mac world.

Until we reach this level of smoothness and excellence, we are destined to ride that third-place wave.

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