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Making a Difference the Linux Way

The year of the Linux desktop.

The phrase has been a comical punching bag for a number of years. At the turn of every new year the question can be found on hundreds of Linux-centered websites.

“Will this be the year of the Linux desktop?”

The fact is, we’ll never see “the year of desktop Linux.” Not the way we imagine it anyway. Many of us long for the time when Linux will become a well known alternative to Microsoft Windows. That just isn’t gonna happen.

Linux distros

Here’s why.

As a marketed product, Linux was set up to fail upon inception and a couple of things are responsible for that fact. Why would anyone advertise a product when it doesn’t cost anything? Linux is free. There is no financial incentive for advertising something that isn’t going to bring you a return on your money. I’m not saying Linux was ever a marketed product on a large scale. I’m saying it would not survive as a marketed product — not in its present form anyway.

Microsoft brewed the perfect storm when they came to market with Windows. At the time, there simply wasn’t a product to compete with Windows, with the exception of OS/2. Some of us gray beards will remember well that definitive event. We look back on it now and see that had IBM been able to compete with Windows in the marketplace, this would be a different world indeed.

“The collaboration between IBM and Microsoft unraveled in 1990, between the releases of Windows 3.0 and OS/2 1.3. During this time, Windows 3.0 became a tremendous success, selling millions of copies in its first year. Much of its success was because Windows 3.0 (along with MS-DOS) was bundled with most new computers. OS/2, on the other hand, was only available as an expensive stand-alone software package. In addition, OS/2 lacked device drivers for many common devices such as printers, particularly non-IBM hardware. Windows, on the other hand, supported a much larger variety of hardware. The increasing popularity of Windows prompted Microsoft to shift its development focus from cooperating on OS/2 with IBM to building their own business based on Windows.”

With that being understood, we can begin to understand why Linux has only claimed a sliver of use as a desktop solution. Many of us have come to realize that Microsoft may well have bullied computer manufacturers. “Oh, you want to produce computers with other operating systems? Here you go, let’s double the cost of Windows licenses. Do you still want to provide alternative operating systems?”

Honestly, that might have been a good streak of luck in disguise. Linux had not matured nearly enough at that time to compete in the desktop and enterprise markets.

Times have changed since then, but it’s still not the year of the Linux desktop. That doesn’t mean Linux cannot be useful at the user level. It most certainly can, which I can demonstrate with ease.

Linux lapdopMeet Thomas. Thomas is a typical 16 year old high school kid doing typical 16 year old kid things. He excels in mathematics and statistics as well as computer science. A pastor at a local church called us and explained that Thomas could benefit from receiving a home computer. His mom is working two jobs and is the only parent in the household. She has to work two jobs to keep home and hearth together for her two kids. It’s a struggle for her. Thomas is the older of the two boys.

We presented Thomas with a decent Dell dual core Inspiron and within 15 minutes he had almost everything figured out without any help. Most kids are like that. Once you introduce a new tech environment to them, it doesn’t take them long to be at one with the device.

But the story doesn’t stop with Thomas. Thomas has weekly activities after school and he brings his laptop with him when he attends. One of activities is a computer club. Thanks to Thomas, of the 25 people attending this computer club, four of them now include Linux as a dual boot. Enough interest has been expressed, that I’ve been invited to attend a session in April to formally introduce Linux and free open source software to the group.

Four out of 25 kids in that group were impressed enough by Thomas’s Linux laptop that they wanted Linux on their computers as well. I’ll take those percentages all day.

Some of you may believe that in the grand scheme this doesn’t really mean anything. I disagree and I’ll tell you why. Their generation will plant the first human footprint on mars. They will create the cure for diabetes. They will insure the sequence of the human genome will be completely determined via DNA sequencing. They won’t create the next technology renaissance, they will be the next technology renaissance.

You and I already know what impact Linux has made in many scientific endeavors and organizations. My “basket crunchers” spit out hour after hour of cycles for projects ranging from cancer research to Hubble telescope image interpretations. A basket cruncher is an entire computer built inside a milk crate and not a traditional computer case. Projects like BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) are able to use thousands of these networked devices across the globe and channel them into the different projects they sponsor. We can give these projects super computer power at a fraction of the cost. At one time we had 9 of these devices working. We couldn’t do that using Windows, at least not nearly to the extent we do now. The licenses alone for our basket crunchers would exceed $1,000.

Using Linux to perform tasks that contribute to large projects is a good thing but, on a smaller scale, Linux can have a meaningful impact as well. It can bring people together.

Our Reglue kids Jennifer Gonzales and her boyfriend Simon Fitch are entering graduate school this coming autumn and Linux not only powers their laptops, the software they use throughout their chosen field of geology is Linux or Linux based. Jennifer met Simon in the library two years ago when Simon commented in passing about how cool her computer screen looked. He told her it looked “dangerous”. She was running Mint KDE with a couple Superkaramba widgets.

Girl meets boy, boy covets girl’s desktop, boy wants to hang out with girl so he starts using Linux. And they all lived happily ever after…well, so far anyway.

My point is simple. You may introduce Linux to 40 people and only have one person pick up on it. But the expansion from that one person can be profound. Don’t pay attention to usage and projection figures. There is no way to track that info. There are no sales figures to measure success or failure and the various ways of accounting for what OS is used on any given site can be misleading or just dead wrong.

I don’t think many of us have any idea of how powerful the Linux experience can be, at least to someone sick of fooling with Windows’ nonsense. Jennifer and Simon are planning their wedding after the first year of their graduate studies. That union came from a “dangerous” looking desktop. Whaddaya want bet that their kids will cut their technology teeth on Linux.

I’ll put $100.00 on that right now.

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Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project that refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area.

9 comments to Making a Difference the Linux Way

  • Nice story Ken, keep up the good work.

  • Eddie G.

    I never really WANTEd a “Year Of The Linux Desktop”! i am perfectly happy to be the odd-man-out…and to use something that isn’t mainstream….makes me feel special…LOL! As for getting Linux into the hands of those who otherewise might not get it…i applaud you Sir. My son who’s only 14 years old has been BEGGING me for a laptop…(and I’ve got one for his birthday!) but the surprise to me? was when he said he didn’t care which OS was on it…he would be installing Fedora Linux on it for his personal use…(a chip off the ol’ block…I’ve been using Fedora since release version 9!) So I guess when we adults (read: old folks..LOL!) use Linux in the presence of your kids…grand kids…nephews…nieces etc we’re heling to spread the ideology of Open Source software without really trying! I for one have no choice but to use Windows at work…what a nightmare!) but ALL the PC’s and laptops I have in my house are all Windows-free, and run some version of Linux…(I’ve found a “new” one recently…Stella Linux….based off of CEntOS/Scientific/Red Hat Linux) I cannot see how one could turn back to Windows after experiencing Linux in a user-friendly fashion….I know that if Linux were ALL command line based a LOT of people wouldn’t use it…but with the amount of desktop environments….various applications…and ease of use / installation etc….its almost as if the Year of The Linux Desktop has come and gone already!

  • Eric Blair

    Hey gray beard,

    Did you forget about CP/M-86 and Digital Research Inc.’s other forays into the 16 bit realm? I was personally sorry to see DRI lose out to Microsoft way back then.

    Keep on keepin’ on,
    Another gray beard

  • Mike

    I loved DR-DOS. It was always a few steps ahead of MS-DOS, despite Microsoft’s efforts to sabotage it by making their applications (including Windows) check specifically for MS-DOS through undocumented methods.

    I remember the whole Stacker, DoubleSpace, DriveSpace fiasco too.

    Come to think of it, Microsoft behaved just as badly back then as they do today.

  • Kevin Wilcoxon

    As one of the masses who is not technically inclined, I am witness to the power of an idea. I have used and struggled with linux for ten years now. I’m a tinkerer and an independent. Linux has fostered both. As a tinkerer I keep trying things and mostly failing, but trying again and, recently, experiencing more successes. As an independent who loathes becoming too entwined with any company, linux frees me of that concern. Too, I am slowly becoming a contributor to the community that is linux

  • Purple Library Guy

    Of course Linux will never make inroads as a marketed product. It will make inroads as a (cheap!) component of marketed products.
    For instance, I will not be at all surprised if the Steambox goes places. And of course what’s inside the box is Linux. Why is what’s inside the box Linux? Because Linux doesn’t jerk Gabe Newell around, it just does its job.
    As long as the OS is a flagship technology, to be marketed on its merits as an amazing advanced product for which people should expect to pay, Linux will not be the technology marketed. But those days are ending. As the OS becomes more and more a background thing, with the marketing being about hardware underneath or value-added software sitting on top of the OS, Linux will become more and more desirable as that background thing.

  • wBudge

    Linux Mint Petra KDE (others too of course) is desktop ready, perhaps more so than Windows especially “out of the box”.

    And with the software manager for installing applications, subsequently automatically updated; that’s a true killer app right there.

    Even the GUI has the edge too, being slicker & more functional.

  • I’ve been running Linux on my desktop for 11 years, starting in Feb 15th, 2003. What did I use before that?

    Well I used a bunch of different things and some of those things really predated what we would consider to be a “desktop OS”. As far as I’m concerned some of my _least_ favourite experiences with computers occurred with Microsoft Windows. I’d never go back to that. Remember winmodems and winprinters?

    Yes, computers were more enjoyable to use in the early home computer era, and now we are in what I would call the post-Microsoft era. For me that started in 2003 and I admit I was late. My switch off from Microsoft could have happened as far back as 1994 (when I first became aware of Darkstar Linux).

    So you’ll have to excuse me when I chuckle a bit when I read stories about “The Year of the Linux Desktop”. It’s here and it happened for me a long time ago. It just takes a little bit of curiousity to see what is out there. Let’s not forget Minix first appeared in 1987. Old timers who built their own computers can probably remember a pre-Microsoft era. It’s not like Microsoft is the only game in town. We are living in a time period that has a ton of interesting choices for desktop operating systems.