If it wasn’t for Linux setting the bar, would Windows users still be dealing with the “blue screen of death” several times a day?
There was a time when a computer operating system called Windows totally dominated the market, and it sucked. I mean, really sucked. Blue screens of death, unexplained crashes, viruses and worms galore, re-re-reboots all the darn time…and still, despite all the problems, people used this Windows thing. Why? Because except for the artsy/hipster $MacOS, it was the only computer OS you could get for your desktop, and it was the one that ran all the 17 jillion programs businesses wanted their office workers to use. Luckily, Windows has gotten a lot better over the years. Except…was it luck or was it Linux that made Windows improve?
Before we get into that, let’s talk about cars for a minute. Specifically Volkswagens, Renaults and Fiats. Once upon a time. American cars ruled our nation’s highways and byways. They were big. They had 738 cubic inch Hemiverberator V-8 engines, and loved to stop at gas stations. But hey! Gas was cheap. A couple of friends, maybe me and Indian Ron, could put $5 worth of premium into the big black Chrysler and cruise Van Nuys Boulevard all night or until we found honeys to ride with us, after which…. Sorry, this is a family website.
Meanwhile, now and then you’d see a tiny Volkwagen putting along in the right lane. They were cute little buggers, but there weren’t many of them. They did, however, scare the pants off American Car Company executives. Volkswagens sold for about $20 new in the 1960s, as opposed to maybe $2000 for a mid-sized Chevrolet. You could fix a VW with three wrenches, two screwdrivers, and a pair of pliers, and it got something like 400 mpg.
Before the VW invasion, American automakers sat back, smoking cigars and drinking whiskey, and turned out cars that were bloated, needed lots of maintenance, and rusted rapidly. They didn’t have to change their evil ways because they had no competition. Even VW didn’t give them a big scare. It took a combination of oil boycotts (and their accompanying sky-high gas prices) and reliable, fuel-efficient Japanese cars to get the idea through their thick skulls that times, they were a-changing.
But we were talking about Windows. It was as good as it had to be, which meant it could be pretty rotten and still dominate the OS market because it was all there was — other than that hippie/artist Mac thingy that couldn’t do real business computing or run a real server.
And then, one day there was competition. I’m talking about Linux. Like the early Japanese imports, it wasn’t as fancy or “feature-rich” (another word for “bloated”) as the dominant player. But it cost a lot less and was more reliable. Maybe it didn’t capture housewives’ hearts at first, but just as every gardener and lawn service guy in the western half of the U.S. suddenly seemed to own a Datsun or Toyota pickup, every server suddenly seemed to be running Linux.
Microsoft executives had gotten complacent, to the point where they came out with (shudder) Windows ME and (double-shudder) Vista, but even the suits started to wise up after a while. While their premier operating system was often (metaphorically) broken down by the side of the road, simple old Linux kept putting along, maybe without so many features or as much software available, and maybe without rich Corinthian leather upholstery, but just working day after day without missing a beat.
“Hmmm,” the wised-up Microsoft execs said to each other, “We need to get ourselves some of that there reliability.” Security, too, because Windows was prey to so many viruses and worms that it seemed like half the programs on sale in computer and office stores were some sort of anti-malware for Windows — or at least something that was meant to overcome Windows defects of one sort or another.
Now let’s fast-forward through a lot of pain, and semi-ignore the Microsoft stupidity that gave us the horrible Windows 10 user interface they later realized made more people angry than happy, and here we are with today’s Windows, which isn’t half-bad.
You can hate Microsoft all day long, but the reality is that Windows 7 and subsequent versions have been pretty reliable and pretty secure. And while the latest Windows 10 may have a sucky GUI, free, GPL-licensed Classic Shell cures that problem in a jiffy.
The latest usage stats show that something like 105 percent of all desktop computer users run Windows, while -4 percent run Mac OS and 0.0002 percent run Linux. Or something like that — with a majority of the world’s handheld devices running the Linux-derived Android OS, and a majority of the world’s servers, along with virtually all of its supercomputers, running Linux.
Do you know any true Windows loyalists? If you do, and one of them ever talks about how reliable Windows has gotten in recent years, you need to say, “You’re welcome.”
Yes, Linux forced Windows to get better, the same way tiny, tinny VWs and Japanese cars and pickups forced American car makers to produce better, more reliable, more fuel-efficient vehicles than they had before they had real competition.
Will Windows users ever thank Linux developers and users for helping Windows improve? Probably not, any more than you hear American car company executives thanking Japanese auto makers for forcing them to make better cars.
But even without a “thank you,” nothing stops a Linux developer or user from saying “you’re welcome” now and then, either silently or out loud.
Robin “Roblimo” Miller is a freelance writer and former editor-in-chief at Open Source Technology Group, the company that owned SourceForge, freshmeat, Linux.com, NewsForge, ThinkGeek and Slashdot, and until recently served as a video editor at Slashdot. Now he’s mostly retired, but still works part-time as an editorial consultant for Grid Dynamics, and (obviously) writes for FOSS Force.