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LinuxWorld’s “Why Is Open Source World Domination Taking So Darn Long?”

Asking the Wrong Question can Make your Point
I recently ran across an article on LinuxWorld.com entitled “Why Is Open Source World Domination Taking So Darn Long?” Christian Einfeldt makes the right point about the delayed domination, and he does it with a red herring that started me off on a very different rant. But, it turns out that the questioning title of the article actually answers itself. That is, there are enough reasons for it taking “so long” that the act of asking the question demonstrates how so many of mislead ourselves into overestimating the general “readiness” state of open source software.

How We Fool Ourselves
Many of us look at the ideals and vision that open source sets–collaborative development and shared success, a certain cooperative altruistim, and better software through some sort of benign Darwinian progression–and we see the future now. The process is better. The motivation behind producing open source software have a pleasant infusion of altruism. The quality and security of the code through the open source development process is generally better. The intellectual freedom it repesents is inspiring. All around, we can see a convergence of evidence to indicate that open source software is just better. It comes from a vision that is compellingly superior to how software has previously been produced. But there’s one problem.

Many of the products of open source have yet to surpass their proprietary software counterparts. For that matter, a lot of it isn’t even “good enough” yet.

To be sure, it’s not always because of the actual software. Often it’s because we are so quick to presume the “for what?” that necessarily must follow “good enough.” (That, in fact, is one of my ongoing rants.) The open source idealist often jumps past many of the reasonable expectations that end users have for software usability. Enthusiasm for open source is good to have, but taking it too far (overzealousness) leads to setbacks.

Even though it won’t happen overnight, three things will lead to the eventual dominance of open source. First, finding right-fit roles for various available open source projects. Second, learning from their use in those roles, and the gradual progression of the projects as a result. Third, not overshooting or promising beyond the capabilities of the software at any given time, because each failure can become an example–large or small–of how the software is “not ready yet.”

The general “it’s not ready yet” stigma is the worst thing for open source, and we the believers in it only harm our own cause when we force that perception by overshooting.

Conservative Positioning
This need for even-handedness with open source is why Novell has received some amount of inquisitive commentary about being too conservative in positioning Novell Linux Desktop. (Even some of my Novell colleagues have said so much to me.) My team and I stick by a primary message that Linux desktops are best when applied for specific tasks and well-understood user types. (Fortunately, our CEO is of the same opinion: bullish on the desktop opportunity, but realistic about the products best-fit roles within an organization.)

For the record, I compose this blog from my Linux laptop, usually using a wireless connection that I can easily switch to at home or the office by using the desktop wireless applet (netapplet) that was included in Novell Linux Desktop. Sometimes I compose in OpenOffice.org Writer, but usually I use my Firefox browser directly. So, I for one am comfortable working from Linux, and I am one of these “knowledge workers” that I tell most organizations to target last. I rely on Linux as my primary productivity operating system. The software is indeed “good enough” for me.

But here’s the rub: my wife–a marketing professional as well–is still not comforatable in Linux. She’s savvy enough with a computer to feel the limitations that OpenOffice, GNOME and a host of not-yet-available applications put on her. Since it’s not right for everyone yet, I stick to the idea that if we’re up front about the technology, rather than overcome with our own optimism, then new adopters (particularly IT decision makers) will approach it with the right mindset when they start looking into adopting Linux desktops.

Performing as Expected
Back to Einfeldt’s article…Open source world domination is following exactly the course one would expect an emerging and disruptive technology to follow. Most new technologies don’t take over like wildfire, suddenly bursting into flames of general popularity. Instead, new technologies usually have to get grab in a few select spaces and then work their way to general popularity. This is particularly true with replacement technologies. (When I travel abroad, I am often surprised to find that the wireless telephone infrastructure in many developing countries is actually ahead of the United States’.) Newer, often less-expensive technology replaces the older entrenched technology much more slowly than adoption. And Mr. Einfeldt makes that relevant connection–the developing world will be a rapid growth area for open source software, particularly operating systems like Linux.

So, to expand on Mr. Einfeldt’s point, open source software in fact is rapidly growing into a breadth of new roles and adoption is very healthy. People are taking it seriously. But it’s still very early in the game, and it’s likely that there remain several more steps and stages to go through before the revolution is done.

4 Responses

  1. You should check out this story – it summarizes a lot of my feelings about trying to get Linux going on my test Toshiba laptop. Everything worked great except the wireless (which doesn’t work at all with any linux distro, even when I turn security off on my access point) and printing. Unfortunately, those are both deal-killers for Linux for me. (Not that I’d switch from my powerbook anyway). 🙂

    Linux is good as a desktop for technical people, and for organizations willing to roll out and support their own install an image for end-users. Laptop support is pretty questionable (I think) when it comes to power management, video, sound, wireless, and sleep/resume, forcing a company adopting Linux to evaluate and test laptops before purchasing them. For servers, Linux is great, no doubt about that.

    Like the post I linked said, Linux is 80% there but the last 20% is important stuff.

  2. In my personal experience, the lack of adequate documentation on how the wireless stuff is architected/implemented makes it even a deal killer for technical users.

    Somebody really needs to write some good documentation on this stuff. Every distro, heck even different flavors within one company, such as sles, susepro, nld, all seem to do the wireless thang different enough, that what works on one, doesn’t work on the other.

  3. What happens in open source development process is not Darwinian evolution because the apparition of new traits (new code modules, etc.) are caused by programmers (men, who are rational and write their code for a purpose).
    It could be best viewed as a form of intelligent design (as opposed to naturalistic evolution, i.e. only-material-explanations evolution).

    • @xkz:
      Your observation is technically correct. If you focus on how software is created, then it’s much more like ID than biological evolution. (And, because I am an ardent science advocate, I’ll note that proponents of ID–lacking any scientific basis for their claim–rely entirely on this metaphor to make their case.) You would also be correct to note that the notion of progress in evolutionary theory is flawed thinking. And, you would also be correct to note that the word “benign” makes little sense in the context of Darwinism.

      However, I was looking at the selection process, which is not performed by the creators of the software but its users. Sometimes they are one and the same, but since much of the selection of software is performed by non-developers you can abstract the creation process from the selection process. There may be intelligence pulling the levers and turning the dials behind the scenes, but it wasn’t the point.

      More important, when I said “…some sort of benign Darwinian progression…” I was speaking of a notion, an ideal.

      “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to *any* manufacturers of dairy products.

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