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.
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.
Filed under: Advocacy