Usually I try not to overdo the Linux evangelism. I'd rather Linux succeeded on its own merits than from the fumbling insights that come from the mouths of believers.
But last month I read an article and it left me feeling a little down. It was titled Is Linux Finished? and the author outlined what he thought were the reasons for the distinct lack of success Linux has had on the desktop.
A lot of it had to do with Apple stealing its niche, the lack of a decent user experience and the confusion that comes with distro fragmentation. It was a good article and each of these points is valid.
I've moaned about them before myself. But I do think that the article's negative prognosis for Linux, especially on the desktop, is becoming increasingly irrelevant and that's not something I expected 10 years ago.
What most of us forget now is that Linux was never created to compete with Windows. The first major release of the kernel, 1.0, came only a month after Windows for Workgroups 3.11. Those two technologies couldn't be more different and, despite appearances, they are just as different today.
What's governed development from that point isn't a desktop strategy, but purely a reflection of where the most contributions were being made to a major free software project. Linux was always, first and foremost, a Free software project. That's a capital 'F' for freedom.
It has always been a project that any developer could adopt and build upon. The proof that this simple idea has worked is all around you, from your digital television recorder and ADSL modem to your Android phone and Google search. It's this one concept of free adaptability that is Linux's killer feature, and thanks to the GPL licence that enshrines this freedom, it will remain so.
Quick to adapt
It's this feature that Steve Ballmer referred to as a cancer in his famous Chicago-Sun Times quote from 2001, and it's this feature that has always been the biggest threat to Microsoft. It's not the potential for desktop Linux to steal some of the Windows market share, although that would have been nice, it's the potential that Linux has to be quickly adapted to changing circumstances.
The original article also pointed out that while Linux had a massive lead on netbooks, that share was quickly trampled by Windows as the potential value of these little devices became apparent. That is a failure of Linux, but not because the user experience was wrong or because it was something different.
It was a failure because there was no mechanism for Linux to improve and respond. There was no central resource for a revised netbook campaign and no R&D department working on its successor. That situation isn't going to change unless one distribution becomes dominant and even then, I suspect that many Linux users won't be happy with a single gatekeeper.
But netbooks were also the perfect example of how Linux succeeds in a more profound way. Only Linux could be quickly adapted and deployed onto an emerging platform without the delay that accompanies other platforms.
It's the same for many other devices, including the new breed of tablets and phones. It does this without a marketing budget or thousands of sales people bombarding potential purchasers, OEMs and shops with discounts. Market share and money aren't good indicators of success for an operating system that costs nothing, even though companies like Google and Facebook are making money with Linux.
Success comes from the advancement of the original principles, and that means freedom. It's a brilliant, exciting, collaborative environment that scales better than any of its competitors. It's how many people re-found their love for computing, and it's how people are hoping to power a programming rebirth, like David Braben with his Raspberry Pi project.
Linux and free software has also been able to change interoperable attitudes towards proprietary software and the internet. None of us have to suffer IE-only sites any more if we don't want to. And while it might seem like I'm moving the Linux on the desktop success goalposts to a different continent, this paragraph is much closer to answering the 'Is Linux Finished?' question than the first.
The answer has to be a resounding 'No'. Linux is stronger than any of us could have imagined. It's not strong on the desktop, where many of us thought it should be. But it is in agility, community development and collaboration. That's real software and development democracy, and the only proper judge of success.
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