Mike Schaeffer's Blog

July 24, 2006

In a recent article on newsforge Toby Richards discusses his pet theory describing why Linux isn't mainstream. You should read the article yourself (it's short), but the basic gist is that 'people' at home want to use operating systems that are compatible with what they use at work, and Linux isn't used at work because there isn't a good equivalent to Microsoft Outlook. The problem is: this reasoning has been tried before.

For over a decade, there's always been some mystical missing piece of technology that was holding Linux back from mainstream acceptance. For a while personal finance software filled this role, later on it was a unified desktop, and later still, when KDE and Gnome reached stability, the need for good office software took up the baton. Fast forward to 2006 and the "one missing thing Linux needs to become mainstream" is apparantly a good equivalent to Microsoft Outlook.

This line of reasoning is seductive to programmers: it basically transforms the question of "What does Linux need to become mainstream?" into the question "What code do I need to write?". After all, if the only thing holding Linux back from mainstream acceptance is a piece of code, then a missing piece of code is easy for a programmer to fix. In fact, since 1997 (the last time I ran Linux full time), basically all of the 'missing pieces' I mentioned above have been rewritten or created anew. If an integrated graphical desktop with a functional office suite was really the key to mainstream acceptance, then Linux should already be there. 10 years ago that was the belief and 10 years later that belief was basically proven completely wrong. When was the last time you saw Linux running on anything other than a server or in some other relatively fixed-function application? Waving a magic wand and integrating Evolution with Exchange won't change this any more than any of the other scapegoats that have taken the blame for Linux's niche status in the past.

It'd be easy to blame this on changing times: after all, who knew that Exchange integration would be so key to Linux's mainstream acceptance a few years ago? Actually, that'd be anybody in IT with a pulse. As Todd points out, Outlook 97 ("It's nearly a decade old, for crying out loud.") runs under Wine and provides Exchange integration. Put another way, the Linux desktop software stack hasn't interoperated natively with the mainstream PC software vendor's e-mail solution for over nine years. This isn't a short-term problem: this is innate. Another example of this kind of long-running problem is the ongoing trouble finding modern video drivers for X11. As much as people complain about ATI's lousy video drivers, it's only a repeat of the same thing that happened with Neomagic and Diamond back in the mid-90's. The names are different, but the problem and result are exactly the same: when buying hardware, caveat emptor if you want modern graphics support.

In both of these cases, it's easy to assign blame to closed propriatary vendors. You could also argue that it's just a symptom of OSS developers wanting to work on whatever's 'coolest', rather than what needs to get done. However, with either explanation the problem is inherent with open source, and the net effect is the same: Linux gets most of the way to where it needs to be, but it gets there late and and fails to go the last mile or two. It's this last mile that's so important to mainstream acceptance, and getting through it is going to take a lot more than one or two pieces of code. I have no doubt that five years from now, Linux will have decent Exchange integration and excellent support for the ATI R300 graphics in my (then) six year old laptop. Too bad the battle for the desktop will have moved on.