20 Years of Linux: Where Is It Going?
Low End Mac Staff - 2011.08.25
Linus Torvalds announced his project to create a version of Unix specifically for the 80386 CPU on August 25, 1991, and the first pre-beta version shipped in September 1991. Its claim to fame is that Linux is a free, open source operating system with a large community of developers. This is in stark contrast to Windows and the Mac OS, both of which are commercial undertakings. (Apple was strongly encouraged to choose Linux as the foundation of Mac OS X, but instead chose BSD and the Mach kernel, which had also been at the core of the NeXT OS.)
Despite the advantage of being a very solid, free operating system, Linux hasn't made significant inroads in the world of personal computing. It is very popular for servers, and Android has made it a popular smartphone and tablet OS, but it consistently shows up at less than 1% of the installed user base on desktops and notebooks.
This week we're looking at the impact of Linux and open source software. With the rapid growth of Mac market share in recent years, we can't argue that Windows has a death grip on the market. Is the free software model flawed? Will Linux ever become popular with desktop and notebook users?
Dan Knight (Mac Musings): As an iPhone user with lots of free apps installed, I don't think the free software model is flawed. There is a lot of good freeware and shareware software out there.
I think the biggest problem Linux faces is that it's not being marketed. After all, where would the money come from to do that? Additionally, it's not a particularly friendly environment for users, as you need to install the right version of an app for the distribution of Linux that you're losing (this is less of a problem than it used to be). It's much easier to use Windows or Mac OS X.
Keith Winston (Linux to Mac: Linux is very fragmented, so the marketing message gets diluted as thinly as the number of distributions. It's great for roll your own types and great for creating customized solutions. Not great as a general purpose desktop.
As you mentioned, Linux shines when it is hidden in an embedded device. TiVo, phones, set-top boxes, etc. I love Linux on servers, and I do software development in Linux. It has a hideous audio system and is not supported for games, so I run it in a VM on either Windows or Mac.
I think Apple choose BSD more for licensing issues than technical ones. Jobs always liked the Mach kernel vs. the Linux kernel, so that may have been a technical choice, or preference.
Newer versions of Ubuntu are very Mac-like, and the hardware support is fantastic. I have tried and used various Linux distros and even switched from Mac to Linux for a few months. Ten years ago I wouldn't have dreamed of it, but the user friendliness of modern Linux is great. You do still need to be a geek to use it though. It's great when it is all working, but when something goes wrong or you need to tweak something, then out comes the command line.
Marketing isn't the problem; it just isn't user friendly enough. It is still too techie for the average user.
Mac, as great as it is, has had a hard time pushing its way through the Windows world, and it has taken a long time. Mac is sleek, stable, and well built, and yet it still is behind Windows (in numbers). Linux is way behind Mac in the sleek and well built stakes. Once it overcomes this, then it could be a contender, but Linux will always be geeky - it's just its nature.
With regards to "needing the right version" of an app, that's not quite true. There are only a few bases of Linux, and these bases have their app package types. Most modern distros have their own "repos" where you can download apps that work on your distro similar to the app store.
PowerPC Linux is even further behind. While the actually OS is great, most software is only developed for the x86 platform, so while you can install a stable version of Linux on your iBook, you will be hard pushed to get software to run on it. With the move to Intel, this becomes less a problem. You can install a regular x86 distro and have access to all software. Your Mac can triple boot OS X, Windows, and Linux all at full speed.
Austin Leeds: For me, Linux has been something of a half-full glass. It's free, very secure, and relatively solid, but the major problem holding it back is the sub-par user-friendliness that can be seen on many Linux distros. In this respect, I was rooting for Ubuntu early on, but recently, I've been looking at Fedora. I'd heard early reports of complete, out-of-the box compatibility with the Pismo PowerBook, but I didn't really take it seriously until my brother Cainon installed it on his troublesome Hercules eCafé netbook, and it worked with no intervention from me. If Fedora can get some advertising (hey, try a money bomb like Ron Paul does!), I think it might take off with users who want to switch from Windows but don't like Mac prices.
Cainon Leeds: This is Austin's brother. Like he said, I got Fedora version 15 installed on my netbook because I was fed up with Windows 7 Starter, and Ubuntu was having some problems with going to sleep and Internet connections. I've gotta say that Fedora really impressed me with its functionality. Ubuntu was kind of like a kid's operating system that I didn't mess with that much, so I just used Windows until it started getting slow from all its "updates". But with Fedora I really tried to get it to be able to do everything that Windows can do, and I did. Sure, Linux isn't in the mainstream yet, but I expect that to change with our falling economy. Some people, like me, can't afford Macs up front, so they put up with Windows. Once Linux becomes easier to install and understand, I think it'll take off, but I'll let the results speak for themselves. I don't always use Linux, but when I do, I prefer Fedora. Stay free, my friends.
Alan Zisman (Zis Mac): I was at the North American LinuxCon last week (held here in Vancouver); the keynotes - from Linux Foundation's executive director Jim Zemlin and Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst - joked about "Year of the Linux Desktop" but made the point that we're all using Linux whether we know it or not - most often secondhand (aside from the many Android users): Google, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, and more are all running web server farms on Linux.
Whitehurst in particular made the point that Linux and open source software in general enable both startups and existing companies to take risks on innovative projects that might otherwise not be followed up on, because the cost is so much lower. Prior to coming to Red Hat, he was with Delta Airlines; he talked about an IT project to change the way the airline dealt with ticketing (etc.) - but the company couldn't afford the development costs if they were having to pay for Sun servers and Oracle database. Open source (including Linux) enabled the IT department to demonstrate proof of concept - and to scale up into full implementation. The result is savings of $1 billion/year for Delta.
So, no, 2011 isn't shaping up as The Year of the Linux Desktop, but Linux is strong on the back end.
Allison Payne (The Budget Mac): I love knowing that Linux is an option out there for older hardware, but aside from one or two forays into Ubuntu on G3 iMacs, I haven't found much motivation to use it or recommend it to others. And I could do without the bickering amongst open-sourcers.
That said, I shudder to think how different the enterprise/server landscape would be today without a viable, rock-solid, flexible alternative to expensive and restrictive offerings from IBM, Oracle, Sun, Microsoft, etc. Not to mention what the mobile and Web services markets would look like. We've seen the pitfalls of monopolistic computer giants, and I sincerely hope we never return to that.
Bottom line: Do I think it's ever going to take over the world of personal computers? No, But Linux is key to maintaining a diverse foundation for computing going forward.
Adam Rosen (Adam's Apple): I don't believe Linux will ever succeed as a desktop, laptop, or general purpose OS. The barriers to entry and productive use among non-geeks are to high: What distro do I use? Will my favorite software run on it? Can I sync my iPhone? Who do I turn to for help and support? If it hasn't happened in 20 years, time to stop hoping.
Linux is very good as a server and embedded OS, as others have noted. Here the requirements are fixed (or more limited), and the technical knowledge for implementation and support typically exists. There's no reason to doubt that Linux won't continue to grow and dominate these fields.
Regarding price: There are several definitions of "free" and "open" software. Linux is open software, meaning a single person or company does not hold copyright to the code and cannot prevent others from modifying or using it as long as they obey the tenets of the GPL. There may well be a fee to purchase the code and/or support, but it's not privately held intellectual property. "Free as in speech".
Freeware or shareware programs may cost little to nothing as well, but if the code is proprietary and not available for reuse, the software isn't open and your license to use it (or not) depends on the whim of the developer. "Free as in beer". The former is a philosophy, the latter is a business model - though some overlap can occur.
Dan Bashur (Apple, Tech, and Gaming): Although I've never dabbled in Linux personally, I've considered it due to the low demands on hardware. I've read quite a bit about installing Ubuntu, Yellow Dog, and Fedora on G3 era machines, allowing you to squeeze a bit more muscle out of those classics. It could definitely be an extra option for my Pismo or iMac G3, allowing those machines to have a third option in addition to Mac OS 9 and X.
As far as applications go, there are some options, but far fewer than those for commercial operating systems. I have heard that performance with VLC Media Player is actually better in builds of Linux compared to OS X, which could be a good thing for those who want to build a home media server. To echo what Dan Knight said, "the marketing just isn't there." For software developers, there is not a whole lot of incentive to go after such a small piece of the pie. For a gamer's perspective on Linux, see my article Linux on a PlayStation 3 or Not: My Personal Struggle, which chronicles my personal struggle over a Sony PlayStation 3 that could be running Linux right now, if not legitimately upgraded.
Charles Moore (several columns): Linux and and the Open Source outlook and methodology would be a better fit for me philosophically than Apple's topdown, tightly controlled, micromanaged, because-we-say-so "Walled Garden" universe. That's because I'm probably nearly as much a control freak about my computing environment as Steve Jobs is about his. It also probably explains my lack of enchantment with my iPad 2 (I don't hate the iPad and the iOS, I just don't love them a whole lot).
What's kept me in the Apple fold has been the excellence and of the user-experience and the (mostly) solid elegance of the hardware. However, I've always found it a comfort to have Linux there as a potential "escape route" - and one that I've giving more serious thought to since the release of OS X 10.7 Lion.
My hands-on experience with Linux is actually pretty limited. I installed a couple of builds of SuSE Linux for PowerPC on my old WallStreet PowerBook G3 about a decade ago, followed by an install of Yellow Dog Linux for PowerPC. Both were reasonably lively on the old 233 MHz G3, but there were just too many angularities and rough edges around the UI, as well as total incompatibility with my suite of production applications, for me to be tempted away from OS 9. Then came OS X, and with Unix under the hood there seemed even less reason to go Linux - at least until Lion came along.
There are three main issues with Lion that I find off-putting. First, did I mention that I'm not a fan of iOS-style user interface conventions? Second, and most important at this point, is the termination of Rosetta support for legacy applications, which is huge for me because at least four of my core production applications - Tex-Edit Plus, Color It! 4.5, Mail Beacon, and Eudora 6 won't run in Lion.* I expect there are others that I use less frequently, but find convenient and useful to have available, that are broken as well. Third is Apple's obvious lack of enthusiasm for, and only grudging (also expensive) support of self-contained user control over operating system updates and reinstalls, and the whole App Store paradigm. To a greater or lesser extent, all of these strengthen the argument for switching to desktop Linux, which, based on what I hear from some readers, has improved a great deal in user-friendliness over the past 10 years.
Will I jump? Definitely not until I get a better bead on how things are going to shake out. Snow Leopard is doing a great job for me, and the Color It! folks at Digimage Arts have posted notice that they've been working hard on a new version of Color It! that is being built from scratch and will definitely run in OS X 10.7. Tom Bender mentioned to me some time ago that he hoped to get a native Cocoa version of Tex-Edit Plus written, but there's been no word or sign for many months.
Dan Knight: Let's shift the focus from Linux on x86 hardware and look at one area where some people are really pushing Linux on Macs - PowerPC hardware. This seems to be primarily due to more and more browsers requiring OS X 10.5 Leopard, which G3 Macs can't run, and 10.6 Snow Leopard, which only Intel Macs can run.
Do you think PowerPC Linux provides any real benefits compared with using Mac OS X 10.4 with TenFourFox 5, Camino 2.1, iCab 4.8, or the last versions of Firefox (3.6), Safari (4.1.3), Opera (10.63), etc. to support PowerPC hardware and OS X 10.4 Tiger?
Simon Royal: PPC Linux itself might be great, but without decent browser plugin support, you are no better off than using a Mac with outdated plugins.
Alan Zisman: The biggest problem for desktop Linux is that - for most users - Windows is "free", either because the license is included with the hardware they purchased, or because (in much of the world), they are buying a pirated copy.
As a result, the "free as beer" reason to use Linux doesn't exist.
Brian Gray (Fruitful Editing): At this time, I don't see a lot of benefit using a PPC port of Linux over Tiger or Leopard. Tiger works perfect on my iMac G5, and there's nothing that I need the machine to run that I would need Leopard for. I think PPC Linux in the future is going to fall into a "cool but useless" kind of category, where you can show your friends that Ubuntu works on an old Blue & White G3, but just barely.
* According to Roaring Apps, Eudora OSE "works fine" with Lion. We can't find any information about MailForge (another alternative to "real" Eudora) compatibility with Lion, although as clean, recent recreation of Eudora, we suspect it may work.
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