October 14th, 2008
I’m going to present you with several possible narratives that outline how Linux could be adopted by “the masses” in the future, if ever:
People continue to buy Windows-preinstalled computers but at one point the Linux developers are such geniuses that they are able to make a foolproof installation that detects and automatically works with 100% of peripheral hardware, even the hardware from companies that refuse to port their drivers to Linux or open source their drivers. Suddenly, self-professed computer illiterates and non-tech-savvy users everywhere will download .iso files, burn them as disk images, set their BIOSes to boot from CD, install Linux on their hard drives and be glad to be rid of Windows. Microsoft declares bankruptcy and everyone starts dancing and singing the last part of “The Age of Aquarius.”
The thousands of Linux developers of various versions of desktop Linux decide to abandon all of their projects and create one unified Linux distribution. To keep it unified, they change the licensing from the GPL to strictly closed source, so that others won’t fork into disunified Linux distributions. Since there’s no such thing as having too many chefs in the kitchen or any loss of efficiency through needing a consensus before action, this unified distro quickly surpasses Mac OS X and Windows in terms of looks and functionality. Once again, preinstallation and proper marketing are irrelevant to consumer Linux adoption. Everyone, even those who consider themselves computer illiterate, decides to download and install this new operating system. Open source developers everywhere can rejoice because yet a third proprietary operating system has won a place in the market. Hurray for open source that’s now closed source!
Ex-Windows power users keep downloading and trying various Linux distributions. Some abandon Linux at the first sign of trouble. Others stick with it or happen to luck out with very Linux-friendly hardware. They build up a solid user base for consumer Linux and buy the very few Linux preinstalled options from large OEMs like Dell and HP. The large OEMs realize there is money to be made in selling preinstalled Linux computers to consumers. One model in particular seems to sell extremely well and the distro that comes with that model becomes the de facto standard Linux distro. Any commercial software ported to Linux has a software package easily installable for that distro. All non-commercial Linux applications are also sure to provide, along with the source .tar.gz file, packages compatible with that distro. Whenever non-tech-savvy users ask their Linux-using friends what computer to buy, if the Linux-using friends know the needs are basic enough (email, music, web, word processing, photos), they suggest a Linux preinstalled solution. Eventually a large enough contingent of tech-savvy and totally-non-tech-savvy Linux users has to be recognized by hardware and software companies, and Linux ports become a necessity for economic viability for these companies. The only reason to use Windows is if you like it better than Linux, not because you’re stuck with some Windows-only hardware or Windows-only software.
Ex-Windows power users keep trying to migrate to Linux. Some try and fail. Some try and succeed. Linux users keep begging large OEMs to preinstall Linux. When they see Linux preinstalled, they rejoice for a little bit but then most of them continue to build their own computers and install Linux themselves or buy Windows-preinstalled computers and install Linux themselves. OEMs say “We’re not going to offer preinstalled Linux any more, because it’s clear that Linux users would rather buy Windows computers anyway and install Linux themselves.” So all potential Linux users have to install Linux themselves or find someone to install and troubleshoot Linux for them.
About the narratives
If you read a lot of disgruntled Ubuntu users experiences, you’d think that narrative 1 and narrative 2 were really how Linux would make a place for itself among “the masses.” Right now, we’re stuck in narrative 4, and really it’s narrative 3 that would make Linux successful with “the masses.” Now I know some Linux users don’t care about the masses. They say as long as Linux works for them, it doesn’t matter who else uses it. That’s fine. But then don’t celebrate when you get more hardware support and more applications ported to Linux because of an increase in Linux consumer use. And don’t pretend that all Linux distros share your values. Ubuntu’s first bug has precisely to do with taking market share away from Microsoft.
And to those disgruntled migrants who think they have great suggestions for how to make Linux accessible for the masses, know that the Linux developers are all working as hard as they can to make good software, and recognize that good software alone won’t bring Linux to the masses. There are market forces at work. In the computer industries, money talks. If you want to do Linux for the masses some good, buy Linux preinstalled.
I believe in choice. I will celebrate the day when Windows users can actually choose Windows instead of just being stuck with it. I will celebrate when you can go into Best Buy and see Linux preinstalled computers there to try out, and the sales staff will be able to talk intelligently about the differences between Windows and Linux. I will celebrate Dell recommending something on its website other than the latest version of Windows. I will celebrate TV advertisements explaining the advantages of using Linux. I don’t want all the masses using Linux. I just want them to be able to buy a Linux computer and use it right away without having to worry about hardware compatibility and burning .iso files correctly.