The writers who cried YOTLD

If you have followed tech news closely at all within the last ten years, you’ve probably heard the phrase year of the Linux desktop before. This is the year that Linux makes a breakthrough with home users, and suddenly Microsoft’s dominant market share comes toppling down. I believe people have been proclaiming various years as the year of the Linux desktop since as early as 1998 (possibly even earlier).

Sometimes the writers will say the current year will be the year of the Linux desktop. Sometimes they’ll be a little more conservative and say some year a few years from now will be the year of the Linux desktop. For example, if I were one of these writers, I would either write 2008 will be the year of the Linux desktop! or with the progress we’re saying right now in 2008, it’s likely that by 2011, we’ll see the year of the Linux desktop.

Did we see the year of the Linux desktop? Nope. That, at least, I think most of us Linux aficionados can agree on. But some naysayers go a step further. Through a leap in logic, they decide that the fact that none of these previous predictions have come true precludes the possibility of a future prediction coming true. In other words, the extrapolation goes something like this: Oh, come on. For years, people have been saying such-and-such year is the year of the Linux desktop, and it’s never come. It’s never going to come. Microsoft will always be on top. Just deal with it.

I would contend that we have no way of knowing whether that year will ever come or not. Just think of the fable “The boy who cried wolf.” In it, the boy tells the village that a wolf is coming. The village gets all up in a panic and then realizes the boy was lying. He cries wolf a second time, and a second time the village is in a panic and realizes the boy was lying again. The third time he cries wolf, there really is a wolf, but no one in the village believes him any more. That’s what’s happening with this whole YOTLD business. These writers who keep proclaiming that some year is the YOTLD are losing their credibility every time the year doesn’t come. But it also means that it’s possible the year might come, and no one will believe the writer who really does get it right.

So I guess it boils down to two things: 1. If you’re a writer who wants to proclaim that such-and-such year is the YOTLD, don’t even bother. Even if you’re right, no one will believe you anyway, as people have been saying that for years. 2. If you one of those people who thinks the YOTLD will never come, you have to come up with other reasons than “They’ve been saying that for years.” After all, I could say every year that I’m going to die that year, and I may be wrong most of the time, but one year I am going to be right. Whether I say it’s going to happen or not has no bearing on the actual outcome or occurrence.

I’m just beginning now to read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, which talks about the moment when there’s a huge sociological change (crime rates dropping, fashion trends being adopted, new technology going mainstream), and it’s made me change my mind on Linux adoption. I used to think the growth of consumer Linux would be gradual and stay gradual indefinitely, but there is a tipping point, and if we get to that point (maybe about 15%), there will be a huge flood of new users. I’m not going to speculate on what year that might be, but it clearly happened for cell phones (as Gladwell points out) in 1998, and it also happened for iPods in 2003, and Firefox in 2005. It won’t necessarily mean the end of Windows’ dominance on the home user’s computer, but it could mean a lot more third-party support for Linux—the kind that Macs currently enjoy.

Which year will be the YOTLD? No one knows. There very well still could be one, and it would probably be a year and not a decade.

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  1. I must admit, when I see that YOTLD as a title to a news article or a blog my blood pressure goes up at least 10 points. It’s a great eye-catcher, guaranteed to snare a lot of hits. Here are some other well worn titles: “Linux Not Ready For Mainstream” (or Primtime, Average User, Joe Sixpack, Grandma, Aunt Tillie); Linux Sux; Wal-Mart Ditches Linux. There’s another one that the clueless press has latched onto which causes me distress, “Unhackable Linux”. That stupid phrase and others like it that were spawned from the CanSecWest PWN to OWN contest are doing a disservice to Linux. I can feel the Microsoft fanboys ready to pounce just like they did when Wal-Mart stopped selling the Linux computers in-store. You can bet that when a virus, worm or trojan strike on Linux becomes news, that phrase will be dragged around the Internet like a defeated enemy.

    Unfortunately there are no truth in headline laws like there are for food labels. As Orwellian as that sounds, I sometimes wish it were the case.

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