LXer Feature: 06-Jan-2011
Paul Ferris reviews the state of Linux over the past decade from multiple perspectives: cloud, desktop, tablet and finally infrastructure market. The most pressing question rises to the top: Will 2011 be the year of Linux on the Doorstop?
People are always predicting the demise of Microsoft Windows on the desktop. Recently someone on Reddit posted a message noting that they hadn't seen a single article yet declaring 2011 to be the year of the Linux desktop.  While I can't do that one (again) , I offer instead a replacement prediction -- 2011 will be the year of Linux on the Door Stop.
Predictions are very difficult, especially when they're about the future. People want simple answers -- and unfortunately, the world is simply not a simple place these days. Those of you who want simple answers and 5 second sound bytes can stop reading now. I'm going to bounce all over the computing landscape in this article.
Questions about the computing landscape raise issues that those with simple minds may not want to understand. The answers take time to fully appreciate. Since people are into sound bytes a lot these days, I predict that there will be even more confusion in the days to come. By the way, I don't see this as anything that puts me in the Nostradamus category of seers -- the world grows ever more complex by the day, and it's showing no signs of deceleration on that front.
As usual, I'll kick off the discussion with a joke.
Linux at Gun Point
Question: A man with a gun approaches you while you're computing and says he's going to put a bullet in either your (Android / iPhone) smart-phone ... or your laptop. You must choose one or the other. You're traveling, and once it's been shot, you're going to be without the dead device for a week.
Which one would you choose?
Most of the people I've posed this question to in this comical version of "Sophie's Choice" immediately say something to the effect of "I'd protect my smart-phone and sacrifice the laptop". The reason this answer is so obvious has to do with observations of my own behavior as I've integrated Android into day to day life. I've had a PDA of some kind since 1992. As a blackberry user for years, the smart-phone of today makes older generation devices seem like sad, brittle toys in comparison.
And they're giving desktops and laptops a serious run for their money too.
I would have laughed as the guy shot my last Blackberry (a Curve, for reference) -- possibly even given him a tip if the entertainment value was high enough. It wasn't like I wasn't addicted to the thing, but there was an accompanying annoyance -- I needed my email, but I had to use this crappy phone to get at it. As an application device, it was sorely lacking. The Droid exceeds all of my expectations. It's never out of arms reach for a host of reasons -- far more than my Crackberry ever was, for that matter. I see people treating their iPhones with a similar reverence.
There's a reason why I haven't included the Windows-7 based phone in the above joke -- I don't want to cloud the punch line with responses like: "Yeah, do me a favor and put this thing out of its misery." No one I've talked to that owns a Microsoft based smart-phone has had anything remotely similar to say about the device.
Both the new and old versions of Microsoft mobile have an aura of cheap knock-off that makes one wonder out loud if Microsoft is ever going to gain entry into the market with a definitive competitor product. Why are they trying anyway? I sense that they believe that they need to be in the marketplace with a solution -- but I'd argue that they're hampered by their own namesake.
MicroSoft -- they make software for PCs, that's what the name implies and I will argue (once again ) that it is their name that is fundamentally holding them back. The need for the company to produce products that are shrink-wrapped and put on a shelf at Best Buy -- that's what they're all about. The name says it all. The shrink-wrapped products are for consumption on a Microsoft-powered PC (or Xbox). At the end of the day, that's really a limiting factor for them. It doesn't matter if they're selling these shrink-wrapped boxes virtually over the web or physically at a store -- the paradigm of their own namesake limits their thinking as an organization.
This computing paradigm taints any modern cloud or Internet-centric solution because the tendency to pander toward preserving the existing Microsoft monopolies is strong -- so strong that the solutions they come up with in today's ever changing (and clouding) environment -- those solutions tend to be more and more inhibited by their own two-dimensional world-view that evolved out of the thinking that put them in market in the first place.
2011 (really, 2010 was as well) was the year when Microsoft truly gained irrelevance. People will look back and see the company someday in a light reserved for organizations that lost their way. Today they see sizable market share and a lot of cash in the bank. I don't see this -- I think of them much the same was as I viewed GM for many years -- long before GM was viewed as a market failure for that matter.
Linux on Black Top
I used to work for GM. The company was making appliances on wheels in much the same way as any other US-based automotive company -- but they were doing it with such an irreverent lack of style, with such grave mistakes that those of us that understood automotive industry could see the hallmark of failure coming like a slow freight train. GM dominated the automotive landscape as far as market share was concerned. They had tons of cash in the bank. They did until just a few short years ago, in fact.
The problem was that so many people viewed the industry with misdirected emotion that any attempt to discuss it degenerated into something I call Ford versus Chevy talk. This talk is very familiar to those that argue sports or religion (or, for something really extreme, VI versus Emacs).
Anyone that knows me knows that I'm a rabid Linux fanatic. I've been overly enthusiastic in the past, predicting that Linux would overtake the desktop in 2005 -- at least become relevant. I would argue that in a lot of ways a lot of the things mentioned in that article have come to fruition. So Dell/HP/Lenovo and so on are not shipping a ton of Linux desktops. No one cares now (or even then, except for those of us in the community) because the desktop has become pretty much irrelevant.
The Ford vs Chevy talk isn't what is driving the conversation -- it's a distraction, because like GM, Microsoft is trying to diversify and dominate markets that it has no business owning. These markets will be a distraction from what might have otherwise been a lucrative core marketplace. Any talk about the fundamental mistakes is typically countered with talk of their market share, the money in the bank and so on. It's extremely familiar.
My real prediction is that a lot of people will look back and see that while they were bungee jumping into the smart-phone market, having mild success with stuff like Kinect and so on, they were neglecting to take real care of their existing desktop monopolies (OS and Office). In 2000, these monopolies mattered because people who were trying to do anything relevant with a computer were stuck on the Microsoft toll road. In 2010, it wasn't like the desktop and office market share was much different -- computing in general had changed the context of the solution so much that it hardly mattered. Still, there would have been a lot of money to be made simply maintaining these core products with a much smaller, dedicated mindset.
Over the past decade or so Microsoft has instead turned into a company that's frantically attempting to follow other companies (namely Apple and Google) with sorry attempts at products that only on the surface match anything remotely functional to their competition. Worse than this, they're doing it with such a lack of soul that it's almost painful to watch. Again, it reminds me of the GM of the 80s and 90s.
Read carefully here -- I don't think they're going to die anytime soon. It's obvious that there is a lot of talent at the company. The history of other companies in similar situations indicates that despite all of these problems, they'll survive. GM is still around -- in spirit form -- you can bet that in 20 years, Microsoft will be too.
But 2010 was the year that they became truly irrelevant as far as general computing was concerned.
Linux at the Bus Stop
The browser wars have degenerated into an interesting harbinger of what's to come. Chrome is very popular  these days, along with Safari and Firefox. But really, folks, the big news is that no one is worried anymore about IE dominating the browser space. No one is talking IE monopoly (it's missing from the OS/Office list above).
And why is that?
Because it's widely recognized in a lot of circles that IE is more than past its prime. IE 9 is supposed to be better than 8. But seriously no one cares, because it's doing the same stuff that Microsoft's phone and soon tablet computing initiatives are doing -- it's playing catch up. And it's fragmented in its own right. Lot's of versions of IE are in flight, further muting any attempt to gain monopolistic steam.
The browser does not now, nor for anytime in the near future, belong to Microsoft -- and that's a good thing, because they were using it to cram their lousy desktop products down the industries collective throat. This was holding the information technology market back from choices that were extremely important. It was causing businesses to make short-sighted, costly choices in the desktop computing arena, and in general, providing bored 15 year old kids in Russia with some seriously potent entertainment.
The digital diversity provided by all of these browser choices is a healthy thing, and there's a lot of hope that this will continue into the near future. There's even more hope that other markets are diversifying for similar reasons.
Linux through the Mail Slot
Google has been making some serious in-roads lately thanks to their mail and application offerings. It's not just the consumer I'm referring to in this context; Recent experience in the field indicates to me that this is not just something you as an individual are experiencing -- many corporations are ditching their exchanged-based infrastructure for cloud-based solutions that treat email as a service similar to a utility bill -- per user costs are charged that make running an exchange infrastructure an exercise in futility and outright wretched (and stupid) excess.
Will Open Office give Microsoft Office a run for the money? Will Google apps replace Microsoft applications such as word, Excel and PowerPoint? This is pretty much irrelevant. Microsoft is attempting to grab some of the cloud territory as well -- adding some light to the quandary they are in -- if they don't do something blunt Google's cloud drive into their space they're going to lose control of the market (and their own monopolies) even more quickly. If they don't compete with themselves, in other words, they will face inevitable market erosion. This isn't startling news -- it's been going on for years.
Cloud applications versus Office/Exchange: These are different solutions that I would argue are fraught with their own perils. Before you get in a tizzy about how the data is being stored on Google (or Microsoft's) server infrastructure and privacy is going out the window and so on, I would remind you that there have been a lot of problems with privacy and Microsoft products over the years. It's an exchange of one proprietary (potentially evil) for another.
That said, I don't believe that Microsoft's office monopoly is dead. It's definitely been somewhat marginalized, but I see them making the sorry bloated mess for years to come. The only thing stupid they could do from here would be to find ways to piss people off (more than they have) with increased licensing costs or even more insidious compatibility tricks. No dire warnings here -- people in 2011 have choices. My prediction is that they will learn to play in a more competitive field. They will either incent their users with improvements to the product or sell it at a more competitive price.
Cloud computing is fraught with privacy issues at the moment and I don't see a lot of easy choices. The one saving grace is that most of the solutions have some kind of competitive alternative. Microsoft is attempting to give Google's services a run for their money, but they're hardly the only competitor in the space. Over time the landscape will cloud with even more large competitors (sorry for the pun). The ability for those companies to share data when clients are making choices will be tantamount to success -- but unlike other proprietary lock-ins, the data APIs are much more open (you do have to be able to access the data from anywhere, after all).
I see the tendency to sift your data while no one is looking as a far worse evil. It's a huge topic and one I'm tabling for now. Suffice to say that this issue hasn't entered the consciousness of a lot of computing professionals, let alone most of the end users. Once it does, there will be a lot of gnashing of teeth, because the cost of switching back to a local data storage paradigm will be too significant to ignore. People are too distracted with the mechanics of where the data is -- not who has access to it and, more importantly, what they're doing with that access.
Finally clouding (there it is again) all of these issues is the dark horse of Net Neutrality -- net neutrality (or the lack thereof) could throw a serious wrench into the cloud as a solution, as providers could theoretically make a mess out of any protocol or even go as far as to disable the ability to use virtual infrastructure for a fee. Look for this issue to be highlighted by some large provider in the coming year or so. Until then, any attempt at explaining it will be met with the usual complete lack of understanding by the general populace -- they will need a glaring example to make the problem tangible.
And then the noise will likely be deafening. Possibly then people will talk about this with less "Republicans versus Democrats" mentality, and get cracking on making sure the computing landscape is truly open from a network point of
view. Hopefully it will happen for the good of our economy, digital freedom and our general sanity.
Linux on The Desk, Stop
Microsoft's biggest failure with Windows Vista in my eyes was their reaction. They treated it like a marketing mistake. Faced with a lack of acceptance, they tried running commercials showing people being surprised with what they thought was a new product, only to be told that it was in fact, Vista.
Visions of someone having a blindfold removed after they were eating something in a taste test. "You mean that was a dead raccoon?! I would never have guessed!" The problem was not so simple. People didn't like Vista for a host of reasons -- but at the core, it was simply a different OS than XP, and for what reason?
A lot of people, technical and non-technical alike, could perceive (rightly so) that whatever it was -- it was not enough to justify the pain. At the end of the day, it was simply a lukewarm, bloated mess of a product. Yet, here was Microsoft again, asking for more cash. Businesses greeted this with a stellar lack of enthusiasm, both at the desktop and (more importantly)
at the till.
I hear a lot about how much better Windows 7 is than Vista. Yet the really big problem is that it appears to be a re-launch of Vista with the bugs and the infuriating problems addressed. It's still a resource-hungry operating system with, face it, not a huge list of features that most people really care about. A big yawn from the tech crowd. Before you pepper my in-box with comments about what a superior product Windows 7 is in comparison to Vista or XP (sure trumps Windows 3.1, lemme tell ya), the fact is that your average Joe never asks me to compare Vista to 7 -- it's always XP to 7.
The real question here is more fundamental: For the general populace, why is an OS that is threatening life support issues (XP), the base of comparison to Microsoft's latest offering? The sad response for me is that I have no compelling reason to give them as an answer. The only thing I can say is that if they want to be able to call Microsoft for support, they better not use XP. On the other hand, if they want to call their Uncle Joe -- the answer is not so simple.
Seriously, the real yawner is that I don't care. Everyone I care about in my support circle is running a Linux variant -- often without my intervention. It's good enough for their desktop computing needs and that's something I'm very happy about. I get to use it in my professional life. I'm an infrastructure guy, so that doesn't count for a lot of people. As already noted, my primary computing device these days runs Linux (Oh, OK, Android) at the core. This is huge news.
Linux on the Door Step
This Christmas I bought a refurbished Dell with a copy of XP pre-loaded. Took me all of an hour to prune it back and load Linux on the reclaimed hard drive space. I could dust the copy of XP at any time. Unfortunately from time to time I end up being forced in a professional context into situations where I have to run some insidious piece of proprietary crap -- some product that requires XP or some Windows variant. For this reason I left it on the hard drive, ready to be booted whenever I need it.
I test booted it once a few weeks ago. I haven't seen it since that time. Maybe I'll need Windows XP sometime and it will be there for me. I have a bottle of whiskey next to the computer for just those occasions. It's a matter of time before someone makes Ubuntu (or something like it) into a serious desktop product that people care about -- but my prediction is that this will happen and that no one will care (actually, this isn't my prediction, it's Nick Petreley's ). Maybe the year will be 2025.
Arguably, there were quite a few netbooks sold in 2009 and 2010 that ran Linux (and quite a few returned, but that's a different story). The dent was sizable, all things considered. But again, the big news of 2010 was that the iPad was the fastest selling device of all time .
Steve Jobs has one heck of a marketing brain when it comes to understanding computing products that people are going to care about. When I first heard about the iPad in a press release I had a big "what the heck?" comment, like who in their right mind would want this? When a coworker showed me the device, once again I understood just how wrong I could be regarding computing products and personal needs. The product as envisioned by Jobs transcended any kind of description. Using is not the same thing as reading technical specifications.
For theses reasons I have a pragmatic view of Apple these days. I won't buy their products, because I'm simply disgusted at some of the implications of someone doing what Microsoft has done in the past -- only this time they want to force me at gunpoint into buying the hardware from them (and even in some cases, telling me what cell phone provider to choose).
Fact: Apple has (upon multiple occasions recently) defined the computing marketplace -- any of the iPhone,iPod or iPad devices can be seen as wildly successful products on par with the release of the personal computer in many respects -- except that the people using them are average Joes and the definition of these marketplaces belong to Apple.
They did this with the personal computer back around 1980, and Microsoft ended up stealing and (re)defining the marketplace while they watched. They actually had their lunch eaten by Microsoft and the IBM computing platform. The difference these days is stark in comparison -- I would wager that the speed of marketplace change compared to the 1980s is one of the main differences. The close competitor strategy that worked so well for Microsoft in the 80s isn't working so well lately. Part of this is due to Microsoft being larger, but the real news is that their tactics of stalling the marketplace no longer work like they did in the 80s. Some of their ineffectiveness, in my view, is directly related to the irrelevance of their monopolies in the context of computing solutions available in 2011.
Steve Jobs and Apple are defining and owning large pieces of the computing marketplace -- if not in market share, at least in the minds of the customer. And rightly so -- they did the work, got people to see it, why shouldn't they have a substantial piece of the profits at the end of the day? As long as we're not forced into using the products (hasn't happened yet), you can bet that some serious competition is going to emerge -- and this is a vastly different landscape from the one defined by the Microsoft of the 80s.
The iPad is very similar to a PC in a lot of ways as a computing solution -- but it's not a Windows device. Android tablets are coming soon as well. Companies are starting to deploy tablets in an enterprise context. This market diversification for the day to day computing needs of the general population can only drive down the cost of computing for the consumer (again, this is my opinion). For years the only serious game in town was a laptop or a desktop driven by one vendor with no noticeable competition. Those days are gone.
I'll wager that the Google Android of today will take the role of close follower that Microsoft took way back when with Windows -- and they're doing it with far more open methodologies. I don't think that we'll ever be truly safe from horrible monopolistic computing vectors, but arguably the computing landscape these days is becoming ever more stratified into a much healthier place to do business. Competition may not be all that great on the desktop, but that kind of computing is so 1980s these days.
Linux as Cement
And for all of the above reasons, 2011 is the start of a decade where Linux truly has arrived. The infrastructure side of this discussion I've deliberately left for last. This is the part that a lot of people never get to see. In stark contrast, I live in this world so much so that I'm on Linux overload most of the time.
Linux is more than a contender  in the enterprise space -- it's a steamroller laying down infrastructure that ends up cemented into the data center. You put it in, it's extremely hard to take out. The cost of removal is by no means trivial -- a lot of competing products are higher in licensing cost and certainly more expensive on the maintenance side of the equation. Much of the Internet and especially high traffic, high profile web sites use Linux or other Free Software solutions at the core.
So, in some kind of funky way, Linux truly runs on the doorstop (or rather, doorstep), after all. It's something solid under your feet that you need in order to step into your computing life -- like cement, it's solid, stable and, well, pretty dull actually.
Kinda makes me smile.
Paul (FeriCyde) Ferris is contributing editor to LXer. As a professional, he makes his living as an Enterprise Linux Architect. He is also a husband, a father and more. You can read more of his ramblings on his blogs FeriCyde Chat and All Things Infrastructure.
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