Why Linux will prevail

By Don Soegaard
Special to ZDNet

February 21, 2002

COMMENTARY--The idea expressed in many articles--that GNU/Linux is good for servers but not for the desktop--is a joke. The fact is, Linux will prevail.

Quite a few distributions of the Linux desktop are close to becoming products that can successfully compete against Microsoft Windows. And it's about time. The last thing we need is an economy dependent upon proprietary tools to perform common computer functions. Linux systems are evolving at a rapid rate and can be expected to provide the first universal (non-proprietary) operating system and tool assortment for the average desktop user.

If you haven't tried a recent Linux distribution, you will be pleasantly surprised at its evolution. Installing SuSE 7.3, Red Hat 7.2, Mandrake 8.1, Lycoris DesktopLX or Caldera 3.1 is as easy as installing Windows. Recent Linux distributions, with the KDE and GNOME desktops, are so user-friendly that one might ask who needs Microsoft Windows? Each system can be installed without harming Windows. Thus a user can experiment with Linux while using Windows. I support disseminating Linux as freely as AOL does its CDs.

Unfortunately, many computer users are unaware of the extent to which they are "jerked around" by companies that sell a license restricting the freedom to use their software. To paraphrase Free Software Foundation President Richard Stallman, freedom includes the right to use the software as you want, the right to study how it works, the right to improve it and the right to disseminate the product and improvements to others. In this regard, Linux promises to provide the freedom we need.

Recent announcements by Sun Microsystems, regarding its expanded support for the open-source community and its decision to provide its own Linux distribution, are welcome news.

Hurdles to overcome
Yet while Linux is moving in the right direction, it's not there yet. Microsoft has certain advantages:

1) Hardware components: Most PC hardware comes with drivers for Microsoft operating systems due to the widespread belief that PCs always run on Windows.

2) Software: Most third-party software (games, audio-visual media, applications, utilities) for the desktop is compatible with one or more Microsoft operating systems.

3) Microsoft Office is currently the de facto standard for office programs, because competitors have done more to imitate it than to develop an improved solution.

Linux developers must realize certain features that should be omitted or "turned off" on office network systems for reasons of security and system integrity are essential for the gamer, home and small office user.

In a nutshell, the Linux community must develop both a quality GUI system for configuring hardware and a standardized system for installing and removing software. Developers must be persuaded to provide Linux drivers, especially for "Winmodems," and to port their software products to Linux.

Tidying up the office suite
For many, office suites like Microsoft Office become limiting rather than empowering. Notwithstanding some improvements, each upgrade produces more clutter, with features that are unused or work poorly. At the same time, needed features are missing.

Currently, over a dozen offices suites are competing unnecessarily, as each follows the same self-limiting approach. To increase productivity, we need better tools than have been developed by integrating such applications as Word, Access, Excel or Outlook. Instead of continuing to add new tools to each application, which then becomes increasingly complex and unwieldy, I advocate a paradigm shift:

Let's completely modularize each tool function (such as layout, fonts, kerning, textures, linking, math and tables) and make each a separate interactive GUI tool. Like an erector set, applications could be constructed for specific needs. And like hammers, saws, wrenches and screwdrivers in the physical realm, such tools are easier to utilize than large factories (or contemporary application programs).

As these tools become refined through open-source development, proprietary vendors will be less able to hold us hostage. Moreover tools can be added as needed, which would mean we wouldn't be required to scrap and replace our entire shop.

Users (many spend as many hours on a computer as programmers) waste billions of hours annually with proprietary software. With closed-source systems, users are stuck with programs and upgrades they cannot change. Beyond that, developers can make what a person learns about an application obsolete with the next upgrade.

No one would buy a car with a welded-shut hood, yet we continue to buy software that way. The Microsoft approach limits a user to available software. With Linux, a user can grow. If a tool is missing or awkward, someone can get under the hood and fix the problem.

Two paths are before us. One leads to increasing proprietary control, protectionist measures and legal threats, while the other leads to open source, freedom and accelerated innovation. I, of course, choose the latter because it is "win-win." Vital innovation, new markets and vastly improved customer service win the vote readily over the purveyors of proprietary hoarding.

Don Soegaard a graduate of U.C. Berkeley, is an engineer with a specialization in operations research who runs the "Linux will prevail" [http://www.linuxwillprevail.com/] Web site.

Copyright 2002