Linux World 2006: Why can't they give Linux away?

May 2, 2006
©2006 Rich Stillman, Waystation Partners

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It's easy to pick the most interesting thing about the recent during the first day of the recent Linux World: the iPod I won at the AMD booth. It's hard, though to say why. Is it the really clean design of the device and its user interface? The fact that the iTunes service has the covers of really obscure CDs on file, even my own?

No, actually, it's the irony that the iPod, the please-visit-our-booth raffle prize of choice for about half the exhibitors at this show, is completely unsupported by the operating system everyone came here to evaluate.

The fact that any Linux purist who won one of these devices would have to buy a Mac or (perish the thought) a Windows computer in order to use their LinuxWorld prize is symbolic of where Linux stands these days. It's an OS that still hasn't quite reached respectability in the mass consumer market, even though all the pieces are falling into place. My one day at LinuxWorld was an attempt to find out how far along the desktop development path the folks in the open-source community are, and how long it will be before they can give away enough product to compete on level ground with an equivalent product suite that costs several hundred dollars.

I say "how long", not "if", because the arc of Linux desktop software development is impressive both in quality and speed. I've seen this firsthand over several years working with various Red Hat and Ubuntu distributions.

Three factors make the Linux folks' job easier. First, Microsoft is providing them with a slow-moving target, as feature upgrades to Windows and Office are generally years apart. Second, most users are OK with the slow pace of feature improvements, since they only use a fraction of what their software already offers. Third, the open source groups who are designing and implementing the Linux products are generally the most active users of those products. They know what they need, and they know how to implement it.

All this adds up to a responsive, capable development community that works. The lifespan of a typical Linux distribution is about six months, compared to five or six years for Windows. Compared to its immediate predecessor, each Linux OS release is configured better out of the box, needs fewer configuration file edits, has better graphical administration tools. Each version of the open source productivity suite is more full-featured and more compatible with Microsoft Office, with the current version 2 offering almost complete file format compatibility even for documents with complex tables and other advanced features. The user interface of Scalix, a product I saw for the first time at the show, is indistinguishable from Microsoft Outlook, and it supports a duplicate of Outlook Web Access and can use .pst files and interact with Exchange servers.

Unfortunately, mainstream apps are just the beginning. To even be considered by anybody looking for a real-world product, an OS has to establish parity in productivity apps and usability, but it's the available range of less universally used products that determines market share. It's these products that allow people to turn their computers into tools useful to them. That's why they're called personal computers.

My computer runs a range of apps I can't do without, including multi-track music recording and composition software that understands how to deal with odd instruments. The recording software runs only on Windows, and only a limited version of the composition program is available for the Mac.

It's not just oddball applications that fall into this category. Intellisync makes a program that synchronizes my Outlook calendar, address book and task list with my Sidekick phone at the press of one button. Absolutely indispensable to me, and available for Windows only.

And now, iTunes joins the list. Yes, it was available for the Mac first, but Apple seems satisfied with the 99% or so of users that they can reach on the two most popular platforms. Skipping Linux also lets Apple avoid the issue of how to implement digital rights management on a system that requires that all source code be made public. This costs them at most one percent of their potential users, and probably less since most Linux users have a Mac or Windows PC sitting nearby. It sounds like a solid business decision to me, and it once again leaves Linux out in the cold.

So the big OS players end up with the killer apps. Couldn't a killer app vault Linux into the forefront? For the foreseeable future, I don't think so. I'm basing this on two examples.

Skype is one of the hot new apps of the year, a free Voice over IP client that anyone can use to turn their computer into a free, or at least very cheap, telephone. It's such a powerful idea, and such a well-made product, that eBay bought the company. Millions of people are logged on at any given time. It's truly cross-platform software that runs on Windows, Mac, Linux and even PocketPC-based phones - today. But between the August 2003 initial public beta of Skype for Windows until the February 2005 public beta release of Skype for Mac and Linux, only one operating system could run this groundbreaking software.

But why use your computer as a phone when you've already got a phone? A few months ago, Skype added a big reason: video calling. That single feature vaulted Skype's popularity and visibility - a coup that changes Skype from just a free phone substitute to a new product that lots of people could actually want to use. And to run it, you need not just Windows, but XP. The success of Skype's Windows-first strategy shows the power of introducing new and groundbreaking products where the most people will have a chance to see and try them. It's common sense.

But what if Linux offered something that Windows didn't. Something really compelling. Wouldn't that bring people around? Well, we have a real-world example of that as well.

Imagine that every PC you set up could boot on multiple workstations. A whole family, or a whole corporate department, can work on a single computer but feel like they're on their own customized PC. Workstation hardware can be a seven-year-old PC built for Windows 95, or a diskless terminal that costs less than $300. Sound interesting? This is the idea behind terminal server software like the Linux Terminal Server Project, LTSP ( For almost anyone responsible for running more than one computer, LTSP sounds like a dream - cheap hardware, fewer software licenses, only one computer to back up, maintain, upgrade and administer.

LTSP has gained a foothold in some school systems through the K12LTSP and Edubuntu projects, but after two years as a mature, production-ready product it has still not been accepted anywhere else. Why? You can blame the choice of platforms for that. As an extension to Linux, LTSP is a niche within a niche. Can you imagine the response if Microsoft announced today that each copy of Vista would run as few as two old PCs as satellite workstations? Customers could have three state-of-the-art computers for the price of one computer and a cheap network. Even the problem of recycling old computers would be relieved, at least for a while. This is the kind of killer-app change that would give every computer owner a real benefit they could immediately understand and exploit. The release of Vista would look like Windows 95 all over again. It wouldn't take two years, either.

So there's the dilemma of Linux. To be considered at all as a contender, it has to do every mainstream task Windows does, at least as well as Windows. But once it achieves that goal - and it will - it will still lack that final layer of products that makes personal computers truly personal. Software writers trying to make a living in the margins of the PC application space have to think about where their customers are. If they are going to create a niche product, they want the biggest possible niche, and that will continue to drive software writers to the Windows platform for a long time forward.