How Linux Can Achieve Faster World Domination

"The future is open source everything."
—Linus Torvalds

I find it interesting that the idea of Linux on the desktop is responded to by either yawns or derision. I think it depends on whether you see Linux as a powerful operating system built by a million-man army, or one filled with bugs and missing the cool stuff like speech recognition.

I’ve been using Linux since mid-2005, and considering how much better things everywhere are now compared to then, it surely is an interesting time to be involved with free software. From no longer having to compile my Intel wireless driver or hack the xorg.conf, to the 3-D desktop, to better Flash and WMV support, to the countless kernel enhancements like OSS -> ALSA and better suspend/resume, things are moving along nicely. But this is a constant battle as there must be 10,000 devices, with new ones arriving constantly, that all need to just work. Being better overall is not sufficient, every barrier needs to be worked on.

The Linux kernel:

The lack of iPod & iTunes support on Linux is not a bug solved by the kernel alone, but Step 1 of Linux World Domination is World Installation. Software incompatibilities will be better solved as soon as the hardware incompatibilities become better solved. The only problem you can’t work around is a hardware problem.

If you hit a kernel bug, it is quite possible the rest of the free software stack cannot be used. That is generally not the case for other software. Fixing kernel bugs faster will increase the pace of Linux desktop adoption, as each bug is a potential barrier. If you assume 50M users running Linux and each bug typically affects 0.1 percent of those users, that is 10's of thousands of people. Currently, the Linux kernel has 1,700 active bugs. Ubuntu has 76,371 bugs. I think bug count goals of some kind would be good.

In general, Linux hardware support for the desktop is good, but it could be better and get better faster. From Intel, to Dell, to IBM and Lenovo, to all of their suppliers, the ways in which they are all over-investing in the past at the expense of the future should be clear; the Linux newswires document them in detail on a daily basis. I was told by an Intel engineer that his company invests 1 percent of the resources into Linux as it does to Windows. It is only because writing Linux drivers is so much easier that Intel is seen as a quite credible supporter of it. The few laptops by Dell that even ship with Linux still contain proprietary drivers, drivers that aren’t in the kernel, and so forth.

Peter Drucker wrote: “Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things.” Free software is better for hardware companies because it allow for more money to go into their pocket. Are they waiting for it to hit 10 percent marketshare first? I recommend senior IBM employees be forced to watch their own 2003 Linux “Prodigy” video over and over like in Clockwork Orange until they promise free, feature-complete drivers for every piece of hardware in the kernel tree before the device ships. How hard can it be to get companies to commit to that minuscule technical goal?

It is amazing that it all works as well as it does right now given this, and this is a testament to the general high standard of many parts of the free software stack, but every hardware company could double their Linux kernel investment without breaking a sweat. The interesting thing is that PC vendors that don’t even offer Linux on their computers have no idea how many of its customers are actually running it. It might already be at the point that it would make sense for them to invest more, or simply push their suppliers to invest more. In fact, it is hard to imagine you can be happy with a device without having a production Linux driver to test it with.

There are more steps beyond Step 1, but we can work on all of them in parallel.

And to the outside community:

  • Garbage collection is necessary but insufficient for reliable code. We should move away from C/C++ for user-mode code. For new efforts, I recommend Mono or Python. Moving to fewer languages and runtimes will increase the amount of code sharing and increase the pace of progress. There is a large bias against Python in the free software community because of performance, but it is overblown because it has multiple workarounds. There is a large bias against Mono that is also overblown.
  • The research community has not adopted free software and shared codebases sufficiently. I believe there are enough PhDs today working on computer vision, but there are 200+ different codebases plus countless proprietary ones. I think scientists should move to SciPy.
  • I don’t think IBM would have contributed back all of its enhancements to the kernel if it weren’t also a legal requirement. This is a good argument for GPL over BSD.
  • Free software is better for the free market than proprietary software.
  • The idea of Google dominating strong AI is scarier than Microsoft’s dominance with Windows and Office. It might be true that Microsoft doesn’t get free software, but neither does Google, Apple and many others. Hadoop is good evidence of this.
  • The split between Ubuntu and Debian is inefficient as you have separate teams maintaining the same packages, and no unified effort on the bug list.
  • The Linux desktop can revive the idea of rich applications. HTML and Ajax improve, but the web defines the limits of what you can do, and I don’t think we want to live in a world of HTML and Javascript.
  • OpenOffice is underfunded. You wonder whether Sun ever thought they could beat Microsoft if they only put 20 developers on it. Web + OpenOffice + a desktop is the minimum, but the long tail of applications which demonstrate the power of free software, all need a coat of polish. Modern tools, more attention to detail, and another doubling of users will help. But for the big apps like OpenOffice, it will take paid programmers to work on those important beasts.

There are other topics, but these are the biggest ones. (I give away my book in PDF.) I’ve talked to a number of kernel and other hackers while researching this and it was enjoyable and interesting. I cite Linus a fair amount because he is quotable and has the most credibility with the outside world ;-) Although, Bill Gates has said some nice things about Linux as well.

This content originally appeared on Keith Curtis' blog.

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  • sabot00
    I've been using Ubuntu for a while.
    There are much fewer bugs that windows.
  • gfair
    The acceptance of Linux by a wider audience has always been limited by Linux developers themselves. There is so little focus put into how non-technical people would approach considering or installing Linux that the community keeps Linux back far more than any other force. I know this from years and years speaking to people in the community. The community should be asking questions like "How would Apple improve Linux?" in a serious manner, not jokingly, because frankly if Linux had been Apple's product, the community would be 10x the size it is now, and probably more. What does Apple do with a complex product? It simplifies how people install and use it, so that anybody can use it and switching is easy.

    The other issue is that there is a lot of redundant effort and slow progress on key applications, and this presents more choice and more confusion to potential users. There's KDE and Gnome, there are so many distributions. Linux's motto is the antithesis of "E Pluribus Unum".

    As much as people will cite diversity and choice as the advantages of Linux, these qualities work against Linux when it comes to non-technical people considering adopting the product. This is why Linux has failed, after 19 years, to make any serious inroads into home PCs. I certainly hope this changes, but for it to change the community will have to make one distro for the non-community and stick by it.
  • traesta
    I think the lack of success linux is having is based on peoples laziness and disinterest of learning new language, not to mention the population percentage of users that only want to check their e-mail or play solitaire. Any advantage they(linux) has is trumped by mircrosoft/mac regardless of it's importance.