Open Source

Linux is free, free as in freedom, not just free beer. Linux widespread acceptance among the technical audience is no surprise given its programmer origins. And yet, Linux is still unheard of by ordinary end-users. If Linux is free, why is it not mainstream on the desktop yet? This paradox is apparent despite the fact that operating systems, just like hardware and software, are becoming commodities.

An InfoWorld post discussed some issues with Linux on the desktop:

  • consumer monetization is only marginal, if not difficult
  • desktop future is bleak with the advent of cloud/mobile computing, VDI
  • interoperability (There’s a reason Microsoft doesn’t want to certify Evolution hooking into Exchange), according to Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst
  • significant barriers to switching

Linux distribution vendors have three main problems with regard to non-technical consumers as opposed to corporate users:

  1. education – Linux requires time and effort to be familiarized. For users who have no time or have no interest/inclination in exploring open source software, Linux is a turnoff
  2. inertia brought about by network effects, lock-in and high switching costs
  3. usability – plug-and-play to as many hardware as possible and works out of the box (WiFi is not yet plug-and-play)

On their part, Linux distributions have one major problem brought about by the nature of open source software itself: heterogeneity (multiple package managers, window managers, etc.) aka fragmentation

What Linux can do:

  1. standardization – hardware compatibility list, user interface (hence the existence of LSB or Linux Standard Base)
  2. ecosystem – OEMs, native hardware support (e.g. fully-functional drivers like its counterpart in Windows). Hopefully, the Linux Foundation would get support from all major hardware and software vendors
  3. marketing – the aim is not world domination but to market Linux to non-technical audience (government, business, end users, etc)

The reality:

Open source software has its own niche in the grand scheme of IT. The money is not in software but in providing services around the software.

It’s a classic example of market norms vs social norms. Commercial software operates under market norms (for-profit) while open source software operates under social norms (non-profit).

The two just don’t mix.

So don’t expect Linux to be as mainstream as Microsoft and Apple do. It just won’t happen.  More importantly, Linux and commercial software is apples-to-oranges comparison.

As Graham Morrison would say,

The success of open-source software is so difficult to judge using the same language as its competitors.

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