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The World Runs on Linux

The State Of The Personal Computer
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Fifty years from now, historians will look back and realize the unparalleled impact Linux has had on human civilization. Most people don’t realize it, but the world in 2008 already runs on Linux. I’m not simply talking about how the majority of Internet servers run on Linux, but the ubiquitous use of Linux in embedded devices ranging from televisions to laser printers/copiers to military avionics.

However, one area where Linux will never succeed is the desktop.

Linux apologists can make any number of arguments why Linux should take off on the desktop. First of all, it’s a server-grade operating system that’s available for free. No Apple Tax. No Microsoft Tax. Companies such as Dell are now even shipping PCs from the factory with Linux installed, removing the uncertainty of support. Second, Linux is efficient, allowing you to breathe new life into old computers. Lastly, all of the trappings of a traditional desktop PC are now found in Linux, ranging from Xgl/compiz for Aero and Quartz-style visual effects to OpenOffice and even Firefox.

The problem is that people like shiny things.

While technology geeks may be interested in breathing new life into their older PCs, Moore’s Law continues to make the argument irrelevant. In the era where an entry-level PC was over $1,000, this may have made sense. Nowadays, an entry-level system has a dual- or even quad-core CPU for a fraction of that cost. The cost of Windows Vista is about $50 to a manufacturer such as Dell, less than a full tank of gas. The problem arises when the consumer decides to upgrade to get a new printer or a new HDTV tuner and suddenly discovers that Linux does not support the new hardware.

Linux works for technology geeks because, when you have the time and inclination, it can be fun to tweak and fiddle with your PC. If you’re a technology geek, it’s fun to try out different window managers to get the perfect fit or to troubleshoot and debug your setup. However, most consumers want plug-and-play, and that’s where Linux fails.

The Failed Sandbox Model

To succeed in Linux, you have to play in the Linux sandbox. You have to research ahead of time to make sure that new hardware is fully compatible. While Linux promises oodles and oodles of applications (just look at any distribution), the options are far less when it comes to the stuff that really matters. Want a modern Web browser? You’re stuck with Firefox. On the PC, you’ve got the option of Google Chrome. Want to process RAW digital camera images in Linux? You can choose between Bibble- and dcraw-based applications. On a PC or Mac, you have a wider range of options. You can use Bibble and dcraw, but you also have Capture One, Lightroom, SilkyPix, Photoshop, and countless others.

The problem is that for most consumers, Mac OS X offers most of the benefits of Linux with a better sandbox to play in. It’s just as stable as Linux and offers the same or even better out-of-the-box security, but has even wider software and hardware support and a set of best-of-breed native applications.

Those requiring additional flexibility in hardware support can go with a PC on the desktop. While you have to deal with the security risk of Vista and the annoyance of Vista’s UAC, the trade-off is fair to most consumers in being able to avoid the idiosyncrasies of Linux. Even Linux’ temporary success with netbooks has been short lived. After initially embracing Linux for the cost savings, many netbook manufacturers such as MSI are backing away from Linux after recognizing a 4x higher return rate. The power management features in operating systems such as MacOS X or Windows XP are superior to those of Linux, and a Windows XP-powered Eee PC lasts longer than a Linux-powered Eee PC.

Here’s another way to look at it: create a list of the best Linux applications for the desktop or home user. How many of those are also available for the PC or Mac? Now try creating a list of the best PC or Mac applications. How many of those are available for Linux? The very best applications that Linux has to offer are probably offered in a Mac OS X or Windows port as well. With OS X shipping with X11 and UNIX compliance, even custom software development can be achieved on a Mac.

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