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Linux vs. Windows: Why Linux will win

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One of the oft-mentioned weaknesses of Linux, fragmentation, just happens to be one of its greatest strengths. A broad range of choices in an immature market is a good thing. Of course, choice does come at a cost. For example, there may be no standard way to do a particular task. Further, development resources will sometimes be split among two or more projects. However, these are weaknesses in the short term only.

One could similarly argue that evolution of species suffers from the same 'weakness' of fragmentation. However, in the long term, the survival and consolidation of the best traits results in an improved breed. Eventually, one of the many approaches to some desktop task will rise to dominance and show the market the right way to do it, and, at the same time, reduce the fragmentation problem.

Based on my observations, business continuity considerations are starting to place more emphasis on portable data formats and protocols. Relational databases, contrasted with the counter examples provided by Microsoft formats, are helping to raise awareness of the value of portable data.

For a private business to blithely entrust their data to proprietary formats and protocols is irresponsible at best. For a public company to do so can be looked upon as a breach of the shareholder's trust; an unnecessary liability. It's quietly overlooked now partly because of the ubiquity of the practice and partly because no Microsoft-dependent organization wants to point out a liability from which they also suffer. This situation will change with growing awareness of the problem and as the Linux-plus-free-applications option makes vendor lock-in increasingly harder to justify. The time is coming when the stock market will recognize and reward data independence among public companies.

Linux is entrenched in the server world. That provides a huge opportunity to expand into more and larger server niches. It also provides a small contributing stream of desktop users in influential places.

Major market shifts, when limited by ingrained attitudes, are generational. It takes the replacement of one generation by the next for a market to complete such a transition. Even after Linux comes to dominate in new installations, there will naturally be Windows holdouts for many years, in both homes and organizations. This diehard tenacity is not an unexpected sign of strength, but it will be interpreted as such by a certain class of industry analysts for many years.

The IT industry has an inertia that is almost unimaginable to someone who hasn't spent significant time immersed in it. Application systems built on one operating system or architecture are extremely expensive to port to an unrelated OS or architecture. While this effect does slow the uptake of Linux in business, it also prevents a sudden loss of the Linux market share. But, mostly, it masks the rise of Linux so that it is possible for much of the IT industry to simply ignore its growth. I think that this effect of the slow and gradual adoption of Linux is the main support for the ‘Windows has won the desktop’ analysts’ arguments.

Linux is free as in ‘free beer’. Yes, you can buy it -- and many do -- but when you pay money for Linux you are really buying something else: support, non-free components, and convenience, to name a few. The reality, however, is that Linux is as free as you need it to be.

Linux is also open. It can be extended, embedded, and used as needed without restrictive licenses and without fear of vendor lock-in. This characteristic of Linux can only improve Linux’s profile with each business continuity study and proprietary counter example. The significant restrictions of Linux’s license, the GNU General Public License (GPL), establish rules of redistribution, not limitations of use.

Linux is also scalable -- but just what does that mean? Scalability runs in several directions. To say an OS is scalable doesn't simply mean that it scales to very large systems. Rather, scale refers to the entire range from the very small to the very large. It refers not just to the vertical dimension but also to the horizontal, across arrays of clustered systems. On this measure, Linux truly excels. Linux powers an amazing range of systems, from tiny devices to supercomputers. Of the several operating systems that scale to very large systems, Linux seems to be the one destined to own the small end of the size spectrum.

Security may be even more important than scalability to the IT industry. Security concerns are also gaining mind share among home users as identity theft becomes more widespread. SELinux is beginning to be integrated into major Linux distributions -- which will expand the number of security-conscious IT shops that can deploy it. At the same time, Windows has spawned a healthy industry dedicated to screening out viruses and worms.

I believe that Microsoft's practice of neglecting security is one of the biggest reasons for Firefox's phenomenal success, just as it is steadily contributing to Linux’s growth.

Meanwhile, there are a few features that many Linux distributions are still missing out of the box. As each of those areas is addressed, end-user Linux adoption will increase. As this process adds to the size of the Linux installed base, the newly enlarged base will increase the value of solving other such problems, continuing to fuel the positive feedback loop. As Linux reaches ‘critical mass’, almost all of the other arguments against Linux will fall, one by one. For example, when major vendors start offering preconfigured Linux systems to home desktop users, one of the most persistent complaints against Linux, that ‘it is hard to install’, will become irrelevant. As many readers surely realize, Windows is difficult to install as well. The difference is that users generally don't have to install Windows. It comes preinstalled, and with a preconfigured 'restore' CD. The implication of this is that as Linux approaches critical mass, its period of fastest growth may still lie ahead!

Meanwhile, Microsoft's desktop network effect advantage is weakening due to cross platform software packages such as Firefox, OpenOffice, and, for programmers, gcc.

Even some game makers could conceivably abandon Windows by releasing custom Linux LiveCD versions of their games. Granted, there might need to be some embedded graphics support, but this need not be an insurmountable problem since many games only support a limited number of graphics adapters anyway.

Linux has a certain ‘coolness factor’ that appeals disproportionately to young people. Further, Linux is strongest among the technological elite, i.e., those who help and advise others, run websites, write code, and generally set technology trends. This slice of the market is more important to the future than their numbers suggest

Microsoft has, as they say in politics, ‘high negatives’. That is, a substantial percentage of people very much dislike Microsoft. These people will go to considerable efforts to avoid buying or using Microsoft products as alternative products become more visible.

Capitalism, like open source, is relentless and efficiency based. A central planner can never fully predict a market's evolution -- yet capitalism moves in lockstep with it. In much the same way, various Linux distributions will be born and die as desktop evolution relentlessly marches on. Even the current 'Linus' branch of the kernel can and will be replaced (forked) if it doesn't follow the main market closely enough. The ‘planned economy’ of Microsoft is at a disadvantage when facing the evolutionary dynamics of the laissez faire open source bazaar.

Compounding the problem for Microsoft, Linux is poised and ready to pounce upon any new, Windows-incompatible, hardware platform; perhaps IBM’s upcoming cell processor will be the next Linux success story. Linux runs on almost everything and gets quickly ported to new hardware. Linux is agile, Microsoft is not.

Microsoft's biggest remaining asset is probably the vendor lock-in ‘feature’ of Microsoft Office. Of course, that lock-in is also one of the biggest reasons not to use Microsoft Office. As free office suites achieve acceptable levels of command, feature, and file compatibility with MS Office, more and more user’s desktops will become available to Linux. Microsoft will, as always, try to leverage their current lock-in into future lock-in. But with the pace of office software development slowing as the market nears saturation, that is easier said than done. Changing Office to render a competitor incompatible will also hinder older versions of Office, creating more ill will. Also, if a competitor ever does achieve close compatibility with the current version of Office, customers will have the option of jumping to the competitor if Microsoft changes the file formats. With bad timing or a bit of bad luck, such a lock-in maneuver by Microsoft runs the risk of hastening the abandonment of Office.

Microsoft has always shrewdly leveraged their network effect and mind share advantage to maintain themselves and grow. They will continue to use this strength -- but they face many hazards. They must correctly identify the real threats early enough to fight and nullify them. Microsoft can win many battles and still lose the war. They simply can't win all the battles and yet their relentless adversary, Linux, can lose battles indefinitely and still come back to win the war. Unfortunately for Microsoft, ‘Linux’ doesn’t need to make a profit and can’t be put out of business by an upside down balance sheet.

Linux does, however, have one looming vulnerability. Microsoft could possibly kill Linux with some unwitting help from the Linux kernel team or the open source applications development community. Governments, through trademark, copyright, and patent law, wield such power over common business practices that runaway software patents -- like those now being issued in the US -- could kill off commercial Linux use and support in affected countries. For example, heavy participation in a scenario such as this one could lead to a near-death experience for Linux. This scenario, though, is best classified as a government action. Linux has already penetrated so many niches that the chances of Microsoft rooting it out via market mechanisms seem pretty slim.

And, no, Linux isn't yet ready for every desktop that Windows occupies. However, it wasn't long ago that Linux wasn't ready for many server roles either. The server situation has changed drastically just as the desktop situation is now changing. The desktop will change more slowly since it is not transparent to the user, but similar forces are pushing it inexorably forward. Each year new niches are added to the Linux desktop installed base and other, more established, niches grow. With each such increment of desktop growth, another marginal niche becomes viable. A few more years of this growth and the big market niches will gradually go from inaccessible to marginal to viable to dominated. No, Linux can’t yet replace Windows, but time is on Linux’s side.

Meanwhile, if you’re impatient, you can help to speed things up. Help a friend install Firefox or OpenOffice.org. Give a Windows user a Knoppix CD to play with or install a Desktop Linux distribution on their 'old' machine and show them a software repository full of nice, friendly, and free binary applications. If you’re a programmer, find an open source project that interests you and lend a hand.
mail this link | score:9408 | -Ray, May 8, 2005 (Updated: May 13, 2005)
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