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Thoughts on Linux

2007.11

I started writing an essay during our honeymoon in 2005. I was sitting in a park and something important hit me: Linux will likely never have a large portion of the desktop market. I know that this doesn't sound like great news but it was followed with another thought: It doesn't matter.

We were in Paris at the time. From the park, I could see one of the few McDonalds that I spotted throughout the entire two-week trip. It was then that I realized that one of the spectacularly cool things about Europe was that it was different everywhere. This contrasted heavily with my experiences in North America. Think of it: There's a mall in every city. In every mall, you'll find basically the same chain stores. Walmart expands at a constant rate, as does Starbucks and the like.

Not so in Europe. Yes, there were occasional chain-store sightings but the norm was small shops in every block of every city. In Europe, there was far less market concentration, far less of a chain-presence, and everyone seemed to want to keep it that way.

But what does this have to do with Linux, you ask. In the park, I concluded that Windows is the North American mall/Walmart where Linux is like the European shops. Linux has almost as many different faces as it has users. Windows is fundamentally the same everywhere. Yes, you can shoe-horn Windows into embedded devices and non-standard configurations, but this is akin to the occasional Starbucks or McDonalds that you see in Paris. It is absolutely not the norm.

Linux, on the other hand, is infinitely malleable. Yes, you don't see it much on mainstream desktop machines, but like malls, this is only one target market. (Albeit a visible one.) Linux, on the other hand, is everywhere. It runs your servers, it runs Motorola phones, Linksys routers, SAN devices, network switches, set-top-boxes. You name it, Linux can likely be made to work it, and can do so very well. And why not? It's a well-understood, well-supported and well-documented system that happens to be license free. There are things that it can do that no other OS can touch. Yes, it may not be suitable for every use, but it can likely be made to work with almost anything.

As time marches on, this is becoming increasingly obvious.  When I started thinking about this in 2005, Nokia hadn't yet released their unintentionally successful Internet Tablet line, Asus hadn't released their sub-$400 Xandros-based laptop, the OLPC project was just ramping up, Palm hadn't shifted development to Linux, and Motorola wasn't selling widely-used, very successful Linux-based cell phones.  With hardware maturing, and Linux evolving on all fronts to meet  these new challenges, the future has never looked brighter for this once-young upstart OS.  In fact, with Ubuntu's entrance on the scene, even desktop Linux is looking up.