Earlier this week, I was having a beer or two with some fellow computer nerds, and sharing a conversation about the virtues, failings and future of Linux.
I kid you not, that is the kind of subject that excites computer nerds in a bar.
Linux, for those of you are not in the habit of getting excited about computer operating systems, is a now well-established, free computer operating system – like Windows 7, or Apple’s OS X, but for no money.
Unlike those operating systems (or Unix operating systems like AT&T’s Unix, or Sun’s Solaris), no one owns any copyright on Linux.
It was developed and released by the now legendary Linus Torvalds of Finland in 1991, as his contribution to the “open source” software movement – a loose conglomeration of enthusiasts and hobbyists who advocate the free development and free distribution of computer systems and programs, with copyright left out of the equation.
Originally the darling of academic institutions, and adopted as an alternative to the expensive, proprietary Unix systems so many universities relied upon, Linux has, over the past two decades, won over big business and big science, too.
All kinds of commercial enterprises now run some version of it on their main serving computers.
Even Microsoft admits that Linux has it beaten in the server market, estimating that 60 per cent of all serving computers in the world were running Linux, with Windows coming in at something like 40 per cent.
In the field supercomputing, Linux’s dominance is even more pronounced.
According to a recent survey, fully 89 per cent of the world’s top 500 supercomputers are running some distribution or other of Linux.
Linux is also used, in stripped-down, customized forms, in things like netbooks and smart phones.
Though it comes in a sometimes bewildering array of versions – Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian, to name just a few – it is, in pretty much all its iterations, a robust, reliable, and adaptable operating platform.
The reason so few home computer users know much, or anything, about it, is that there is one place it has not done well: the domestic, desktop computer.
Establishing the market share for computer operating systems is a notoriously finicky enterprise under the best of circumstances; it is even more difficult in the case of Linux, because Linux is distributed by a hoard of different companies, free of charge, and without any copyright protection.
One download of Linux can lead to any number of installations from the same set of disks.
Best guesses amongst those in the know place it as being on anywhere between two to five per cent of computer laptops worldwide.
From purely local and anecdotal experience of the computer environment I see around me everyday, I would opt for the lower end of that estimate – two per cent, tops.
For a product that has been giving itself away for almost 20 years, that is a pretty weak performance.
One reason for this poor performance is commercial: Computers tend to ship with operating systems already installed on them (overwhelmingly Windows), and most home users have neither the skills nor the need to mess around with that operating system.
Though a few computers do ship with some version of Linux pre-installed on them, the Linux world, balkanized and small, does not have the commercial wallop to influence the platform choice made by the big computer-making companies like Dell or HP.
The second reason is technical: Too many Linux releases have been difficult and time consuming to install, and with too many consumer-friendly features either badly implemented or not implemented at all.
Though more recent releases show a lot of improvement in this area, the fact remains that the aesthetic experience of using Linux on a home computer is markedly inferior to the experience of using a Mac, or even Windows, now that Windows 7 has redeemed Microsoft from the folly and ugliness of Vista.
The basic problem is that Linux was, and remains, the toy of techies, and techies are famously indifferent to look, feel, and ease of use.
So, though the Linux environment has given us some spin-off software of real value and utility to the computing world – most notably the Firefox web browser – it has not, and by all the evidence of the past will not, become the operating system of choice for the common user.
It is even losing ground in the current market for netbooks, an area it once was very strong in.
At the beginning of 2009, fully 90 per cent of netbooks sold in North America came with Windows XP installed on them.
With Windows 7 gaining in popularity as it is, that lead is unlikely to do anything but grow.
So what is to be done about putting Linux on the home computer?
According to me and my two computer pals at the bar, nothing.
Linux should just give up on the idea of being a popular-use operating system.
For one thing, if it hasn’t cracked the PC desktop market in nearly 20 years, it is not likely to do so, now, when both OS X and Windows 7 have upped the ante for esthetics and usability.
For another thing, the importance of the PC desktop market is going to wane over time, as more and more users move away from desktop computers to mobile devices like smart phones and tablets.
Linux advocates will do better to concentrate on what they do well—being a bit ugly, but powerful, and mostly out of sight for the end user, doing the heavy lifting.
You can’t make a family station wagon out of a bulldozer. Linux should stick to making bulldozers.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.