The unspoken truth of operating systems

An article on Slashdot recently is the latest in a series of items I’ve seen over the past several years, all on the same theme. Each one has identified the thing which will finally allow Linux to build up enough inertia to begin to gain significant market share on the desktop and begin to challenge Microsoft and Apple. Most of the articles focus on a single issue as the key. Sometimes it’s technology―stability and lack of viruses. Sometimes it’s usability―the latest release of Gnome, or Ubuntu’s attempts to make Linux user friendly. And sometimes it’s economics―look at the money you can save by installing a free OS!

All of these ignore one thing which is almost never stated: for a large majority of everyday computer users, people for whom a computer is just another tool or piece of technology, like a refrigerator or a widescreen TV, Windows is just fine. With it they can surf the web, look at their email, listen to music, play games, balance their checkbook and find porn, and for many people that’s all they need and all they care about. In order to convince someone to give up something with which they’re familiar, you need a better reason than price or stability.

Cue gnashing of teeth

I’m not saying Windows is a good OS. I’m not saying I’d ever run it if I had a choice. But one of the problems I see in discussions about operating systems and market share is an urge to assume there’s something critically wrong with Windows and advance from there. Instead, I think the argument needs to backed up a notch or two and more basic questions asked: if we assume a lot of people use Windows because it does a good enough job for them, what would Linux need to do a better enough job?

Problem is, I think this question flies in the face of one of the F/OSS community’s most basic assumptions, which is that superior technology is always the best choice. And, while that may be true for someone who both knows and understands their own, specific needs, I just don’t think it’s true for a large part of the computer using population. For targeting the average computer user, I think the better question is, ’what makes my life easier day-to-day?’ And the answer to that doesn’t have much to do with kernel versions, schedulers or the ability to audit source code.

I think the answer to that question really lies with marketing, market research and, most importantly, understanding people who don’t know and don’t care what a kernel is. Look at Apple. They’ve boiled down the entire transition from the classic Mac OS to the BSD/OpenStep/Mach-derived beast that is OS X into one, simple idea: this operating system takes the ’Power of Unix (and what that is is never really explained) and makes your computer 1) more secure and 2) more stable. And judging from Apple’s steadily increasing market share, it seems to be working.

If Linux, in all its guises, wants to become a serious desktop competitor to the Beast from Redmond, it will have to be a better product, not just a better idea. And there needs to be a message which boils down the reasons why Linux would be a better choice than Windows or OS X to something which catches the attention of someone who cares more about sports and widescreen TVs than operating systems.


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