Chad Perrin: SOB

3 January 2008

Closed-source glitz — missing the point.

Filed under: Cognition,Geek,Metalog — apotheon @ 04:56

Robin Harris says 2008 is Linux’s year on the desktop. I don’t know that I buy that tight a timetable for open source operating systems to rule the world — and I think he’s a little myopic in thinking Linux will be the one and only major alternative to MS Windows to make such strides. I think when it happens Linux may well be the vanguard, but Macs, Solaris, and BSD Unix systems will be riding in its wake. Realistically, BSD Unix OSes will probably take over the place Linux once had on the desktop (but with more poise and less of the feather boas and dancing routines), while Linux takes a slightly larger role, and OpenSolaris will share a fair bit of server space with BSD Unix. That is, I believe that’s what’ll happen barring unforeseen eventualities that could throw everything out of whack.

. . . but let’s just go with Robin’s “optimistic” (depends on your priorities, I guess) view of things. For the record, I think it would be a step away from the absolute wrong direction, but not strictly the right direction, as such. Anyway, we’re assuming for the moment that Robin is right about how things will go if Microsoft and Apple sit still and let it. Now, it’s time to examine what they might do.

We’ll take the predictions of Adrian Kingsley-Hughes as your cue for this one, in his response to Robin’s take on the future. He tells us How Microsoft (and Apple) will respond to very-low-cost Linux systems, at least in his estimation.

Adrian says:

That’s easier than you think you know. You see, take a look at either Vista or Leopard (it doesn’t matter which) and what do you see? That’s right, a rich, media intensive platform that’s stuffed full of eye candy. It’s no accident that both Microsoft and Apple are embracing media and eye-candy with enthusiasm – this is a very deliberate business choice that both companies have made.

He’s not a man of deep examinations of his own predictions, apparently, because that was almost a third of the entire weblog post. I’ll try to summarize the rest. Italicized text is a paraphrase:

MS and Apple are using their ability to crank out high-end graphical goodies and handle multimedia spiffiness to put those Linux cavemen to shame. Linux can’t handle multimedia content and 3D graphical GUI environments, you see, since they all use text-based interfaces circa 1969. All those cheap, low-end systems being sold with Linux on them will fall by the wayside as people see the Light, and run back to the arms of King and Queen Bloat. Plus, y’know, there isn’t even a price difference, ’cause Linux is too late to the party.

I stripped away a bit of Adrian’s veneer of reasonability there, but it was pretty thin to begin with, so I’m sure nobody will notice. Anyway, now that we’re done with the rosy-lensed Linux-cheerleader prediction, here’s what I think of the Evil Empire cheering section’s predictions:

  1. Microsoft and Apple will of course keep making high-glitz systems.

  2. Microsoft and Apple will also try to get into the low-cost market. Microsoft will fail horribly (look at the example of Vista Home Basic) to make a positive impression. Apple will make surprising headway with things like the iPhone and the Mac Mini serving as early steps in that direction, but all the “real” Mac users will still want the high-end systems Apple offers — after all, that’s what Apple is good at: high-end hardware with a glitzy straightjacket OS. Microsoft’s almost as good at the straightjacket, but its glitz always ends up looking like fifty-seven pounds of pink taffeta.

  3. They will indeed hope their high-glitz systems will hold a niche Linux can’t break into. Of course, unlike Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, they know what’s actually going on out there — they won’t believe that as long as people want glitz they’ve got an unassailable foothold against the encroachment of open source systems on their market. They’ll have to hope that nobody catches on to the fact that open source systems are currently better at glitz and glamour than Microsoft and Apple systems. The order of stylish, shiny eye candy from best to worst goes something like: Compiz Fusion (window manager for the X Window System); Aqua (the MacOS X GUI); Aero Glass (the MS Windows Vista GUI); A bunch of other X Window System window managers like Enlightenment; Whatever Microsoft calls the “no Aero Glass for Home Basic” GUI interface. The order of bloated, RAM-sucking, processor-burning resource consumption from greatest (worst) to least (best) goes something like this: Aero Glass; Aqua; MS Windows Vista non-Aero interface; Compiz Fusion; KDE and GNOME; Enlightenment; All the rest of the X Window System window managers. Note that I’m not entirely sure that, for resource waste, Aqua is fatter than Vista Basic, or that Compiz Fusion is worse than KDE and GNOME.

  4. So . . . open source OSes like Linux and BSD Unix systems (and even MacOS X) can do better in the glitz arena with less resource-suckage than MS Windows, and MS Windows is the only OS family that does worse than MacOS X on either score, overall. Far from being primitive caveman stuff that can’t stand up to the superior technical acumen of those paragons of programming innovation in Redmond, the open source development community seems to have mastered the art of producing prettier, fancier software with less egregious resource suckage — and somehow, Microsoft Windows still can’t provide multiple workspaces worth a damn, despite the fact it’s about fifteen year old technology at this point. Should I go on? How about proper application pagers, journaled filesystems, filesystems that don’t need defragging, true privilege separation, and the ability to extend one’s filesystem by mounting other filesystems at arbitrary points with whatever permissions you want? Hey — at least MS Windows comes with a kitchen sink. Wait — I forgot a really important one: good, comprehensive, stable, secure software management. Microsoft still has no clue how that works, apparently.

  5. Barring dirty tricks (which are sure to arise, with MS Windows and Apple MacOS X in the works), trying to hold the “high ground” through maintaining consumer ignorance while giving up some of the low ground is a losing proposition. After all, as more and more people who want cheap but capable systems are introduced to open source OSes, familiarity with the scary world of “not what came from Best Buy” will grow in the general populace, who will suddenly realize just how easy this stuff really is. It’ll start growing. It’ll spread more quickly, once it passes a particular tipping point, because it’s free — not only free of charge, but free for copying, redistributing, selling, modifying, playing frisbee with the CDs, whatever. Eventually, high-end systems will start cropping up with Compiz Fusion and World of Warcraft running on Free/Libre/Open Source Unix-like OSes. Of course, it won’t get that far easily. As I said, they’ll fight dirty.

So, now that we’ve settled that . . . barring legislation and litigation tailor-made to destroy open source software development, Microsoft and Apple will have to come up with a lot more than just holding the line on glitz-heavy OS interfaces to stem the rising tide of open source software adoption. In fact, the way things have been going for Microsoft lately, it’s going to have to undo some of the damage it has done to itself by driving away many of its customers. Oh, sure, not a majority, or even a significant minority percentage (yet) — but certainly enough to sit up and take notice, and to wonder how things will go this year.

This year. Man. Is it 1998 already?

(edit: I had accidentally said iPod at one point when I meant iPhone. That error has been fixed.)

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License