Grokking the Goatberg

As a Linux and Open Source user and advocate, it's often easy to take defensive potshots at those who are critical of our favorite OS. It's a position that I have become intimately familiar with over the last decade or so, because before I was a Linux and Open Source advocate, I was an IBM OS/2 advocate.

As a Linux and Open Source user and advocate, it’s often easy to take defensive potshots at those who are critical of our favorite OS. It’s a position that I have become intimately familiar with over the last decade or so, because before I was a Linux and Open Source advocate, I was an IBM OS/2 advocate.

Yes, back in the early 90′s, I was one of those “Team OS/2″ guys. You know, one of those seriously rabid and hyper-energetic geeky types that did demos at Egghead Software, user groups, and anywhere and anyone we could get the system in front of as part of a volunteer grassroots marketing strategy. Why did we do it? Because we loved the system so much and wanted to get as many people using it as possible. And let’s face it, it needed all the help it could get at the time, because unlike the way Linux is being pushed today in commercials and the print media, OS/2 wasn’t getting much help in terms of marketing dollars from its parent company. This was circa 1995, long before the Internet and before the Web was this hugely popular and ubiquitous information resource. Back then, all we had were bulletin board systems, USENET, and services like CompuServe and Prodigy to get the news out. Broadband? Fuhgeddaboudit.

But we did have some things in common. One constant we did have to deal with was the mainstream media and what they thought about our favorite OS, and how the public interpretation of that media impacted the future of the platform. One of the most feared in the mainstream was Walter Mossberg, Personal Technology columnist of the Wall Street Journal or the “Goatberg” as a certain fake computer company CEO likes to refer to him, in reference to his trademark billy goat-style goatee.

Mossberg, who has been writing his column in the Wall Street Journal since 1991, is a force to be reckoned with. Much like Frank Bruni or Robert Parker can alter the futures of a prominent restaurant or a winery with a single review, Mossberg can determine the future of a technology product or a company with a summary judgment in one of his columns. Like it — as he did with the iPod and the iPhone — it becomes a huge success; or hate it — like he did with the Sharp Zaurus or OS/2 — and it’s likely to be relegated to the tech dumpsters of history.

So, naturally, I read with great interest his writeup of a preloaded Dell system running Ubuntu Feisty in the September 13, 2007 issue of the Wall Street Journal. What he says shouldn’t be much of a shock to anyone here:

My verdict: Even in the relatively slick Ubuntu variation, Linux is still too rough around the edges for the vast majority of computer users. While Ubuntu looks a lot like Windows or Mac OS X, it is full of little complications and hassles that will quickly frustrate most people who just want to use their computers, not maintain or tweak them… Dell and Canonical tell me there are complex workarounds for some of the problems I encountered, and that built-in improvements are planned for others. But for now, I still advise mainstream, nontechnical users to avoid Linux.”

Now, I always thought that Mossberg was a bit of an alter kocker when it came to talking about technology. To me, his audience always seemed like old banker types who needed to know what digital cameras and radar detectors their wives should buy them for their birthdays, not the types that read serious computer publications. Still, one has to realize that even though this is a Personal Technology column, your basic CIO reading the Journal on the commuter train to work is inevitably going to put the words “Linux” and “Avoid” together, irrespective of how well Linux is doing as an enterprise OS in his organization. It’s going to hurt desktop adoption for sure.

So, should we be crying foul? Should we be accusing The Goatberg of FUDMeistery? Write a few thousand lines of foaming at the mouth invective on comp.os.linux.advocacy and hang Mossberg in effigy?

No, because the Goatberg speaks the truth. What he says about lots of complications and hassles and workarounds gets to the real heart of the problem with desktop Linux adoption. As early adopters and power users, we are willing to deal with these problems in order to benefit from Linux’s greater reliability and performance. But the reality is the majority of end users would have extreme difficulty in migrating to a current Linux desktop without lots of extra help from a skilled IT professional, and even then he still might not be able to completely adapt.

So is The Goatberg’s Ubuntu review the kiss of death for Linux? Far from it. In fact, I think it will be the one that might very well defy the historical pattern of Goatberg No Likey, Product Go Bye-Bye. At the end of the day, Linux’s future is independent from the fates of the companies that promote it — so, while distros like Red Hat and SUSE are certainly products and may very well be at the mercy of Wall Street, the Open Source projects themselves such as Ubuntu and Debian, and the multitude of smaller projects that comprise them ultimately are at the fate of the community that create them.

Still, I think its important to listen to people like Walt Mossberg because sometimes its necessary for us geeky types to get in the shoes of the end user. When Walt has problems getting his digital camera recognized, or syncing up with his iPod, or playing Web-based video clips, you can be assured that your average end user probably will too. Can the community fix these problems? Absolutely. But unlike the rabid Team OS/2 guys of old, let’s not take out our frustrations on the poor mainstream press when what we really should be doing is getting back to the drawing board and making things work.

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