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Communicate With the Masses

When I saw that Linux Magazine recently accepted paid advertising from Linux's arch-nemesis Microsoft, a.k.a. Evil Empire to End All Evil Empires, I expected a minor backlash from some of the less enlightened and more politically high-strung readers. But the knee-jerk reaction, as shown in the Letters pages in the October issue, was so strong and utterly clueless that it actually shocked me, despite the fact that I've seen more than my share of the Linux faithful in action. Even though that reaction was limited to a very small percentage of readers, it clearly has some serious implications for the future of Linux and, to a lesser extent, the open source movement.

In the Trenches

When I saw that Linux Magazine recently accepted paid advertising from Linux’s arch-nemesis Microsoft, a.k.a. Evil Empire to End All Evil Empires, I expected a minor backlash from some of the less enlightened and more politically high-strung readers. But the knee-jerk reaction, as shown in the Letters pages in the October issue, was so strong and utterly clueless that it actually shocked me, despite the fact that I’ve seen more than my share of the Linux faithful in action. Even though that reaction was limited to a very small percentage of readers, it clearly has some serious implications for the future of Linux and, to a lesser extent, the open source movement.

Some of the letters outraged me almost beyond words. These beauties included comments such as; “Are you going out of business, or did Microsoft just make you an offer you couldn’t refuse?” And then there was; “…whenever a publication chooses to accept money from a large and wealthy advertiser, its content soon reflects accommodation to that advertiser.” And, the winner for overblown rhetoric; “Well, Judas, I hope Microsoft paved your road to hell in gold, because the 30 pieces of silver Gates paid is just about all you’ll have left to buy magazines from competing Linux publications after your magazine loses most of its readership.”

Interestingly, if you take a look at this month’s Letters page, you’ll see the reactions of many other readers to those letters in the October issue. After hearing from the zealots, many calmer heads have written in extolling the magazine’s professionalism and dedication to openness and non-discrimination. The most eloquent and accurate comment I saw read, “Linux can’t hope to compete with Microsoft and succeed by pretending that Microsoft doesn’t exist.”

It’s clear to me that the initial reaction to the Microsoft ad was just the usual vocal, extremist minority exercising their typing fingers, and should not be taken as the universal feeling among the readership or Linux users overall; if anything, I’m much more convinced that the second wave of feedback was far more representative of Linux users overall.

As always, the real value of such events is found in the larger picture. Taking a deep breath and a step back from this incident leaves me with the unmistakable conclusion: Many within the Linux user base are so short-sighted and so immersed in their battle with Microsoft and the effort to make Linux “non-Windows,” that they are seriously jeopardizing Linux’s potential mainstream success.

The Linux kernel is, by any rational measure, a true gem — a piece of amazingly efficient, reliable, and flexible work that any programmer worth his weight in mouse pads should be proud to have contributed to. The other components of what most people would consider to be a complete Linux desktop system (including XFree86, desktop managers and environments, and the multitude of open/free applications available on the Internet) only add to the jewel’s luster.

All of this begs the obvious question: If Linux and its attendant system components and applications are such high quality work, then why does Windows still have a near-total monopoly on the desktop market?

Many factors contribute to that sad state of affairs (far too many to go into here), but the root cause which has not received nearly as much attention as it should have is how insulated Linux programmers are from the needs of mainstream users.

I’ve contended for a long time that one of the best things that could happen to Linux would be for its supporters and programmers to spend a significant amount of time with mainstream users as they use their Macs and Windows machines. This is not a theoretical exercise; do it some time. I have with numerous friends and relatives I’ve helped with computer problems and upgrades over the years. Pay attention to which programs people run and how they use them to work, stay in touch with friends and relatives, and entertain themselves. Don’t even mention Linux, open source/free software, or “how much better” they could serve your friend’s needs. Just sit, watch, and learn.

I’m convinced that if enough Linux supporters did this it would significantly improve our collective understanding of mainstreamers and cause a sharp reduction in the number of online references to “Windoze lusers” and other displays of rampant ignorance. Most important, it would result in far more usable, complete, and better-documented system components and applications for Linux. I realize that this advice contradicts one of the basic tenets of open source (at least according to some people), which says that everyone should just develop what they need and want and let the invisible hand of the extensive developer base guide the overall marketplace and infrastructure.

If you’re interested in developing software solely for yourself and people just like you and me, then that’s a terrific way to proceed, and you should go forth with a clear conscience. But if you want to reach out to and convert the mainstreamers, and thereby make Linux into a truly revolutionary force instead of just a hobbyist toy and experts-only tool, then that approach is myopic, foolish, selfish, and doomed to failure. (For the record, some projects “get it” far better than others in this regard, with KDE being the brightest example of an effort to bring Linux to the rest of the world. But even KDE can’t do the whole job themselves.)

Which brings me back to the flood of inanity on display in the October issue’s Letters pages. I know from years of working with computer users of all stripes — from the rankest of newbies to the most expert wizards — that they actually share a lot more in common than they know or, in some cases, would like to admit. Luckily, their common traits include how incredibly helpful and generous they can all be. But it’s no secret to those of us who work publicly with Linux, including numerous writers and editors that I’m quite proud to know personally, just how narrow-minded and petty parts of the Linux user base can be.

I can imagine a lot of people asking, “Why does this matter? Shouldn’t Linux succeed or fail on its merits?” The answer is depressingly simple: Image counts. Sure, it would be wonderful to see all of society work purely as a meritocracy, with people and products getting a fair chance and their fates not being influenced by silly things like image and PR value.

Unfortunately, that’s a utopian view that doesn’t apply to the real world, particularly in mainstream markets. And that, in turn, means that as long as the narrow-minded, mean-spirited, arrogant, and ignorant among Linux users (no matter how small a minority they really are) manage to scream louder than the rest of us, they’ll play a disturbingly large role in shaping the public perception of the “Linux community” as a whole. Imagine how easy it is for Microsoft employees to paint the Linux camp as a bunch of lunatics just by showing customers some carefully selected editorials and comments from the major Linux sites on the Internet. Do we really want to keep handing Redmond that big a stick to beat us with?

Linux is at a crossroads. The big money from corporations is betting on Linux being a solid embedded and low-to-mid-level server OS — areas where it will continue to succeed brilliantly. The mainstream desktop is the toughest market Linux will face, however, and it will be much more elusive. Mainstreamers will only begin to convert to Linux in appreciable numbers after a lot more work is done to make it a friendlier, more useful OS for the masses. This campaign is going to require open minds and a far more pervasive willingness to embrace the mainstreamers, something that Linux (apparently) doesn’t yet have.





Lou Grinzo is a long time technical writer and is now the Linux data analyst at Evans Data Corp. He can be reached at lougrinzo@yahoo.com.

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