Low End Mac Round Table

20 Years of Linux: Where Is It Going?

Low End Mac Staff - 2011.08.25

Linux penguin mascotLinus Torvalds announced his project to create a version of Unix specifically forthe 80386 CPU on August 25, 1991, and the first pre-beta version shippedin September 1991. Its claim to fame is that Linux is a free, open sourceoperating system with a large community of developers. This is in starkcontrast to Windows and the Mac OS, both of which are commercialundertakings. (Apple was strongly encouraged to choose Linux as thefoundation of Mac OS X, but instead chose BSD and the Mach kernel,which had also been at the core of the NeXT OS.)

Despite the advantage of being a very solid, free operating system,Linux hasn't made significant inroads in the world of personalcomputing. It is very popular for servers, and Androidhas made it a popular smartphone and tablet OS, but it consistentlyshows up at less than 1% of the installed user base on desktops andnotebooks.

This week we're looking at the impact of Linux and open sourcesoftware. With the rapid growth of Mac market share in recent years, wecan't argue that Windows has a death grip on the market. Is the freesoftware model flawed? Will Linux ever become popular with desktop andnotebook users?

Dan Knight (Mac Musings):As an iPhone user with lots of free appsinstalled, I don't think the free software model is flawed. There is alot of good freeware and shareware software out there.

I think the biggest problem Linux faces is that it's not beingmarketed. After all, where would the money come from to do that?Additionally, it's not a particularly friendly environment for users,as you need to install the right version of an app for the distributionof Linux that you're losing (this is less of a problem than it used tobe). It's much easier to use Windows or Mac OS X.

Keith Winston (Linux to Mac: Linuxis very fragmented, so the marketingmessage gets diluted as thinly as the number of distributions. It'sgreat for roll your own types and great for creating customizedsolutions. Not great as a general purpose desktop.

As you mentioned, Linux shines when it is hidden in an embeddeddevice. TiVo, phones, set-top boxes, etc. I love Linux on servers, andI do software development in Linux. It has a hideous audio system andis not supported for games, so I run it in a VM on either Windows orMac.

I think Apple choose BSD more for licensing issues than technicalones. Jobs always liked the Mach kernel vs. the Linux kernel, so thatmay have been a technical choice, or preference.

Simon Royal (Tech Spectrum): Linuxhas made serious inroads in the last fewyears, single-handedly due to Ubuntu being a pretty good, solid, andfairly easy to use version of Linux.

Newer versions of Ubuntu are very Mac-like, and the hardware supportis fantastic. I have tried and used various Linux distros and evenswitched from Mac to Linux for a few months. Ten years ago I wouldn'thave dreamed of it, but the user friendliness of modern Linux is great.You do still need to be a geek to use it though. It's great when it isall working, but when something goes wrong or you need to tweaksomething, then out comes the command line.

Marketing isn't the problem; it just isn't user friendly enough. Itis still too techie for the average user.

Mac, as great as it is, has had a hard time pushing its way throughthe Windows world, and it has taken a long time. Mac is sleek, stable,and well built, and yet it still is behind Windows (in numbers). Linuxis way behind Mac in the sleek and well built stakes. Once it overcomesthis, then it could be a contender, but Linux will always be geeky -it's just its nature.

With regards to "needing the right version" of an app, that's notquite true. There are only a few bases of Linux, and these bases havetheir app package types. Most modern distros have their own "repos"where you can download apps that work on your distro similar to the appstore.

PowerPC Linux is even furtherbehind. While the actually OS is great, most software is only developedfor the x86 platform, so while you can install a stable version ofLinux on your iBook, you will be hard pushed to get software to run onit. With the move to Intel, this becomes less a problem. You caninstall a regular x86 distro and have access to all software. Your Maccan triple boot OS X,Windows, and Linux all at full speed.

Austin Leeds: For me, Linux has been something of a half-fullglass. It's free, very secure, and relatively solid, but the majorproblem holding it back is the sub-par user-friendliness that can beseen on many Linux distros. In this respect, I was rooting for Ubuntuearly on, but recently, I've been looking at Fedora. I'd heard early reports ofcomplete, out-of-the box compatibility with the Pismo PowerBook, but I didn't reallytake it seriously until my brother Cainon installed it on histroublesome HerculeseCafé netbook, and it worked with no intervention from me.If Fedora can get some advertising (hey, try a money bomb like Ron Pauldoes!), I think it might take off with users who want to switch fromWindows but don't like Mac prices.

Cainon Leeds: This is Austin's brother. Like he said, I gotFedora version 15 installed on my netbook because I was fed up withWindows 7 Starter, and Ubuntu was having some problems with going tosleep and Internet connections. I've gotta say that Fedorareally impressed me with its functionality. Ubuntu was kind oflike a kid's operating system that I didn't mess with that much, so Ijust used Windows until it started getting slow from all its "updates".But with Fedora I really tried to get it to be able to do everythingthat Windows can do, and I did. Sure, Linux isn't in the mainstreamyet, but I expect that to change with our falling economy. Some people,like me, can't afford Macs up front, so they put up with Windows. OnceLinux becomes easier to install and understand, I think it'll take off,but I'll let the results speak for themselves. I don't always useLinux, but when I do, I prefer Fedora. Stay free, my friends.

Alan Zisman (Zis Mac): I was at theNorth American LinuxCon lastweek (held here in Vancouver); the keynotes - from Linux Foundation'sexecutive director Jim Zemlin and Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst - jokedabout "Year of the Linux Desktop" but made the point that we're allusing Linux whether we know it or not - most often secondhand (asidefrom the many Android users): Google, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, and moreare all running web server farms on Linux.

Whitehurst in particular made the point that Linux and open sourcesoftware in general enable both startups and existing companies to takerisks on innovative projects that might otherwise not be followed upon, because the cost is so much lower. Prior to coming to Red Hat, hewas with Delta Airlines; he talked about an IT project to change theway the airline dealt with ticketing (etc.) - but the company couldn'tafford the development costs if they were having to pay for Sun serversand Oracle database. Open source (including Linux) enabled the ITdepartment to demonstrate proof of concept - and to scale up into fullimplementation. The result is savings of $1 billion/year for Delta.

So, no, 2011 isn't shaping up as The Year of the Linux Desktop, butLinux is strong on the back end.

Allison Payne (The Budget Mac):I love knowing that Linux is an option outthere for older hardware, but aside from one or two forays into Ubuntuon G3 iMacs, I haven't foundmuch motivation to use it or recommend it to others. And I could dowithout the bickering amongst open-sourcers.

That said, I shudder to think how different the enterprise/serverlandscape would be today without a viable, rock-solid, flexiblealternative to expensive and restrictive offerings from IBM, Oracle,Sun, Microsoft, etc. Not to mention what the mobile and Web servicesmarkets would look like. We've seen the pitfalls of monopolisticcomputer giants, and I sincerely hope we never return to that.

Bottom line: Do I think it's ever going to take over the world ofpersonal computers? No, But Linux is key to maintaining a diversefoundation for computing going forward.

Adam Rosen (Adam's Apple): I don'tbelieve Linux will ever succeed as adesktop, laptop, or general purpose OS. The barriers to entry andproductive use among non-geeks are to high: What distro do I use? Willmy favorite software run on it? Can I sync my iPhone? Who do I turn tofor help and support? If it hasn't happened in 20 years, time to stophoping.

Linux is very good as a server and embedded OS, as others havenoted. Here the requirements are fixed (or more limited), and thetechnical knowledge for implementation and support typically exists.There's no reason to doubt that Linux won't continue to grow anddominate these fields.

Regarding price: There are several definitions of "free" and "open"software. Linux is open software, meaning a single person or companydoes not hold copyright to the code and cannot prevent others frommodifying or using it as long as they obey the tenets of the GPL. Theremay well be a fee to purchase the code and/or support, but it's notprivately held intellectual property. "Free as in speech".

Freeware or shareware programs may cost little to nothing as well,but if the code is proprietary and not available for reuse, thesoftware isn't open and your license to use it (or not) depends on thewhim of the developer. "Free as in beer". The former is a philosophy,the latter is a business model - though some overlap can occur.

Dan Bashur (Apple, Tech, and Gaming):Although I've never dabbled in Linux personally,I've considered it due to the low demands on hardware. I've read quitea bit about installing Ubuntu, YellowDog, and Fedora on G3 era machines, allowing you to squeeze a bitmore muscle out of those classics. It could definitely be an extraoption for my Pismo or iMac G3, allowing those machines to have a thirdoption in addition to Mac OS 9 and X.

As far as applications go, there are some options, but far fewerthan those for commercial operating systems. I have heard thatperformance with VLC MediaPlayer is actually better in builds of Linux compared to OS X,which could be a good thing for those who want to build a home mediaserver. To echo what Dan Knight said, "the marketing just isn't there."For software developers, there is not a whole lot of incentive to goafter such a small piece of the pie. For a gamer's perspective onLinux, see my article Linux on a PlayStation 3or Not: My Personal Struggle, which chronicles my personal struggleover a Sony PlayStation 3 that could be running Linux right now, if notlegitimately upgraded.

Charles Moore (several columns):Linux and and the Open Source outlook andmethodology would be a better fit for me philosophically than Apple'stopdown, tightly controlled, micromanaged, because-we-say-so "WalledGarden" universe. That's because I'm probably nearly as much a controlfreak about my computing environment as Steve Jobs is about his. Italso probably explains my lack of enchantment with my iPad 2 (I don't hate the iPad and theiOS, I just don't love them a whole lot).

What's kept me in the Apple fold has been the excellence and of theuser-experience and the (mostly) solid elegance of the hardware.However, I've always found it a comfort to have Linux there as apotential "escape route" - and one that I've giving more seriousthought to since the release of OS X 10.7 Lion.

My hands-on experience with Linux is actually pretty limited. Iinstalled a couple of builds of SuSE Linuxfor PowerPC on my old WallStreet PowerBook G3 about a decade ago, followed by an installof Yellow Dog Linux for PowerPC. Both were reasonably lively on the old233 MHz G3, but there were just too many angularities and rough edgesaround the UI, as well as total incompatibility with my suite ofproduction applications, for me to be tempted away from OS 9. Then cameOS X, and with Unix under the hood there seemed even less reason to goLinux - at least until Lion came along.

There are three main issues with Lion that I find off-putting.First, did I mention that I'm not a fan of iOS-style user interfaceconventions? Second, and most important at this point, is thetermination of Rosetta support for legacy applications, which is hugefor me because at least four of my core production applications -Tex-Edit Plus, Color It! 4.5, Mail Beacon, and Eudora 6 won't run inLion.* I expect there are others that I use less frequently, but findconvenient and useful to have available, that are broken as well. Thirdis Apple's obvious lack of enthusiasm for, and only grudging (alsoexpensive) support of self-contained user control over operating systemupdates and reinstalls, and the whole App Store paradigm. To a greateror lesser extent, all of these strengthen the argument for switching todesktop Linux, which, based on what I hear from some readers, hasimproved a great deal in user-friendliness over the past 10 years.

Will I jump? Definitely not until I get a better bead on how thingsare going to shake out. Snow Leopard is doing a great job for me, andthe Color It! folks at Digimage Arts have posted notice thatthey've been working hard on a new version of Color It! that is beingbuilt from scratch and will definitely run in OS X 10.7. Tom Bendermentioned to me some time ago that he hoped to get a native Cocoa version of Tex-EditPlus written, but there's been no word or sign for manymonths.

We'll see.

Dan Knight: Let's shift the focus from Linux on x86 hardwareand look at one area where some people are really pushing Linux on Macs- PowerPC hardware. This seems to be primarily due to more and morebrowsers requiring OSX 10.5 Leopard, which G3 Macs can't run, and 10.6 Snow Leopard, which only Intel Macs can run.

Do you think PowerPC Linux provides any real benefits compared withusing Mac OS X 10.4 with TenFourFox 5, Camino 2.1, iCab 4.8, or the last versions of Firefox(3.6), Safari(4.1.3), Opera (10.63), etc. to support PowerPC hardware and OS X 10.4Tiger?

Simon Royal: PPC Linux itself might be great, but withoutdecent browser plugin support, you are no better off than using a Macwith outdated plugins.

Alan Zisman: The biggest problem for desktop Linux is that -for most users - Windows is "free", either because the license isincluded with the hardware they purchased, or because (in much of theworld), they are buying a pirated copy.

As a result, the "free as beer" reason to use Linux doesn'texist.

Brian Gray (Fruitful Editing): Atthis time, I don't see a lot of benefit usinga PPC port of Linux over Tiger or Leopard. Tiger works perfect on myiMacG5, and there's nothing that I need the machine to run that I wouldneed Leopard for. I think PPC Linux in the future is going to fall intoa "cool but useless" kind of category, where you can show your friendsthat Ubuntu works on an old Blue & White G3, but just barely.

Since Apple has left my Early 2006 MacBook Pro behind with OSX 10.7 Lion, 32-bit Linux is going to be an attractive choice oncesupport for Snow Leopard finally dries up. It's that or Windows7.

* According to Roaring Apps, Eudora OSE "works fine" with Lion. We can'tfind any information about MailForge(another alternative to "real" Eudora) compatibility with Lion,although as clean, recent recreation of Eudora, we suspect it may work.

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