Recognising potential through history

As an advocate and consultant, I tend to get exposed to a rich tapestry of reasons why Open Source is great and why it is not so great. I am not going going to bother singing to the choir about the great aspects, but I instead want to discuss one of the oft heard criticisms – Linux isn’t as feature rich as Windows and will never be good enough. To approach this problem, you need to divide it into two distinctive areas – feature development and marketing. Both have their own driving forces and issues. So, lets take a look at them both.

Feature development

Human beings are great at making comparisons, that’s what we do. Utterances of “my car is better than yours”, “so, why is this microwave £30 more expensive than that one”, and “well, she/he is nice, but not as nice as xyz” can be heard across the land. Of course, we are no different when evaluating software. As such, comparisons have been made from day one about Linux vs. Windows, the GIMP vs. Photoshop, Ardour vs. Cubase, Firefox vs. IE, Outlook vs. Evolution etc. In the short term, we can indeed draw such conclusions. If application A does something that application B does not, it is fair to judge application A as being the superior product, right? Well, it is not that simple.

First of all, the IT industry is ridden with ‘feature insanity’. I alluded to this, particularly in an educational context in my Unwrapping Learning Potential With Open Source post. This phenomenon manifests in the innate process of comparing two things on a blow by blow feature chart, as opposed to actually identifying if the tool can do what you need it to do. This is particularly prevalent with OpenOffice.org – many, many people can be productive and do what they need to do in OpenOffice.org, but they instead demand that it matches every feature in the latest version of Microsoft Office. So, the first rule is to actually identify which features you need, and in many cases Open Source software is fine and dandy.

The second issue is to analyse the problem with a longer term approach and look at the history of Open Source. Let me outline this with my mad Inkscape skillz:

The diagram looks at the development of the Windows and Linux desktop. Back in the early days, a usable desktop in the Windows world was something such as Windows 3.0 or 3.1. Below the Windows box you can the Linux box is further to the right. The equivalent functionality to Windows 3.0 or 3.1 didn’t come to the Linux desktop until some years later. As such, the Linux desktop was immediately playing catch-up due to its later start. Microsoft had already got in there and started building their product, with plenty of developers and money behind it. How could the desktop compete?

If you now look at the right side of the diagram, you can see that the Windows and Linux desktops are fairly level. If you compare Windows XP to Ubuntu Dapper, SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop or Fedora Core 5, they are fairly comparable. Sure, there are certain chunks missing, particularly in vertical markets, but people are today making real-world comparisons and considering the desktop in their organisations and homes.

From this we can identify that the Linux desktop is developing a lot quicker than the competition. This proves that the Open Source development process is working, and is working at a higher rate. This does not necessarily mean we are better optimised (100,000 monkeys picking tea are quicker than 10 high-speed tea-picking humans), but it does mean we are developing quicker, and piling in the features and unique selling points.

Marketing

In this months PC Pro, Tim Danton stated that “open-source will never pose a threat to Microsoft”. His argument basically boils down to the fact that Open Source software websites are not as good as the competition – he says that many Open Source project sites consist of just plain text and links. This is clearly an issue about Marketing.

To be honest, sure, there are some pretty dog-awful websites that push Open Source projects out there, and many do indeed consist of boring black text on a white background and a few blue links. But, I would say this is rare for major Open Source projects, and is mainly the case for niche applications, and the same limitations in fascia can be applied to niche software on any platform.

Since my entry to the Open Source community, I have seen developers evolve. Back in the early days, developers were largely code heads who cared for nothing but code. Many of these developers wrote awesome code, but produced terrible websites, ugly interfaces and terse documentation. As Open Source developed and become a serious and credible platform, developers have evolved into code heads with an experience and respect for project management, release schedules, usability, documentation and marketing. Take a look at any of the major Open Source projects and you can see well organised development teams with contributors who help in many different areas such as documentation, art, websites, coding and marketing. This is evolution doing its thing, and the average Open Source developer maintains a remarkably diverse range of skills and appreciation of these different areas. Open Source development process and practice basically grew up as the platform grew.

We have a strong, diverse and fast developing platform, and the really exciting time is as we surpass the competition in the many different areas. This is not a one horse game – we may steam ahead in web browser technology, but we may lag in CAD software. But, as Open Source grows and the platform grows, each of these areas look more and more promising every day. We just need to look at our history to understand our future.

  • http://davidt.homeip.net David T.

    I often hear comments about how (Desktop) Linux isn’t feature rich just as you mentioned. The funny thing is that whenever I work in a Windows environment, Windows network or on a Windows box I feel pretty handicapped. Why? Because many of the features that I want and need don’t exist. Whenever I need to work on a server or workstation running Windows that I have never worked on before (as in, I don’t know the hardware), the first thing I will do is to pop in Knoppix to figure out what the box is made out of and how well or not so well things are working. Why? Because when it comes to probing hardware, nothing beats Linux and Windows feels incomplete in comparison. So feature richness is of course very much dependent on what you are comparing. Sure, Linux is lacking in the pure numbers of features on the desktop, but I still haven’t found a reason for inviting Windows back into my house, and I have been Windows free since 1999. To me that means that many of the features in Windows are simply bloat.

    There is also another very funny and interesting comment concerning Linux vs Windows that you didn’t mention, but I am sure you have heard on way to many occasions: Once you get somebody to switch over to Linux, the first thing they will complain about while going through the learning curve is that there are too many “features”!! By features in this case I mean choices! It is just too funny when early converts start asking why they need three text editors in KDE, why do we need all the window managers and why don’t people wise up and integrate KDE and Gnome? (Knome, hehehe!) And last but not least, why don’t we just standardize Linux on one distro?

    I will never get tired of patiently explaining how all this means that you have a choice, and that choice is a feature – except Windows users have never had that feature to the same degree which is why they have trouble adapting to it.