Most Linux distributions simply don't offer a viable alternative to Windows in the desktop market. Right now, on the desktop, it's still a hobby OS with a tiny install base. Ever tried to bring a Linux notebook into an office which relies on Exchange server? Good luck.
My favourite initialism is probably LotD. It means many things to many people, such as Lord of the Dance, or Llamas on the Dirigible, or even Labradors only ten Dollars (a small price to pay for a faithful companion in anyone's language).
The public clearly wants the aforementioned things; Michael Flattley is still inexplicably wealthy, the public fascination with llamas has been constant for some decades now, and who wouldn't want a nice puppy for the price of a Big Bondi meal from Oportos?
But the one LotD that the public has shown no interest in whatsoever is Linux on the Desktop.
It's been “The Year of LotD(tm)” for some time now. It's like the antithesis of a never-ending story - the never-beginning story.
There are a lot of reasons why this is the case. Some can be blamed on Big Bad Billy G and his wacky band of capitalist racketeers, but responsibility for a number of them fall squarely on the shoulders of Linux developers and users.
Excuse me Mr Gates...
Now, don't get me wrong. The widespread mismanagement of the IT ecosystem by world governments and economic organisations has been largely encouraged by Microsoft. The reason is that, in areas of new technology, there are no standards. And in capitalist economies this means that the market leader becomes the standard by proxy, without their position being mandatorily to the benefit of the market itself. In fact, in the case of Microsoft, their dominance has been to the detriment of the whole ecosystem.
Most IT people will concede that “lock-ins”, where a company retains your business by creating a situation where it is impossible to change to a competing product, are a big deal in software and hardware. And the kings of the lock-in live at Redmond's house. Ever try and bring a Linux notebook into an office which relies on Exchange server? Good luck.
Currently the EU is taking Microsoft down the wire, and demanding that their secret network protocols - which are the reason you can't easily use Linux in an Exchange world - be extensively documented, in order to allow third parties to create clients for their server products. This would go a long way towards interoperability, and everyone should be sending fan mail to those sexy EU commissars who keep me excited all day long at the possibility of a level playing field for new software.
I mean, what does Outlook do that no other email client does? Apart from playing friendly with Exchange server, absolutely nothing. In fact, I would argue that it is one of the clunkiest, feature-bereft clients in the PIM market. It's the perfect example of why monopolies are so damaging for businesses - imagine if you could have the benefits of Exchange server but not be forced to pay for Windows XP (then Vista) and Microsoft Office Outlook as well. Instead, you can use the operating system, office and PIM software that best suits your needs as a company, which is especially beneficial in cases where one of your major needs is that the solution be low-cost - which 200 MS Office licenses certainly ain't.
Is that a penguin in your pocket?
I did promise to sink the slipper into some Linux developers too, and I won't disappoint. Late last year Linux Format did a feature on what was needed to get Linux on the desktop to become a reality, and it was a good list. The biggest complaints were about the approach taken to the interfaces in Linux applications, that they were made with their purpose in mind rather than their use.
For example, KDE in Suse 10.0 is a great desktop environment, but it has a few strange quirks. Click on “My Computer” and you get a list of volumes attached at that moment. However, try and navigate to that listing in any other way and you can't, because it is just a set of aliases to file system mount points.
Don't get me wrong, that's a fine way of doing it programmatically, but it's poor interface design, and that's really the point. Programmers and engineers think about the problem, then design the interface around solving it. An interface should be designed around the act of using it to solve a problem. Basically what this means is that the interface should know what the user is doing, prompt for input as needed - and only as needed - and present all of the tools the user wants available in a convenient place.
This is true in general for all Linux software, but the desktop environments KDE and Gnome particularly need to shape up. Or they could do the easy thing and rely on convention to design their interfaces for them.
In software, "unconventional" = "suicidal"
Novell have done some very clever things with Suse Linux, and it's the reason that I swear by it for doing every daily task that isn't based in Azeroth. The cleverest by far is the sponsorship of Open Office.org in order to promote it as a viable alternative to MS Office, which as discussed above is the biggest lock-in Microsoft perpetuates.
I'm writing this piece in Open Office.org Writer, and it's a pretty familiar sight really. If you've used MS Word there's very little that would stump you, although mail merging is still more confusing in Open Office.org. In fact, I would have to say that there are quite a lot of areas in which Open Office.org is the far superior offering, like being able to shoot my document off as a PDF without the need for plug ins or extra conversion software. And the price, of course.
So developers should embrace the current state of affairs, and rip off “standard” interfaces shamelessly. Open Office.org has been getting a lot of good press lately, particularly with regard the Open Document Format (ODF), and the fact that it really does represent an incredibly easy transition from Word is one of the reasons for its success.
Now, I heard a couple of open source developers just draw breath sharply - yeah, you up the back, don't slink away. To many, copying interface from companies such as MS is heresy, because they fled from the Windows flock for a reason. They argue that, with proper training, anyone can master Linux. Well, to that I ask, why should they bother? Their current computer does the job perfectly well for them, why spend time learning a whole new set of softwares and interfaces, as well as a hefty new lexicon, so that they can do the same things they are already doing?
Cost? Maybe. Curiosity? Get real. People just want their PCs to work, end of story. If you want them to switch their whole OS, a big call for most users, the one they are switching to had better work similarly, or it's no dice.
I sometimes think that many Linux developers are like snarky retail workers; they reckon their job would be so much easier if it weren't for those filthy customers making their lives difficult. Sure, Microsoft is partially to blame, but the whole community needs to stop and decide what they want Linux to be; a hobby OS with a tiny install base, or a serious competitor to the current monopoly. I'm a bit naÃƒÂ¯ve, but I really believe that the free software movement could influence the way that other world markets function. We just have to take those first big steps.