Introduction – My Opinion
Some consider me to be a philosophical sort of person, and in truth, I am. Hence, my attitude towards computing reflects this. In all honesty, when it comes to the *nix vs Linux vs Windows vs whatever arguments, I am usually among the first to point out the simple truth – that each computing environment is useful for different things, and this will always be the case. The simple fact that computing covers such an enormous range of tasks world worldwide, is testament to my argument. No single system can ever, nor will ever, achieve across-the-board functionality. It’s virtually impossible, and quite frankly unnecessary. So the questions remain – who is the user that a desktop ready, Open Source, Operating System is aimed at, and what are the basic essentials that are needed to achieve such a feat?
1. The User
As with the majority computer users of today, I was brought up mostly within the Windows empire. From DOS, to Windows 3.11, Windows 98 and then to Windows XP, mind you, there was the occasional exposure to other systems such as the Commodore 64, early Mac systems, Windows 95 and Windows 2000, but not enough to claim having actually used them. Such a technological upbringing is so common it isn’t funny, but the reasons for this are well known and not in the scope of this essay, so I will try my best to avoid the topic.
Given the above scenario, of an individual who by no fault of their own has had a fairly biased computer education, if you will, a spoiled one. Microsoft deserves a lot of respect (and even loathing) for the way it has shaped the computing world. Version compatibility aside, a Windows user can purchase virtually any software useful to the common ‘Joe’, and be confidant that they will be able to use it. Take note of this point here, folks, because it is an integral part of the coming discussion.
2. Their Situation
For ‘Joe’, the most defining arguments to even consider a non-Windows system should be the threats that were hardly considered before widespread Internet availability. Viruses have become more virulent, Trojans sneakier and Worms slimier. Call it tall-poppy syndrome, but lo and behold, who should wear the brunt of such nasties, but Microsoft. Nobody in the world can deny the fact that Microsoft is the company that bears the big red target symbol, square (or is that round?) across their proverbial chest. Nor can any true *nix user, with valid argument, claim that Microsoft is any more technically vulnerable than the average *nix flavour.
However, ‘Joe’ is usually not even fully aware of the impact of the above mentioned nasties. If his computer gets ‘sick’, he calls the computer technician, the exact same way one takes their pet to a vet. Scrupulous technicians often do not explain what the problem was, or how it could be prevented from reoccurring. Business is cut-throat and it is the less savvy user that suffers the most.
You see, the above situation describes the sort of person who will likely never use anything other than Windows, unless it comes packaged in a machine (ie, Walmart and the Linspire systems). In fact, they are not likely to ever be aware of the choice they have. The majority of the ‘Joe’s in the world have never installed an Operating System, and are never likely to. Often, they don’t even know what it is they are using – they just care whether clicking on the little pictures makes the right things happen. Most off-the-shelf computers these days, come fully set up with Windows XP and almost anything they are ever likely to need. Windows Media Player, Internet Explorer, Basic games. Many even come with Works and trial versions of Anti-virus software such as Norton’s. This sort of computer user is ignorant and often blissfully so.
Alas, it is not just ‘Joe’ that remains if you will, trapped with Windows. Many of the worlds savviest computer users are as stubborn as they are capable. Visit any *nix forum or IRC channel, and you will find these people: “With my Windows machine, I can do this like this. Why isn’t it like that with [insert *nix flavour here]“. Quite simply, you can lead the user to *nix, but you cannot make them appreciate, nor use it.
3. The Open Source Dilemma
So, now that we have ruled out a good majority of the world’s computer users, is there any chance at all left for non-proprietary systems? Of course there is!
People from all walks of life, from all technical backgrounds do manage to find *nix. Take a cross-section of any *nix community and you will see this. Ask any group of *nix users how they came about to be introduced to *nix and there will be a variety of stories. Word of Mouth is no doubt, the most common. What is it about *nix that appeals to these people? The answer to this is as varied as how they found it, with cost and security being predominant.
Simply put, there is no definitive target audience for *nix, and this precisely why there is such a huge variety of distributions. This in itself is a both an advantage and disadvantage. In the advantageous blue corner, there is the adaptability of the system, however this is almost overshadowed by the opposing argument in the red corner in that to achieve true flexibility, a sizable amount of knowledge needs to be known by the user. Tailoring distributions towards certain interest groups, such as the Ubuntu ‘Edubuntu’ version which is aimed at use in educational environments is a possible solution to the issue, it is no doubt a parallax when you consider the amount of manpower needed for such diversity at distribution level.
Everyone has his or her own concept of the ideal system, which no doubt are based at least partially on systems on which the user is used to or grew up with – mostly proprietary. When to achieve an equal system, one must try find ways of reinventing the wheel with system aspects such as codecs and plugins (flash and java for instance), then there will always be barriers to providing an out-of-the-box system. When Open Source reaps little or no fiscal reward besides donations or sponsorship, or development teams have puritanical ideals, then the ability or desire to provide luxuries such as inbuilt multimedia are of course compromised. In today’s computing environment, this is one of the more imperative requirements, the other being gaming capability. Although there are *nix games, the majority are portages of older games not currently en vogue. As no gaming company is going to release games for a system that has such a tiny user base, to play the latest and greatest on a linux system, one usually requires an emulator,. While emulators play an important role in enabling gaming on Open Source systems, a lot of them share one fallacy, in that the more reliable are proprietary as well. Your average mp3 freak or gamer is not likely to be drawn to *nix precisely for these reasons.
Microsoft Windows has created some mighty shoes to fill. Despite it’s downfalls, it has set the standards bar for default features at a challenging level. Open source has the advantage of being a fast-changing, adaptable medium, but with rapid change invariably comes some instability. Neither system is ever going to satisfy everyone. A *nix user needs curiosity, determination and community support, and there are enough of this sort of user out there. They have a variety of needs and interests and so, there needs to be a variety of systems to cater for all of them. What one user believes is the perfect desktop system, may not be so for another. This is the Utopian conundrum.