Linux For Suits

June 2000

The New Beginning

The word, in the end, is the only system of encoding thoughts — the only medium — that is not fungible, that refuses to dissolve in the devouring torrent of electronic media.
— Neal Stephenson, In the Beginning was the Command Line

"If operating systems ran airlines" jokes first appeared on the Web around 1995. Linux wasn't mentioned back then; but it is now, like in this set published in the September 1999 Linux Gazette and condensed here:

I'd change that last one to open with "UNIX geeks who finally figured out what kind of plane they were supposed to be building ..." And I'd end it with, "After a while, nearly everybody flew Linux Air, whether they knew it or not."

To the extent that flying with computers happens mostly over the Net, the Linux Takeover is already underway. The recent surge in Apache's dominance owes to the growing adoption not just of Linux, but of the BSDs and other UNIX breeds that share Linux' virtues.

But there's still that problem with the seats. I witnessed it at PC Forum in March, where attendees were given Net access (and everything else they could figure out) through dozens of VA Linux systems running Gnome. This was candy for the technical types, but it was like chewing on rubber bands for everybody else. Under normal conditions I'm about the last guy you'd want to call for tech support, but I found myself walking around explaining things to VCs, dot-com zillionaires and other smart guys who looked lost as moths in lampshades, flummoxed by a UI that produced cryptic pop-out menus and windows that iconized to locations other than the bottom of the screen.

"How can I open a Word file?" one guy asked. Another looked for "Excel or something like it." We found ways to help some of these folks, but the lack of obvious "office" apps did not sell Linux as a desktop OS. I asked more than a dozen of these guys if they were tempted in any way by their experience with Linux at the show. Without exception, the answer was no (though a few open-minded tech types had kind words for Gnome).

The breakout session didn't help, either. Despite valiant efforts by the VA guys, it was too easy for the majority to dismiss the evidence: some Mozilla innovations (still a no-show), a nice little open source presentation program (with jaggy screen fonts), and new banner blocking software (old hat on Windows). Afterwards a veteran PC magazine editor told me they really like Linux and want to give it positive coverage, but in the absence of productivity apps, there's almost nothing other than the usual sports coverage of server-vs.-server games.

Nobody is more aware of the situation than Larry Augustin, VA Linux' founder, President and CEO. In February, Larry and I were both on an open source panel put on by the New York New Media Association (NYNMA). There he made the surprising point that open source developers so far haven't understood the significance of Microsoft Office, which — far more than Windows — is at the core of Microsoft's appeal. After we got back I asked him to run that one by me again, to make sure I got it right. He replied, "Open Source developers understand Unix. This is part of what made it possible to create a better Unix — Linux. In order to create a better MS Office, Open Source developers need to understand MS Office in as much detail as they understood Unix. My fear is that the Open Source developer community doesn't understand Office. It can't create what it doesn't understand. What we need are more developers using Windows and Office."

Tall order. Most open source developers I know would rather not stain their retinas with light from Microsoft pixels. So we live with Office suites (including fractions of suites) from Sun (StarOffice), Applix and Corel. All three are closed source. In the absence of source code, there's little for developers to work with. So the problem persists.

Maybe we should come at it from a different angle. Airlines are kind of a server-like metaphor. Let's try a metaphor that works better for clients: cars. That's what Neal Stephenson does in his outstanding new book , In the Beginning was the Command Line. Best known for his bestsellers Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, Stephenson is (like me) a convert to Linux from the MacOS. To frame his context, he offers an automobile metaphor:

Be — A dealership selling "fully operational Batmobiles." These were "more beautiful and stylish than the Euro-sedans, better designed, more technically advanced, and at least as reliable as anything else on the market — and yet cheaper than the others.

The question is: for how long?

I see an answer in the original Volkswagen Beetle. Ugly, uncomfortable, noisy and lacking conveniences like AC and automatic anything, VW bugs became a sensation in the early Sixties for three simple reasons: 1) they were cheap; 2) they were reliable; and 3) they were easy to fix. In fact, they were so easy to fix that I remember a day when a buddy and I took out an engine and put it back three times. I'm not even sure we were sober.

On the server side we have something of a VW Bug in the Cobalt Qube, a nice cute little "appliance" that's very handy for the SOHO market. On the client side we'll soon see appliances from Intel and others. But there's a big problem with the "appliance" concept: they're closed as bricks, almost by definition. That disqualifies them as VW Bugs.

The real equivalent of a VW Bug is a cheap and charmingly ugly client box that can run a stripped-down open source office suite and bring up a bash shell. While that may sound scary to GUI-über-alles bigots (guys like Neal Stephenson and I used to be), consider this item: even though Apple will still have heaps of closed stuff running on top of their OS-X kernel (Mach inside a custom version of BSD — all open source), the OS will be accessible where it counts, through shells and a command line interface. This is a far more interesting and useful innovation than the pixel job Apple is giving its old UI. Why? Because its market includes mechanics as well as drivers. No mechanics: no market.

Today Microsoft is to operating systems what Detroit was to automobiles in 1963. They're way too comfortable making unreliable chrome-encrusted land yachts that people buy out of habit and fear. All it's going to take to break those habits is a box that both drivers and mechanics would love. Remember: never underestimate the fear-reducing powers of a first-rate mechanic. Especially when it's yourself.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal and co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto.