...making Linux just a little more fun!
By Dale Raby
What does Linux need to do in order to supplant Windows as the dominant OS on the desktop? This is a legitimate question often asked, but never answered very well.
Part of this may have to do with the basic makeup of people working on an OS that is almost designed not to be profitable. Such individuals often do not think like capitalists. Perhaps it is time to start thinking that way.
Profit is not necessarily a dirty word. I do not hold Bill Gates in contempt because he is a millionaire many times over. He got that way by supplying a product. In that, he is no different from J. K. Rowling, now the richest woman in England. Why should the rest of us Muggles not do the same?
Perhaps a better model corporate citizen for us to examine might be Apple's CEO Steven Jobs. Aside from being somewhat of a crackpot (in good company, I might add), he too, supplied a product... and developed a market for that product where there had not been one earlier. As testimony to his success... how many of you cut your teeth (pun intended) on an Apple IIe or an early MacIntosh?
An interesting point about Apple in the early years is the fact that they designed software to work on one specific set of hardware products and marketed them both as a single conglomerate product. Since they did not have an XYZ Corporation's made-in-(insert country of contemptuous choice) ISA interface holographic display card in their hardware, they didn't have to worry about some kind of machine ghost materializing whenever anyone tried to use it with another manufacturer's tri-D manipulation device.
The Home User Desktop Machine Of the Future (HUDMOF) will be a conglomerate machine that supports only the hardware in the conglomeration. While other hardware might work, whoever builds the HUDMOF has no incentive to support hardware built and sold by a competitor... though if the Linux kernel is used, such support will be available at little or no cost. Also, it will WORK with all the hardware items in the conglomeration.
We, the Linux Community, need to take a leaf from Capitalism's book and start competing for the desktop market. How would we compete? Well, price point is one thing. Free is pretty hard to beat... but there is no reason why we cannot sell it and make a profit. What is sold is not the OS itself, but rather, customer service. Having had my head bitten off from time to time asking dumb questions on various lists (you know who you are), I can say that we could all improve our people skills.
You sell customer service by either offering it with the price of the boxed distribution, or the download. You could, I suppose, offer it as a separate option a la LinuxCare. You could also use the OS to sell your hardware, with the OS pre-installed on it. What to sell and how to sell it depends upon the business model you are shooting for. In any case, as the OS itself is open-source, you HAVE to sell something else to make a profit.
Another point is reliability, which Linux excels at, once it is set up. This is something that is a real advantage over Windows. We should exploit that advantage before it disappears. Remember, Longhorn is on the horizon. Windows 98 was an improvement over Windows 95, and Windows 2000 and ME were improvements as well. Most probably Windows XP followed that trend (I don't own a copy) and Longhorn will as well.
The HUDMOF will be reliable.
Security... need I even mention that one? I am a paranoid individual about my own system. I run a Linux Floppy Firewall on a separate machine. IPTables has instructions to drop everything I do not specifically request. The Windows machines I maintain in my house are all behind this firewall as are the Linux boxes... and as will be the Apple Newton when I get it hooked up. I don't use wireless. Why give crooks an even break? Physical security consists of locked doors and a former soldier with a shotgun.
A system that is designed to have separate user accounts is definitely the way to fly, as far as I am concerned. I don't have to worry about anyone getting into my email or deleting an important document, and I don't have bookmarks for Bild Magazine, Days of Our Lives, Pokemon, or any other websites I never visit cluttering up my list. Those are in the home directories of other users where they belong. Others might prefer a single user setup. To each his own.
For those who prefer separate accounts for each user in the household, passwords and separate home directories make for good virtual neighbors. The HUDMOF should have multi-user capability built-in... and iron-clad security.
Ease of installation/use. Now we have a problem. I've played with Red Hat, Fedora, Mandrake, Debian, Gentoo, Knoppix, Storm, DamnSmallLinux, and SmallLinux. Some of these distributions are extremely easy to use, most notably DamnSmallLinux and Knoppix. Others, most notably Gentoo and Debian require... hmmm... actual intelligence.
Now, a true geek might say something like "to Hades with all those GUI wimps who can't understand how to use fdisk to partition a hard drive!" This is, however, short-sighted in the extreme. "Those GUI wimps" are the ones who will be spending their hard-earned dollars and/or valuable time. They need to be courted, not snubbed.
Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both supplied a product that met a demand. They are continuing to do so. That is how to put Linux on the desktop, by supplying a demand, and a part of that demand is going to be a certain amount of "hand-holding".
The Linux Community has been trying to sell Linux for more than a decade now. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: "Build a better mousetrap and the public will beat a path to your door."
Dale Raby's Corollary to Ralph's Mousetrap: "If you have to beat a path to the public's doors, there is something wrong with your mousetrap."
So what might be wrong with our mousetrap? Why are people not migrating in droves to an OS that is more reliable, more secure, and being "sold" at an unbeatable price? What demand are we not supplying that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are?
Part of it is simple customer service, as noted earlier in this article, or rather, the lack thereof, in the case of many Linux distributions/binaries. Not to point any fingers regarding my experiences in the early days... aber, sprechen Sie Deutsch?
I once called Apple about a MacIntosh 512K. I got to speak to an actual person who listened to my questions. She explained that Apple no longer stocked any parts or software for this fine antique, but referred me to Sun Remarketing. Microsoft also answered my questions politely and provided answers. Indeed, they maintain a vast database of solutions to problems... even with legacy hardware/software.
The HUDMOF should have first-rate customer service.
Even better than customer service would be quality control. If your quality control is up to snuff, you don't have to worry about customer service nearly as much. Ever had an application not do what it is supposed to do? Quality control issue. Applications should work as soon as they are installed with no tweaking. Many Linux applications DO NOT work without some CLI voodoo.
Mutt is a prime example of a potentially great binary that doesn't work as it should... "right out of the box". Before you can even start, you have to create a .muttrc file. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it allows the user to configure Mutt to behave exactly as he wants it to. But would it be too much to ask for a default ./muttrc with commented out instructions on what has to be entered where?
Then there are other applications that must work with Mutt in order to make a usable email package. You need to have Exim, Sendmail, Fetchmail and/or other MTA up and properly configured on your system in order to send and receive mail. Mutt documentation does not help with these very much... and the user manuals for these applications are definitely all in GeekSpeak.
Mutt is only being picked on as an example because of my never-ending frustration with training it. Realistically, it will not likely be found on many home user workstations. It will forever be a geek's favorite pet. Compared with the ease of use built-in with clients like Evolution, Sylpheed, and Pine, though, Mutt has much ground to cover in this specific area.
I have a long-time friend who runs a dairy farm in North-Eastern Wisconsin. He is still using a 486 PC running Windows 3.1. Why, one might ask, has he not updated his system?
The answer is not lack of intelligence. He and I played chess on the same high school team and took third at state. Considering the fact that we had the national champions in our conference, that was quite an accomplishment. He runs a profitable business with more in assets than the average computer store... and at a much smaller margin.
He is also not a Luddite. While you will find an occasional piece of antique machinery on his farm, the ones in use every day are modern and efficient. No Ford 9N tractor with a spark-ignition engine pulling a 2-bottom plow, but rather an Allis-Chalmers four-wheel-drive Diesel pulling a very large chisel plow. I recently helped to install an air suspension seat in the air-conditioned cab of one of these machines.
He also has on his farm several tools that date from his father's time, his grand-father's time, and even his great-grand-father's time. They range from hammers to shovels to blacksmithing tools to tractors and other farm implements.
Why has the milking stool not been replaced? How 'bout a carpenter's claw hammer? Maybe the Marlin model 1895 deer rifle in 44-40 WCF? Same reason the computer has not been replaced: they just work.
Windows 3.1 and MS-DOS, despite their limitations, were extremely robust operating systems. How often have you out there picked up a roadside scrounge machine and upon bringing it home and booting it up found Windows 3.1 happily rising to the occasion for whatever use you had for it? I've never had a 3.1 machine die on me... they all survived long enough to be either given away or parted out. A large portion of the reason for this, I suspect, was the fact that they were fairly simple and designed to run on a small subset of hardware components.
The aforementioned farmer, Greg will come in late at night after milking 80 cows, maybe delivering a calf or two, and fixing a broken manure spreader outdoors in below freezing temperatures while his wife holds the flashlight and hands him tools. It might be that his foot hurts because a 1200 pound animal stepped on it. Quite possibly he skinned his knuckles when a bolt-head broke off in the wrench. Almost certainly he got a bill earlier in the mail for fuel, feed, or veterinary services.
If, when he comes in late and wants to use his computer for some reason, (or just as likely, Diane, the long-suffering, frost-bitten farmer's wife) he wants to push a button, wait for it to boot, and then have it do the task he has set for it with no complaining. He isn't interested in excuses from a customer service rep or a computer tech at the local distribution point. (My favorite was always "Well, that's Windows!" ) He certainly does not want to be bothered with having to learn C, Ruby, Perl or Python in order to tweak some application and/or recompile a kernel from source.
Greg is a farmer. He knows how to get cows to produce milk. He can deliver calves even when they come out backwards. We once delivered one where the cow ended up with a prolapsed uterus and had to hold the cow down until the vet arrived. (Go ahead and try to hold a thousand pound plus animal down some day while her uterus is hanging out on the ground! It is an enlightening experience to anyone who thinks himself physically strong.) He knows how to plant seeds and rotate crops. He knows about manure management. What? You think manure manages itself? It's a commodity just like any other... and it has to be managed such that it produces maximum fertilizer and little, if any, runoff.
Now, I am sure that Greg could learn how to initiate all the tricks that Linux can do with a command line on a Bourne Again Shell. I am also sure he won't bother... he just doesn't have the time or the inclination. I'm quite certain that the rest of us would also rather that Greg keep on milking cows so that we don't have to have a milk-cow in the back yard, (remember, manure management on a small scale involves the use of a shovel and a wheelbarrow) though if you want one, I'm sure that Greg will sell you one!
Most home users are like Greg in some way or another. We use our computers for web-browsing, email, word-processing, scheduling , and finance management. Each of us might have other tasks we put it to... maybe video production, or, as in Greg's case, the lineage of his herd.
Most of us also have children. Educational software has its place, and there needs to be more of it ported for Linux. In the main, however, the Internet will be supplying more and more information for the education of our children.
Some children will take to a CLI and a green or amber screen like a duck to water... but most of them will not. They'll want the machine to do what they want it to, i.e.: allow them to compose a book-report. They aren't going to be interested in learning how to use Tex for that purpose.
One other difficulty has been buying a turn-key system. Now, until recently, one could not just go out and buy a computer with Linux installed on it. It is much easier to do so now than it once was... case in point: machines marketed by Wal-Mart running Linare Linux (for UNDER $200.00!) and IBM desktop machines offered with Red Hat Linux installed.
In order for Linux to be the desktop machine of choice for somebody like Greg the Dairy Farmer, it had better be available as a turn-key system. He has never installed an operating system, and really doesn't want to learn how. Thanks to IBM, Wal-mart, and a few others, this is now a viable option. The HUDMOF will be a turn-key system.
Updates are a practical necessity. Of late, one can avoid the dependency nightmares I used to encounter by the use of tools like YUM. To download updates, one should be able to click one button or enter one simple command. The HUDMOF will have that feature built in.
Likewise installing new applications should also be just that easy. Nobody likes to hunt down obscure packages that may or may not work properly with a certain flavor of Linux. Synaptic and Yum are great tools for package installation... but they are not complete. Try entering "YUM install newtonlink" into your command line.
Fedora's latest set of binaries cannot always be downloaded from certain mirrors because of compatibility problems. This really sucks. Quality control, Fedora! Standards!
Much has been written in the trade journals regarding "disk-less" systems. With the price of disk drives having huge storage capacities falling like Michael Jackson's popularity, this is not considered as necessary as it once was. It is still a viable model, however.
For small businesses, one only need purchase a single "big muscle" machine that acts as a file server, and runs applications. This machine can be networked with lesser machines... disk-less PC's or what are being called "thin clients"... and operated remotely using SSH or any one of several other remote desktop clients. The big muscle machine can run pretty much any distribution that meets the prime needs; Red Hat or Fedora, Debian, or name your favorite flavor. In the case of a home-user, the big muscle machine may not even be necessary.
The disk-less machines in this model need not be anything special, and any of them could serve the home user as the sole element, though there is no real reason not to have a full-featured machine in the basement other than expense. Now, obviously, one need not have a hard drive for this "disk-less" machine, by definition. One need not even have a CD/DVD drive. Modern flash memory, and probably other technologies on the horizon can easily handle the storage needs of most general users. Actual RAM is getting cheaper by the minute, and it is already quite inexpensive enough to easily build machines sporting more than a GB of memory. This is quite enough to load the entire OS into a ramdisk. Can you say "fast"?
The exception might be home video & sound production. Video requires huge storage and processing capacity, and if the end result is a DVD, then obviously a DVD-RW drive will be necessary. Even these difficulties could be managed with remote storage, or even home storage devices that are not in the machine.
If one can get away without any physical drives, one is well on the way to an engineer's dream; a machine without moving parts. There is no disk to spin up to speed, thus no extra power requirements for that, nor is there the need for a CPU fan in many cases or a cooling fan in the power supply. A simple radiator type cooling system with heat fins like a Briggs & Stratton lawn-mower engine has will suffice.
It is also quite evident that such a machine will be able to run with very low power requirements. I no longer drive an '82 Olds Ninety-Eight, I drive a '91 Ford Escort. I am considering converting my house to run on LEDs for illumination. My RCA tube radio is in the garage on a shelf while the solid-state electronic devices have taken over. Anybody see a trend? Look for that trend to continue.
The HUDMOF will be energy efficient.
Two Linux distributions really stand out in the disk-less model; Knoppix, and DamnSmallLinux. Both of these distributions are live-CD, Debian-based, and DamnSmallLinux could be considered a "hack" of Knoppix, though the principal developer would dispute that claim... and justifiably so. (Note: the latest Knoppix distributions will have an option for live CD and another intended for HD installation.)
One need only put the CD for each of them into the CD-ROM drive and turn the "damn" thing on. In most cases, all hardware is detected and configured properly during the initial boot process with no digital complaining of any kind. The one issue that seems, in my own experience, to be not so smooth with both of these distributions is that of printer setup. All peripherals should be detected and configured properly during the boot process... and that includes the printer. Now, it is fairly unusual for me to print anything these days, going paperless makes a lot of sense... but that is another issue to be dealt with later.
Most PCs can run either of these distributions, though there are greater memory requirements with Knoppix which is really quite full-featured compared to DamnSmallLinux. Also, the latest release of Knoppix will not run on some of my older hardware that the earlier version will. If you only have basic needs for a disk-less system, DSL will serve you quite well, and with a minimum of fuss. If you want more packages get the latest Knoppix live CD distribution.
Wyse makes one of their Winterm Thin Clients, the S50, available running Wyse Linux V6. I have no experience with Thin Clients, and am unsure if this machine would serve a home user or not. I suspect that it would under many circumstances. One would have to provide storage devices for it... either USB Iomega Zip drives or pen drives, other storage media, or, even better, an on-line server in a remote location equipped with high-end RAID devices, regular backups, and security administration.
I recently cobbled up a system for a neighbor running DamnSmallLinux on an IBM Pentium 100 machine. This machine has a web browser, an email client, a word-processor, and several other common applications. I installed the OS onto a hard drive I had laying around, but I would not have needed that if it had an Ethernet NIC installed. The machine will meet the needs of this man and his family for years to come, I suspect, and it was already an obsolete machine when delivered.
Had I wished, I could have made this a highly-efficient disk-less system with multiple interface ports in a physical size smaller than O'Reilly's book, Running Linux. As neither I nor my neighbor has any money, I decided to recycle hardware I was no longer using.
If a device could be built, in quantity, with item-specific off-the-shelf components, perhaps with an OS either on an old-fashioned ROM chip or a Flash memory module running a pared-down Linux kernel without superfluous drivers that would no longer be necessary, the dream of a computer in every home could at last be realized. Indeed, using cutting edge hardware such as that produced by Gumstix, with further development, it is conceivable that even a dirt-poor third-world slash-and-burn subsistence farmer could one day afford to purchase and run a solar-powered machine to expand his world and give some level of hope to his children that they might not presently have.
All computers need some kind of monitor. The latest trend seems to be LCD monitors, though many of us still use the old CRT monitors. I even have one made by Zenith capable of full color, amber, or green screens. CRT monitors are on the way out. They are stable, inexpensive, and as they are a mature technology, quite reliable. They take far too much power to operate, however, and they are too large and heavy.
LCD monitors are less expensive to operate, but more expensive to purchase initially. They can be made flat and take up far less space on the desk top. One of their problems is that children love to touch the screen... often damaging it. Autistic children especially like to see the weird patterns when they push their fingers against the screen.
A relatively recent technology is e-paper, which has to potential to supplant all the previous display technologies... at least until holographic display leaves the realm of science fiction and joins us in the real word. Sony, among others, has been developing this technology... and even using Linux in the process.
The HUDMOF will use an e-paper display.
Printers are crude and need to be replaced as soon as possible. There will, for the foreseeable future, still be a need for printed documents, but this is more and more to soothe the worries of the user than any other purpose. Printers are expensive to buy, expensive to operate, expensive to repair, and none too reliable due to the need to manipulate physical media with electro-mechanical devices.
Within a very short time, comparatively speaking, there will no longer be a demand for conventional printed matter. Newspapers and magazines will change to a subscription web site. Books will become e-books... though there will still be printed books for some time to come.
The last letter I ever actually wrote and snail-mailed was composed on a Tandy 600 and printed with an Epson dot-matrix printer. This will give you some idea of how long ago that was. Since that time, all my letters have been emailed. I almost never print physical documents any longer. All my writing is handled electronically and distributed that way as well. About the only things I still print are shipping labels for books I sell on Ebay. Now what was it I said about books in the previous paragraph?
The HUDMOF will eventually be without an interface for a printer. The few occasions where a printed document is needed will be supplied by on-line providers and snail-mailed out. The only exception might be, for a while, shipping labels for packages.
Probably the HUDMOF will be a conglomerate of many features mentioned here... and very likely several others I didn't mention. It will be:
Now, nobody has reached that ideal as of yet, but Sony, Wyse, Knoppix, Gumstix, and DamnSmallLinux represent some of the best implementations in this direction I have seen thus far. High end bloat-ware from Microsoft running on innumerable hardware platforms and even higher-end Apple products will not fit into this niche... though if Apple were to revitalize development on the Newton OS, and reduce the price, they might have something eventually. The Newton was truly the closest to the HUDMOF that has ever been actually produced... though the designers of the early Macs had the right idea as well.
I now lay down the gauntlet and challenge the manufacturers. This, I decree, will be the recipe for Linux conquering the desktop... and making somebody somewhere richer than Gates. All. You. Have. To. Do. Is. Build. It.
If you build it, they will come. IBM? Sony? Wyse? Gumstix? Klaus Knopper? John Andrews? You guys all listening? Steve Jobs? Bill Gates? Somebody build me a HUDMOF! Now just wait for the public to beat the path to your door, for you have fixed the mousetrap.
Dale A. Raby is an ornery old man who started out on the original IBM PC back
in the day of running MS-DOS programs while convalescing in Ireland Army
Community Hospital and working for Captain James. Upon release from that
particular episode of his military service, he bought a Tandy 600 laptop
which still works after a fashion.
He picked up a more "modern" computer in 1998 and began publishing a general
interest webzine, The Green Bay Web. Quickly discovering that Wind0ws 95 was
about as reliable as a drunken driver with sleep deprivation, he made the
conversion to Linux over the protestations of every member of his household. He
now uses Fedora Core and since discovering Yum, has managed to keep his systems
relatively up to date.
Dale is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay with a background
in photography and print journalism. He is also a shade tree blacksmith who can
often be seen beating red-hot iron into shape in his driveway. He has been
known to use hammers and other Big Tools to "repair" uncooperative computers.
He is a conservative WASP, abhors political correctness, and... not to be too
cliché... enjoys hunting and shooting. Yes, that is a shotgun. No,
it is not a rifle. Yes, there is a difference.
Dale A. Raby is an ornery old man who started out on the original IBM PC back in the day of running MS-DOS programs while convalescing in Ireland Army Community Hospital and working for Captain James. Upon release from that particular episode of his military service, he bought a Tandy 600 laptop which still works after a fashion.
He picked up a more "modern" computer in 1998 and began publishing a general interest webzine, The Green Bay Web. Quickly discovering that Wind0ws 95 was about as reliable as a drunken driver with sleep deprivation, he made the conversion to Linux over the protestations of every member of his household. He now uses Fedora Core and since discovering Yum, has managed to keep his systems relatively up to date.
Dale is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay with a background in photography and print journalism. He is also a shade tree blacksmith who can often be seen beating red-hot iron into shape in his driveway. He has been known to use hammers and other Big Tools to "repair" uncooperative computers. He is a conservative WASP, abhors political correctness, and... not to be too cliché... enjoys hunting and shooting. Yes, that is a shotgun. No, it is not a rifle. Yes, there is a difference.