ZDNet, a tech news site we can’t believe is still around, has declared the winner in the desktop wars: It’s Linux, because the desktop became irrelevant. This news comes on the heels of Linus Torvalds releasing the new 4.10 kernel, with the usual chain of steady hardware support improvements. Linux, at the heart of Google’s Android operating system, has serenely Linuxed on for over a quarter of a century now, against a steady tide of resistance from proprietary software, and a steady chorus of nay-sayers telling everyone it was impossible.
While Microsoft has entrenched Windows onto the desktop and there forever it shall remain, Microsoft fought the desktop wars so single-mindedly that it became like a praying mantis, overspecialized at just one thing. Meanwhile on every front but the desktop – smartphones, servers, tablets, the cloud, supercomputers, Internet-of-things, embedded devices – Linux took over. It turns out that the desktop was Linux’s least concern.
Why, oh why, did Linux ever have to fight so hard?
Linux’s Siege Years
The War on Linux goes back to Bill Gates, then CEO of Microsoft, in an “open letter to hobbyists” published in a newsletter in 1976. Even though Linux wouldn’t be born until 1991, Gates’ burgeoning software company – itself years away from releasing its first operating system – already felt the threat of open source software. We know Gates today as a kindly billionaire who’s joining us in the fight against everything from disease to income inequality, but there was a time when Gates was the bad guy of the computing world.
Microsoft released its Windows operating system in 1985. At the time, its main competition was Apple and Unix-like systems. BSD was the dominant open source Unix clone then – it marks its 40th birthday this year, in fact – and Microsoft fired barrages of legal challenges to BSD just like it eventually would against Linux. Meanwhile Apple sued Microsoft over its interface, in the infamous “Look and Feel” lawsuit, and Microsoft’s reign would forever be challenged. Eventually Microsoft would be tried in both the US and the UK for antitrust, which is a government regulation against corporate monopolies. Even though it lost both suits, Microsoft simply paid the fine out of its bottomless pockets and kept right at it.
The landscape of technology today appears to be downright tranquil compared to the past two decades. From about 1990 to 2010, Microsoft wasn’t just an operating system, it was a battery of lawyers, patents, suits, counter-suits, nasty under-handed tricks, and threats, most of it aimed at the tiny little empire of Linux. Through the puppet company SCO, it tried to sue Linux out of existence. Going back to 2001, Microsoft called Linux “un-American” and “a cancer.” Much more of Microsoft’s war on Linux is documented here, and as recently as 2009, the Linux Foundation complained bitterly about the rivalry. Bill Gates around this time retired as CEO, but a series of corporate leaders behind him inherited the legacy of probably the longest and most pointless software war in history.
And after all that? Last year, just a few months before the present writing, Microsoft joined the Linux Foundation. In Whoville they say, that the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day… No, really, Microsoft is now part of the Linux Foundation, a collective of corporations which contributes to its development, mostly to ensure interoperability with other technology. One shudders to speculate what hazing ritual Linus Torvalds suffered upon the Redmond boys before they got through pledge week.
What Was That All About, Anyway?
On the surface, one might excuse the idea that an open source operating system, free to download and compile, would be a challenge to the model of proprietary software. Except it’s a completely blind assumption, forgetting one important fact:
Microsoft customers and Linux users are two entirely different breeds!
For all of the struggle and rivalry and activism and lawsuits, the number of desktop users who switched from Microsoft to Linux, or vice versa, probably numbered to less than 1% of the desktop user population.
Microsoft Windows users were never the technically savvy. Windows, thanks to a series of OEM licenses, came pre-installed and ready to run on most every non-Apple computer sold. You set up Windows for grandma, installed AOL, and then came back once a month to scrape the inevitable viruses and malware out of her computer until the box was dead, and then you bought a new desktop with more Windows on it. In corporate office cubicle farms, Windows was the dominant operating system simply because clueless middle managers could understand it. Support contracts and third-party shutout ensured that Windows was as impossible to remove from the desktop as rats from New York.
Meanwhile, Linux appealed to the engineers. Far from the modern Android operating system, running Linux on a desktop or laptop computer was a feat only the most tech-savvy dared tackle. In the first place, you had to install it yourself, which meant obtaining it yourself, which wasn’t easy since it was sold nowhere. Linux, for decades, was the secret underground system of hackers and nobody else. Third-party support for it was non-existent; indeed, companies like Adobe and every game manufacturer ever worked against Linux as hard as they could.
Towards the end of the 2000s, Linux became slightly more end-user friendly in the body of Ubuntu, but even then it took some kicking to make a Linux desktop work for the home or office user. But the fact remained, and still remains to this day: To the average person, choosing what operating system you run on a computer is a concept as foreign as choosing what water comes out of your kitchen faucet. You had to seek Linux out, and you had to have a salmon-like determination to obtain it.
Had Microsoft been successful in abolishing Linux, shell-shocked Linux fans would simply have retreated to their floppy disks and CD drives to recompile it. They weren’t part of normal society. They were the sysadmins, the hackers, the Red Hat certified engineers, who needed Linux for work and didn’t care beans about a desktop war. They were building servers and smartphones…
Linux Advocacy Was Also A Waste OF Time
The present author is a veteran of the Linux wars – always on the side of Linux, of course. That was the thrust of my first blog (don’t bother Googling, that ancient horror is long dead), as well as the namesake “Penguin Pete,” for Tux, the Linux penguin mascot. Yet throughout the thickest of the desktop war years, I never once called myself a Linux advocate.
The advocates were out there, alright. Year after year sounded the battle cry: “This is the year of Linux on the desktop!” But the Linux advocates were guilty of the same short-sighted view that fooled Redmond into thinking Linux was a threat to Windows. It didn’t matter how much “better” Linux was than Windows; Windows users would not switch simply because they didn’t need Linux. They wanted a computer that played games and checked the Internet. Linux users wanted a compiler that networked like a champ and was immune to 99.99999% of malware. Saying you can convert a Windows user to Linux was always like saying you could convert a daily commuter from driving a car to driving a Sherman tank. Yes, the tank was safer and could get things done, but it’s beyond the average skillset to operate and it’s troublesome to park at the mall.
Meanwhile, the actual “Linux advocates” – the ones actually getting it done – were the corporations and engineers and server admins going to CES and Black Hat and COMDEX. They knew right where Linux’s bread was buttered the whole time: In the workforce, in the basement, in the toolbox. Next to the Halon dump switch and the metal racks with the boxes of cables. Linux was always industrial strength, and Windows had no chance of competing with it there.
Pointing this out between the years 1991-2011 was guaranteed to make you enemies on all sides. And yet, for all the fighting and struggling, everything worked out just like that: Linux moved on to take over everything but the desktop, and the desktop itself became irrelevant. Today’s smartphone and tablet user doesn’t know or care about the difference. They still just want something that plays games and checks the Internet. Meanwhile Linux advocates have to be happy with the hollow victory of The Year Of Linux (Android) On The Smartphone, because how do you hack on a smartphone? Type in C code on the onscreen keyboard? Are there even compiler apps?
Well, actually, yes. There are all kinds of compilers on Google Play. There’s even Pascal and Atari BASIC for Android. Have you played Atari today?
But really, let’s stick with laptops for the heavy lifting. At this rate, we can soon buy them with Linux pre-installed since it’s only a matter of time before Microsoft releases its own Linux distro… uh… oh.