Anyone who has read my work over the last decade knows where I stand with Linux and open source. If you haven't taken read my words, know that I am a huge advocate of Linux and open source software. I use it, I promote it, I mentor new users, I do everything I can to help the cause move forward.
But no matter how much I believe in the cause, I know some of the ideals the Linux and open source community hold so tightly to need to be reevaluated. Why? The landscape of business and home computing has changed drastically since the beginnings of the GPL and the Linux operating system. Many of you might look at the following list and say, "Are you crazy?" But I would ask that it be examined merely as suggestions for where the foundations of open source software can improve and help the public at large fully embrace open source and Linux.
I recently wrote a blog post about how Linux should embrace DRM. There's a good reason why. Actually, there are several reasons why. But one of the biggest reasons, and one that hits home to many a Linux user, is Netflix streaming. I have had discussions with the vice president of marketing at Netflix that made it clear one of the main reasons Netflix doesn't stream to Linux is DRM. It doesn't want piracy — just like I don't want piracy. The open source and Linux community needs to seriously rethink its stance on DRM and be open to embracing this technology so it can be included in services such as Netflix.
2: Free (zero cost)
I would love to see companies making a profit working for or selling software for the Linux operating system. But the majority of Linux users seem to think the software they use should never cost a penny. This same mindset caused Loki Games to go out of business. I get it. I relish the fact that I spend exponentially less money on software than my Microsoft-using compadres. But that doesn't mean I won't pay for software. If there is software out there for the Linux platform that I like — and that software has a cost — I'll pay for it. I believe wholeheartedly that if more Linux users would adopt that policy, more companies would develop more and better Linux applications.
3: Level of difficulty
There are times when I feel like the Linux community and developers prefer Linux to be more difficult than the competition. I say this half-jokingly because I like to consider myself a fairly competent Linux user on most levels. But to the average computer user, Linux can still be a challenge. Yes, I feel the desktop developers are doing a killer job in making the Linux desktop one of the easiest-to-use desktops around. But other tools that users need or want tend to be far more challenging than their Microsoft or Apple counterparts. One perfect example of this is joining a Linux machine to either an LDAP directory or to an Active Directory. Granted, we're talking about the cross-pollination of technology. But even seasoned admins have trouble with LDAP. I have yet to come across a solid, reliable GUI for it.
For many avid and diehard Linux fans, the available support (forums, mailing lists, etc.) is enough. In fact, many of the experienced Linux users I know (including myself) enjoy the challenge of solving the problem at hand. This is not so for the average computer user or business. They want an obvious route for support. Businesses want someone to blame and/or turn to when something isn't working as expected. End users just want help to make their machines do what they're supposed to do. This is not out of the ordinary, and Linux should not be above or beyond it. The communities and companies that offer Linux distributions really should consider providing a more traditional support service to anyone who uses their software. Yes, this could be a logistical nightmare. But somehow, some way, a support method could be developed that makes sense for both end users and developers.
This one is really tricky. Some distributions use a rolling update method so that a distribution is seamless updated constantly; others believe in a regimented upgrade based on passage of time. Both methods have their pros and cons, but what should be thought most important is a standardized method of updates. Some users get frustrated by the constant release of new versions, which make them feel as if they are always having to reinstall their operating system. Yes, plenty of Windows users out there are way behind the curve when it comes to upgrades; but Linux is different. Users don't have to pay for the operating system every other year. That doesn't mean users want to take the time to completely reinstall their operating system every six months. I believe a standard should be set for updating. What that standard should be is beyond me. Although I like what Ubuntu does, I also constantly feel like I'm outdated. But the rolling update seems to be such a constant stream, I feel that's all I'm ever doing. Middle ground, anyone?
Speaking of standards... Can't we all just agree on standardization? The lack of standardization seems to be one of the bigger roadblocks to a broader acceptance of Linux. If true standardization could be found, every one of the Linux distributions would have a much easier time with development. If GNOME and KDE had to concern themselves with only a single standard, those desktops would develop much faster and with more reliability. This would also go a long way toward helping interaction with other operating systems (such as Windows and OS X).
7: Proprietary software
I get it, I get it: Information should be free, the GPL must be law, and proprietary software has no place on the Linux operating system. Wait, scratch that last entry. Proprietary software should be just as welcome on the Linux operating system as it is on any other system. Proprietary software is closed simply because someone is trying to make a living with their product, and there isn't anything wrong with that. There are distributions out there that pride themselves on being completely open source — and bravo to them. But that doesn't mean every distribution should follow in those footsteps. If that were the case, there would be a lot of features and hardware Linux users wouldn't get to enjoy.
8: New users
Some distributions, such as PCLinuxOS and Ubuntu, try hard to focus on the new user. They make their distributions as user friendly as possible. But then Ubuntu pulls off a change of heart (such as switching to Unity) that have new users shaking their heads. That was a decision based on a hopeful bottom line and not the user. But even with that decision out of consideration, many distributions (even those that claim to be new-user friendly) do a poor job of embracing new users. The Linux community is a huge group that does a lot of preaching to the choir and little outreach. Those distributions that claim to be the best for new users should be doing everything they can to entice new users to try their distribution. This is not happening. It has never happened. I don't see Linux distributions on Twitter or Facebook reaching out beyond the already converted. Social network has open source written all over it — free marketing!
Speaking of the "M" word — someone in the world of Linux needs to fund a massive PR campaign to get the word out. Linux just has a few figureheads speaking into a void. I do everything I can to reach out beyond the already converted, but I am not part of a Linux distribution. I would love to see somone (like Mark Shuttleworth) pull off a marketing campaign that reaches beyond the enlightened masses. When this happens, Linux adoption will grow exponentially.
10: The high road
Linux users telling new users to RTFM or scoffing at the idea of helping (or mentoring) them make the Linux community look bad. Here's an interesting issue. Go to any Linux mailing list and reply to a thread with a "top post." When you do that, you will feel the wrath of nearly every member of that list coming down hard upon you for not bottom posting or posting inline. This, to me, is the Linux community showing its uglier, less-than-accepting side. When new users start using Linux and need to go to a mailing list for help, the last thing they need is to be publicly humiliated and berated for not following a "rule" most new users wouldn't understand or see a purpose for in the first place. Take the high road, Linux community, and stop making everyone feel inferior — even if for only top posting or not supplying enough detailed information at the beginning of a post in a request for help. We can all get along. Really.
Don't take all this the wrong way. I am a huge advocate of Linux and open source. But I think there are ways that Linux, in general, can open itself to a much larger audience simply by rethinking some of its beliefs and ideals. How do you feel about the issues I've raised here?
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.