You've probably already heard by now that Dropbox is nixing support for all Linux file systems but unencrypted ext4. When this was announced, much of the open source crowd was up in arms—and rightfully so. Dropbox has supported Linux for a long time, so this move came as a massive surprise.
But not to all.
The biggest issue isn't that they are dropping support for the likes of btrfs. The biggest issue is that they are dropping support for any encrypted file system on Linux. Outside of this being a big mistake on the part of Dropbox, I think it says something about the state of Linux—something that needs to be addressed.
UPDATE: Although Dropbox will not support ext4 filesystems that have been encrypted with ecryptfs, it will continue to support ext4 filesystems that have been encrypted with LUKS.
But before I get to that, I want to make a few proclamations. First off, Linux is my desktop of choice. I've used Linux for nearly twenty years. I've tried (and enjoyed) nearly every distribution and every desktop. Second, I understand (and fully appreciate) that choice is a huge selling point for Linux. Having many available choices is also what has helped Linux to become what it is today.
SEE: IT pro's guide to working smarter with Linux (Tech Pro Research)
Finally, it never ceases to amaze me that Linux has yet to take hold on the desktop market. Given the disaster that has been Windows over the last few years, and that Apple hardware is often out of the price range of the average user, Linux should be primed to take over the market. The question as to why that hasn't happened, I believe, comes down to one rather complicated issue—one that I've already mentioned.
Let me explain.
A choice too many
Let's consider what's going on with Dropbox. I have yet to read a definitive reason why they decided to drop support for every Linux file system but unencrypted ext4. However, I think that "unencrypted" part cannot be ignored. Chances are this is a top-down decision that has to do with the powers that be way above most of our pay grades (think NSA and other security-minded organizations). And, before you make any assumption on that front, I am not in the know—that is purely speculation on my part.
But if we remove our tin-foil hats for a moment, we are left with the idea that Dropbox is only okay with supporting a single file system. I communicated with other companies, asking them why they don't support Linux. The single most common answer is simple: Too many choices.
SEE: Side-by-side chart of popular Linux distros (Tech Pro Research)
For a company to support Linux, they have to consider supporting:
- Multiple file systems
- Multiple distributions
- Multiple desktops
- Multiple init systems
- Multiple kernels
If you're an open source developer, focusing on a single distribution, that's not a problem. If you're a company that produces a product (and you stake your living on that product), those multiple points of entry do become a problem. Let's consider Adobe (and Photoshop). If Adobe wanted to port their industry-leading product to Linux, how do they do that? Do they spend the time developing support for ext4, btrfs, Ubuntu, Fedora, GNOME, Mate, KDE, systemd? You see how that might look from the eyes of any given company?
It becomes even more complicated when companies consider how accustomed to the idea of "free" (as in beer) Linux users are. Although I am very willing to pay for software on Linux, it's a rare occasion that I do (mostly because I haven't found a piece of must-have software that has an associated cost). Few companies will support the Linux desktop when the act of supporting means putting that much time and effort into a product that a large cross-section of users might wind up unwilling to pay the price of admission.
That's not to say every Linux user is unwilling to shell out the cost for a piece of software. But many won't.
SEE: Power checklist: Managing and troubleshooting Linux user accounts (Tech Pro Research)
There could be a solution for this issue. Said solution lies in either Snap or Flatpak. Those same companies could avoid the myriad choices by working with one of the two major universal package systems. This means companies could put together either a Snap or Flatpak release of their product without having to choose from the never-ending pieces to this complicated Linux puzzle (pieces that often prevent them from supporting Linux).
We've already seen at least one instance of a Windows application getting Flatpak support, as well as the early release of a tool called Winepak (which promises an unheard of ease of installing Windows applications on Linux). But those solutions are very much in the early stages (and may never really gain much traction).
The universal package option, however, doesn't solve the Dropbox issue. But considering that issue is probably of a security nature, chances are there is no workable solution.
SEE: Securing Linux policy (Tech Pro Research)
Where do we go from here?
I am certainly not saying that Linux needs fewer choices. However, I've said this before, and I think it could use repeating. There needs to be a standard, a sort of "universal Linux" that companies (such as Microsoft or Adobe) can support. This is very complicated. Which distribution would serve as the "universal"? Or should a brand new distribution be created? Which desktop? Which init system? Which filesystem? Those questions continue to haunt Linux and prevent it from gaining widespread acceptance on the desktop.
But I do believe Linux needs that standard desktop distribution, one that can be the basis for all third-party, commercial application support. Keep all of the choices out there, because those choices make Linux great. However, narrow those choices down such that a single, universal, distribution can be put forth to serve as the public-facing front for Linux on the desktop.
Think about this: If Adobe said, "We'll create a native port of Photoshop for Ubuntu Linux, using the unencrypted ext4 filesystem, systemd, GNOME, and the stable kernel", would rising up against that decision (because they chose that combination) do anything but make Adobe regret (or back out of) their decision? Chances are, it would turn them away from supporting Linux for good (not that they will, that was just an obvious example).
I'm guessing we won't see a reversal on the Dropbox decision. But the Linux community shouldn't take this as an insult to the platform. It should, however, serve as an eye opener that maybe too much choice can be a bad thing.
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.