I read a lot of articles and blogs discussing whether or not open source OSs can ever take over the Windows-dominated desktop. My personal answer to this is no, not anytime soon. I hate to say this because I am a proponent of open source. However, I think it is the sad truth, and the reason is a lack of applications—particularly one class of applications—games. What's the connection between the slowness of open source adoption and gaming? Let me explain.
Before you start rolling your eyes, just go along with me for a minute. I contend that we would have been staring at green screens for much longer had PC gaming not pushed color monitors. Once color monitors were produced, and gaming took off, it encouraged sound via sound cards, video cards for better graphics, and a plethora of input devices.
Open source has already proven that it can produce near equivalents (or better) of office productivity software; yet, there is no stampede to adopt the software despite its being significantly cheaper to purchase (people still fight about cost to implement and support). Why is this? A large part of it is because we are creatures of habit, and our comfort zone is Windows and Windows applications.
But I think another big reason is that people tend to get comfortable with the technology they use at home and then push for it in the workplace. But who wants to run two machines—one for work and one for play? Or create a dual boot machine? I fit that mold. I have run a Linux desktop many times on older “experimental machines” and despite small learning curves and minor inconveniences, I can “work” with no problem and lose little if no functionality or productivity. But would Linux be my main desktop at home? Nope—not as long as gaming is a priority for me. Because no one is writing current titles or porting recent hits to the Linux desktop – and it’s just not worth the hassle to run both. (I know there are a few titles out there that have been ported to Linux, but the number is so small as to make it insignificant).
And to me, unless people can use the OS to do ALL the things they want to do—including work and play—it just isn’t going to take off. Moreover, the younger generations who cut their teeth on Windows are going to back what they are familiar with—Windows. This will increase with the release of Vista, which will make the PC even easier to use and glitzier to look at.
And what about Mac and the in-roads it has made in the corporate environment? To this, I answer “Mac Office.” It’s a whole lot easier to sell an audience of potential users on an OS if they can use the Microsoft Office productivity suite. Plus, while Windows still has more, the game ports for a Mac are far more plentiful than Linux..
I speculate that if you could run officially branded MS Office on Red Hat, you just might see a lot more adoption. And if you could run all of today’s games off-the-shelf on Red Hat or Fedora, you would find a lot more Linux rigs out there in the hands of “non-technical” users than there are now.
People aren’t afraid of open source on the desktop; just look at the adoption of Firefox and Windows-based versions of Open Office and MySQL. If people find the right tool, they will gravitate towards it. But changing your OS for one that can’t run half of what is out there is altogether a different thing.
What may change all this? Google. If Google can truly make Web-based productivity tools that can compete with MS Office—it may make the desktop OS insignificant in the workplace. But we will have to wait and see.
This is the whole chicken and the egg problem, and isn’t new to anyone. Until the killer application comes to the Linux OS only—what is going to drive adoption at the desktop level, and what is going to induce developers to spend money to develop for a platform that is rarely used for desktop computing? I personally think it will take a few hit games to do it. Once people get used to Linux as a gaming platform, it’s not a big jump to using it as a work platform.
Personally, I like Linux very much, and I have no hesitation about parking a Linux server in the server room. The desktop, though, is going to take a killer application to get a movement started. Imagine if Blizzard had announced that World of Warcraft was going to be Linux only: you think the whole thing would have fallen on its face or would it have created a groundswell of interest in Linux? (I know you can run WOW using WINE, but what a pain.) What we need is a Linux version of a DOOM or Castle Wolfenstein with a lot of buzz and that can only be played on Linux. That would stir up the pot! In the meantime, if someone at Sony decides that porting Everquest II to Linux would be a good idea—that would make my day!