If reports of a death can be exaggerated, so can reports of a birth. Linux advocates have been predicting the rise of their favourite kernel for years but, almost as the sound of the advocacy has faded, Linux penetration has been rising quietly and inexorably. The advocates don't need to shout so loudly now. They are getting somewhere.
About 8% of the readership of this blog use Linux, but from a less refined sample the figure might be lower. That's still double what you would have expected two years ago. Although Wal Mart has been shipping computers with Linux pre-installed for years now, and despite aborted attempts to do so by Hewlett Packard a couple of years ago, it's still hard for the average consumer to find a machine with Linux ready and waiting when they buy.
When the only computers on the shelves run Windows, that's what people buy. When a manufacturer has to pay a license fee for an operating system whether or not it ships it with a computer, it's going to ship it. The "per processor" licenses were just one of the techniques MS used to develop and enforce a monopoly, and they've paid the fines that went with the territory. Examination of the accounts of the Canopy Group led some to speculate that Microsoft had paid a quarter of a billion dollars in an out of court settlement to Canopy's then subsidiary Caldera (no longer trading under that name, and deeply unworthy of a link, for one reason or another...) over restrictive practices relating to DOS. That's the same kind of figure Microsoft paid into Apple stock to settle litigation over GUI design "inspiration". But so what? By the time they had paid out, tens of billions had been earned. Breaking intellectual property and anti-trust laws can be profitable in an industry that moves so fast that by the time you have come to court, the issue is irrelevant.
Of course, this has led to them being detested, especially by people who know about computers in detail. This famous rant is technical in places but explains what the main body of complaint against this particular corporation consists of. It includes this metaphor:
Picture this: you buy a newly-built house from a real estate company. As soon as it starts to rain, you discover that the roof leaks. When you complain about it, the real estate company either ignores you or they tell you that this kind of roof is a brand-new innovation; the sort of house they used to sell never had such a beautiful roof. Instead of fixing your roof they promise that the next house they'll build won't leak. Eventually they complete their next house, three years or so behind schedule, and you have to pay a hefty price for it... only to find that it comes with a patched roof, and now the water seeps through the walls instead. The new house has an extra wing added to it that you didn't ask for, but as soon as you enter it the floor collapses, and if you try to save yourself you find door jammed.Why have people put up with this? Well, some didn't. The spread of internet access and the Free Software Foundation allowed computer scientists all over the world to collaborate on programming projects, and so many were so annoyed at the state of the computer market that they developed an operating system entirely for free. No, they developed several operating systems for free. And the application software to go with it. It has been an unprecedented effort. In no other industry have top flight industrial and commercial products that rival or exceed those made by the world's top corporations been developed voluntarily by academics and professionals in their spare time.
If you're not a computer dork, just think about that for a moment. That's how bad Microsoft has been.
The state of the market has had some stability for the best part of a decade now: computer engineers choose Unix, or Unix-like systems like Linux. Consumers use Windows. Designers, the stylish cogniscenti, and people who understand fabrics, use Macs.
But that might be about to change:
Computer maker Dell has chosen Ubuntu as the operating system for its range of Linux computers for consumers.So do I. I use FreeBSD for servers, OpenBSD for security, FreeBSD or Ubuntu Linux for desktops and laptops, Mac OS X for servers, laptops and desktops and NetBSD for my digital watch. NetBSD runs on almost any piece of electrical equipment...
Michael Dell, the founder, chairman and chief executive of Dell, is himself an Ubuntu user. He has the operating system installed on a high-end Dell Precision M90 laptop he uses at home.
I haven't owned a Windows computer for years, and I don't want to again. Windows is nowhere near as bad as it used to be, in fact Vista is less than five years behind the opposition and with the latest Internet Explorer can even display png graphics properly. But it seems like a hell of an expensive way to compromise my personal security and privacy while making perfectly good equipment run surprisingly slowly.
So good for Dell, but don't underestimate the behind the scenes arm twisting that has gone on to try to stop them doing this. Microsoft plays hardball, and it has needed a player as big and secure as Dell to take this step properly. WalMart isn't exactly a minnow, which is why they've been able to do it, but Dell is bigger in computers.
It's actually overdue. Linux isn't difficult to use. It's a hell of a lot easier to diagnose and fix if there's a problem. It's vastly more secure. You can do everything you can do with Windows, including running Windows itself and Windows software - emulation of hardware allows virtual machines to be run on the desktop, inside which you can run Windows proper, and software emulation allows many Windows programs to be run just like any other program.
But Windows can't run all the ten thousand odd programs I can install with just a broadband connection and the patience to select what I want from a list.
I feel hamstrung with Windows (Mac OS X is also a form of Unix, so that's cool). But the real reason I avoid it is one of principle. I'm a free marketeer. I detest what MS has done to subvert and cripple the market. They have set back computer technology by years.
But the market has responded. And the market will have the last laugh.