Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source

Short Takes on Linux

Microsoft Is Not a Bad Company

Microsoft is not a bad company. Their problem is not systemic but situational - the same programmers with the same marching orders would focus on producing lightweight and useful code, as long as they weren't working for a monopoly. It is Microsoft's leverage from its desktop monopoly which makes them behave the way they do, not any inherent evil.

Microsoft, as a for-profit company, has one goal: make pots of money. The only way their current attempts to de-commoditize standards would help them do that was if they had a monopoly share of the market they were trying to affect. The same de-commoditizing behavior from a company which was competing for market share would lose them pots of money instead.

It is not necessary to "crush" Microsoft, it is merely necessary to get them to drop 'Embrace and Extinguish' in favor of actually advancing the state of the art. Linux is obviously Exhibit A, but Linux doesn't have to get 50% desktop market share to defeat Microsoft, it merely needs to get a 15% market share to defeat Microsoft's monopoly.

With a credible alternative taking as little as an eighth of the market share, Microsoft will no longer own the desktop. And as with IBM, once Microsoft no longer owns the space, they will undergo a painful retrenchment, and then emerge as a force for innovation instead of strangulation.

NT Competes with Linux, but Linux Does Not Compete with NT

Given the Bazaar model of development fostered by Open Source, Linux will always be under development. Accepting that is part of the cultural change necessary to work with OSS, even as an end user. There is a sense in some parts of the Open Source community that the current attention Linux is getting means that this is its chance to change the world, and that if it fails to do so quickly, there will be no second chance.

As long as programmers continue to improve it, Linux will have all the second chances in the world. The for-profit model needs end users for the positive externalities of network reinforcement (you use what other people at your job use, so its easy to find help, advice, etc.) and cash flow to pay programmers. OSS is a DIY model, which means that it can continue to advance without having a single "end user".

The Linux market share issue is a tricky one - NT is competing with Linux, but Linux is not competing with NT. If a casual user switches from NT to Linux, MS loses cash flow, mind share, and the illusion of inevitability. If the same user switches from Linux to NT, it affects Linux's development not at all.

Free Software Creates New Value

Thinking about the recent conversations about Linux 'market share', it occurred to me that some of us may be making the same mistake (self included) that Thomas Watson made when he predicted a worldwide market for 5 computers, or when Ken Olsen said there would be no market for computers in the home, i.e. assuming that the future will be much like the present.

Looking at Linux vs. NT in terms of present market share hides that group of people for whom the choice is not Linux vs. NT but Linux vs. nothing. Linux users don't just come from the ranks of people who would otherswise use NT or Win9[58] -- for people who only have access to 386 or 486 computers, and can't afford anything new, Linux offers them the only possibility for running a modern OS, both because it runs well on minimal hardware and because it is free.

Watching large corporations dance around the idea of running Linux is interesting, but to switch to Linux from NT always involves some short term cost that raises the barrier to such a move. The real change in computing ecology could come from another quarter altogether - that group of people who either haven't owned computers in the past, or who have had computers which have not been able to run web servers et al. Linux's biggest growth in market share may come from places inaccessible to for-profit companies at all.

To Use Linux Without Criticizing It Is To Betray It

The greatest strength of Linux is the relentless, targetted criticism of its users. It is that, and not any largesse from a corporation which brings about improvement in the code. When the MS faithful lob 'linux sux!!!1!" stink bombs into the Linux community, the natural reaction is to circle the wagons and praise Linux to the stars.

The Microsoft folks are right in many particulars, however: for desktop users, Linux is currently poorly documented and intimidating to intall. To let their hostility blind us to that fact robs us of our greatest strength - our ability not merely to criticize Linux, but, since we have the source before us and they do not, to criticize and improve Linux. This is not about two operating systems at this particular snapshot in their respective developments, this is about the long haul, and Linux gets better faster than any MS product ever has.

To use Linux without criticizing it is to betray it.

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Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source