December 24, 2004

Does Linux really need a "killer app" to succeed?

Author: John Knight

In the late 1990s, we thought Linux needed a "killer app" that would
make general PC users view Linux as a necessity the same way they first viewed Windows as a necessity due to Microsoft
Office. However, a new direction in open source adoption seems to be emerging that might require a re-think and a change in our perspective.Many popular open source programs like the GIMP,,
MPlayer, and VideoLAN now natively support Windows instead of only supporting
Linux. With the old way of thinking, having these great applications only
available on the Linux platform would be the way to draw users to Linux. Now,
thinking seems to have shifted.

Whether or not things were intended this way, it appears that many developers
are thinking, "if they can get used to this on Windows, they'll have no trouble
changing over to Linux". Whether or not this is true, I don't know, but it's
certainly an avenue worth exploring. That's not to say that Linux can't stand up
by itself; but perhaps some of us need to re-think our approach and think in
business terms, instead of pride. Are we trying to fight a holy war, promoting
purely GNU/Linux, or are we promoting open source software?

Usually the first question someone asks me when I tell them about Linux is, "Can
it do everything I can under Windows?" The answer is of course, "No," followed
by a lengthy and ambiguous explanation about WINE, software alternatives... the
list goes on. However, a question remains: "How come they're not already using
open source software for their daily tasks under Windows?"

If business people were used to using instead of MS Office, why
would they want to stick with Windows? If multimedia users were used to players
like xine and VideoLAN, why would they want to keep using players like PowerDVD
or WinDVD? There's no doubt that these open source programs are great by their own
merits, so why aren't people using them by default? Are the cynics
right when they say open source can't cut it?

Personally, I don't think so, but I think we've got our priorities wrong. For
years we've been promoting Linux instead of the software we use with it. Major
players like IBM and Sun, plus dedicated Linux advocates, should also promote
the Windows versions of open source programs. Then general users will start to
use open source alternatives and open source will become the standard choice for most PC users.

(For a good example, consider the increasingly popular Firefox, which is gaining
strong popularity on all platforms and taking more and more of Internet
Explorer's market share.)

Granted, this may seem like a bad move because it's not initially attracting
users to Linux, but it may be a big step in a better direction: platform
independence. Ultimately, users should be comfortable with an application
regardless of what platform it's running on. If most platforms are running
the same software and general users become used to open source instead of proprietary
offerings, the importance of any particular company's OS dies out and the
strongest platform wins.

If we play our cards right, there's no real reason why proprietary platforms
won't get phased out in favour of open platforms, rather like proprietary
networking protocols have been pretty well phased out by TCP/IP. General users
will then see Linux as either a good drop-in replacement for proprietary operating systems or, even better, a stronger platform on its own merits. And I think that's what we'd all


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