December 31, 2003

Linux, open source, and other tech news coverage in 2004

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Rather than try to make the usual sweeping predictions about what the future holds for the computer hardware and software industries or even just for Linux and open source, I'm going to make some predictions about how tech news will be covered in the next year. Let's start by saying a minimum of 5000 articles (give or take 4900) will be written in 2004 declaring Linux "finally ready for the desktop," up from 3000 (give or take 2900) similar articles in 2003.Whatever the raw numbers, the trend is certainly upwards, especially in mainstream media. In 2004, I expect to see more unabashedly positive articles about desktop Linux in media aimed at the general public than ever before.

I started covering Linux and open source in 1997, and I wrote what may have been the first "journalist installs Linux -- and lives" article back in 1998, so I've been working this "beat" at least as long as anyone else with a journalism -- as opposed to technical -- background. I've watched mainstream news attitudes toward Linux go from "What's a Linux?" to "Linux is cool for geeks but incomprehensible for the rest of us" to "Linux is a worthy rival to Windows in many ways, but it's not easy to learn -- and it won't run Photoshop or Outlook" to "Linux may actually dethrone Windows at some point, especially in developing countries."

Some of this media attitude change is a result of IBM's Linux advertising on prime-time TV, but tireless work by both volunteer and paid free software hackers has made Linux far easier to use and more versatile than it was when I first started playing with it. In 2004 and beyond, we can expect to see a growing number of mainstream articles that answer the question, "Which Linux distribution should you use?" as opposed to the, "Should you consider Linux as a Windows alternative?" question that has been the theme of many articles in the past few years.

Hardly any of these articles will call it "GNU/Linux" instead of just "Linux." Sorry, purists, but in the 1940s and 1950s, no journalist in the known world consistently spelled out "Dwight David Eisenhower" instead of using his nickname, "Ike." Anyone who still fights this name battle is wasting his or her time. Those who need to know about GNU contributions -- mostly programmers, systems administrators, and academics -- will continue to understand how important GNU contributions are, and the rest of the world won't care, any more than they care about the name of the protocol (TCP/IP) they use when connecting to the Internet.

Don't try to fight the "Hackers" vs. "Crackers" war, either. In the popular mind, "Hackers" are, and will continue to be, bad people who break into others' computer systems. The people who make or modify open source software are now "Developers."

What these developers are developing will, at some point, be called open source software, either capitalized or not, by the mainstream media people who now tend to type "so-called open source" or hyphenate "open-source" instead of following the usage set down by the Open Source Initiative, which surely knows how to write its own name correctly. And yes, it is going to be called "open source," not "free software," most of the time by most journalists. I may personally support the Free Software Foundation's ideals (I'm a dues-paying member), but I recognize that in a world where greed seems to have gone from being a sin to a virtue in many people's minds, the word "free" is a non-starter when talking about software licensing, and its multiple English meanings are too complicated to explain in the context of a general circulation magazine or newspaper article -- not to mention a TV sound bite -- anyway.

Expect more mainstream reviews of Linux-preloaded PCs

In advanced countries such as India and Thailand, both local PC builders and multinational manufacturers commonly sell computers loaded with Linux. This trend is now starting to trickle down to less sophisticated countries like the United States of America.

In September 2003, NewsForge ran a review of a new HP desktop model that was shipped with Linux. Sadly, this model is aimed at business users, not consumers. The $798 HP "bundle" sold in Wal-Mart stores, which includes a PC running a 2.5 MHz uP and an LCD monitor, is strictly Windows, even though Wal-Mart has both Linux software and Linux PCs available through its online ordering system.

So far, most U.S. hardware makers offering Linux boxes are small ones, but some of them have enough marketing and PR oomph that I expect to see at least a few reviews of Linux desktops and laptops in mainstream media outlets in coming months, and not just as curiosities, either, but serious reviews comparing Linux systems not only with Windows systems but with each other.

Open source is still exciting

Last month I lurked on an email list where a group of tech journalists discussed the lack of excitement in the computer hardware and software businesses these days. Most of the new products they see now are just incremental advances, they said. The Apple iPod is a great gadget, but is it really anything more than a repackaged MP3 player? And isn't the idea of downloading music, paid or unpaid, already old?

Microsoft has apparently decided to kill a few more software companies by moving into the antivirus and enterprise accounting businesses, but the idea of Microsoft trying to dominate new areas and kill off all competition in them is nothing new. And what can anyone say about Longhorn, the next anticipated Windows release? It's not due until 2006 or 2007, and with Microsoft's track record for (not) being on time with new product releases, it's easy to imagine Longhorn being delayed until 2009 or 2010. So there's nothing exciting at Microsoft.

Add a digital camera to a cell phone? So what? We already have digital cameras and we already have cell phones all over the place. Wi-Fi? We've got that already. Better-faster-cheaper is a nice story, but how many times can anyone write it without going crazy?

The big action on the IT news front in 2004 will be Linux and open source. The software may only be incrementally better than it was a year ago, but "China Chooses One Million Sun Linux Desktops" is news, if only because of the big number. There's also a nice David/Goliath aspect to Linux vs. Windows competition that attracts journalists because it makes for dramatic stories, ones where the Good Guys win and the Bad Guys lose, just like in the movies.

I have no idea what big stories NewsForge may follow in 2004. The nature of the news business in the "first rough draft of history" style we tend to use is that you don't know what's important until it happens, and even then it's usually hard to recognize its importance at first. There's a lot going on in the tech world besides software, including some promising experiments in producing artificial petroleum from animal wastes and other biomass. Maybe we'll branch out a little in the coming year, and take a look at some new technologies that aren't directly related to the IT industry, if only to keep our worldview from becoming too narrow.

In any case, there will be big tech stories in the next year. We'll cover our fair share of them, and link to others that appear elsewhere. You'll probably come across a few stories and story leads before we do, and if you do we'd certainly appreciated it if you'd tell us about them, either through our submission form or by emailing editors@newsforge.com.

And now, I'm going to stop writing for the rest of this year. See you in 2004!

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