Articles / Is Linux for Crazies?

Is Linux for Crazies?

Ray Woodcock writes: "In terms relevant to Linux, this freshmeat editorial glances at the tendency of mainstream viewpoints to dismiss other viewpoints as 'fringe,' the propensity of dissident movements to splinter into factions before they can effectively counter their primary adversaries, and the difficulty of creating stability without squelching curiosity." It's a world of causes and movements, political and otherwise. Typically, within these causes and movements, the center looks bizarre to the fringe, and vice versa.

You, personally, are a subscriber to various viewpoints. You may not always prefer to be thought of in that way, but even the decision to avoid controversy can be controversial. Regardless of what you do or believe, there is always a chance that someone, somewhere, would consider you a fringe lunatic.

People who support Linux are among the forefront of those who may as well stand up and yell, "Me! Me! Consider me a wacko!" This is not because Linux is actually nuts; it's just that it's still not mainstream, and therefore we can be reasonably confident that we could find a lot of people -- millions, perhaps -- who might say we are dreamers.

The difference between mainstream and fringe, in any issue or belief, is partly a matter of position: there happen to be some people who stand over there, and there also happen to be some who stand over here. Yet that phrasing makes the two sound equal. In terms of mindset, however, they certainly are not equal. People in the mainstream -- and especially people who are aware of being in the mainstream, and who find that awareness comforting -- often drop their minor issues with one another, for the sake of going with the flow and preserving unity. People in a side eddy, by contrast, do not have a strong, steady flow to go with, and therefore may not be willing or able to float along wherever the current carries them.

That is, your typical fringe lunatic will tend to be more activist and individualist -- more engaged and interesting, perhaps, or even more alive -- than your ordinary mainstreamer. These fringe people, bouncing off each other, create all sorts of controversies and splinter groups among themselves. And sometimes they cancel each other out, assuring that an oppressive mainstream force continues to exercise power. Perhaps you have seen that kind of counterproductive, factional argybargy at work in your workplace, your church, or your local political scene.

Today's Linux clamor is, no doubt, a necessary by-product of the ongoing search for superior solutions. It may be healthy, in the larger scheme, if some of us are elevating various Linux incarnations into god-form and ranking them -- RedHat above Apollo but Debian below Demeter -- while others have already scrapped Linux in favor of some other state-of-the-art operating system. As of today, Zeus has not yet chosen a favorite. That is, the next new idea may prove to be the best one, so we probably should encourage this imaginative ferment, even if a few people slam into one another and get hurt along the way.

The quandary, for me, is that I cannot plead for unity in the Linux world, because I'm not happy with what unity has wrought within the Windows world; and yet I sympathize with the newcomer whose first decision about Linux is, "Which Linux?" To someone who is used to thinking in terms of "Windows, of course", the need to choose among different versions of an operating system is like being asked, "And to which planet would you like your pizza delivered?" You've probably got at least eight or nine choices by now, and some are a lot more far-out than others.

You might say that the Linux-versus-Microsoft situation is like the present situation in Serbia, where Slobodan Milosevic is still in power. Some might consider that amazing, and many consider it tragic. Nevertheless, it it not unprecedented for a strongman to tough it out while his adversaries spend themselves on foolish wrangles. I would not generally equate the head of Microsoft with the head of Yugoslavia, but surely we have seen how both of these leaders profit by turning the random energies of their adversaries inward, against one another.

And yet the opposition does have long-term promise. Hence, to the extent that stock market terms apply, I would probably have to recommend a "buy and hold" strategy for Linux (and for the Serbian opposition). Someday, Windows is going to sink under its own weight, or Microsoft is going to become divided, internally or as a consequence of lawsuits or defections, or for some other reason the monster is going to stagger, but there are no guarantees on the timing, and certainly the challengers aren't yet ready to take over the show.

What ultimately justifies being a fringe lunatic is being right -- no, being PROVED right -- and if you're a Linux loonie, you're only going to be proved right when Linux works for people like Windows works for them. I hear your moans at that statement; I feel your shudders; and yet it's true. Windows doesn't deliver what a real operating system should deliver; but it does deliver a dream, and it does so with pretty colors and a lot of sparkle. That is a significant part of what people want from their presidents and their software, and we owe it to the world to show everyone that they can find fantasy and panache here.

There is really no alternative. Mainstreamers, I guarantee, will run like hell if you make them listen to Mao-versus-Trotsky debates between the devotees of Debian and the comrades of Caldera. In the first stage of operating system socialism, I know, there must be competition among corporate bodies, with each subscribing to the same overall philosophy and yet each seeking to twist the nascent state to its advantage. In the second stage, however, the Stalins will take over from the Lenins -- that is, the theoreticians will give way to thoroughgoing non-purists who will compromise with the Devil if that's what it takes to succeed.

In other words, I predict that the following provides a rough outline of what will happen before Linux can lure the masses from Microsoft:

  1. Proponents of other operating systems (e.g., BeOS) will become converted into either:
    1. the new fringe movement vis-a-vis the new Linux mainstream, and thus will be forgotten by most participants for some years, or
    2. temporary supporters of Linux who will conclude that a Linux world might support their further quest to an extent that a Windows world will not.
    Relevant parties may perceive that Linux has a degree of momentum that these other operating systems now lack, and that any near-term increase in these other systems' momentum will probably be offset by an increasing public sense that it would be premature to choose another operating system to replace Windows as long as fancy new operating systems keep popping up every few months.
  2. Commercial proponents of various Linux flavors will recognize that cooperation on the operating system will yield a larger long-term pot for their application software sales. That is, companies like Caldera and Corel will conclude that they gain more by producing one Linux rather than two, thereby capturing not only those who would have come to them anyway but also those who would find it simpler and more productive to stay with Microsoft rather than risk guessing wrong on their choice of Linux.
  3. Non-commercial proponents of various Linux flavors will rediscover and spread the joy of computing, attract more adherents, and become the guiding spirits of the movements described in points (1) and (2), above. If this fails, Linux may yet succeed, but these particular individuals will probably wind up irritating one another until most of them defect to Windows or to various groups described in points (1) and (2), above, leaving behind a hard core of angry not-for-profit Linux zealots who may be unwilling or unable to cooperate with anyone. In the latter event, the original ideals will become marginalized and will have little appeal, given their failure to produce real-world results comparable to those produced by Windows or by commercial versions of Linux.
  4. Windows Emulation (WINE) projects will prove to be substantially successful. That is, people will find ways to run Windows software on Linux. At present, Windows is far ahead. In one sense, it is getting even further ahead, since the number of people writing Linux code pales against the many thousands who write for Windows. WINE will mean that much (or perhaps even all) of those who program for Windows will automatically be programming for Linux as well. Granted, this strategy didn't work for OS/2; but IBM wasn't exactly a movement that people believed in, OS/2 wasn't free or open, and Microsoft may not be able to outmaneuver the Linux community as easily as it did IBM.
  5. As the other steps fall into place, marketing wizards will begin to take an interest in Linux and will develop ways to present its full glory -- and, if I judge the marketing profession correctly, even more than its full glory -- to skeptical mainstreamers.

If thousands of relevant players make the right decisions on these points, Linux will surely overcome Windows. It can be difficult for fringers to create conditions that might appeal to mainstreamers, however -- especially if the fringers are driven by a perpetual urge to go beyond other people's limits and are not constrained by the desire to make a living from all this. In short, corporate effort may be essential to the process. But I should not be surprised. History, I hate to acknowledge, is mostly driven by commerce-related fits and starts.

I don't relish the idea that we may someday have another corporate monstrosity to defang; but I guess I can't be entirely unhappy if one or two companies eventually dominate Linux by offering a superior operating system at a lower price. That would still represent progress as compared to the present situation. Perhaps the best we can hope is that the idealists (including those employed by corporations) can develop an approach that will maximize cooperation to the mutual advantage of most would-be competitors.

So far, a large number of the people who have installed Linux have done so because they had a dream for what it could be, rather than an expectation of what it already was. As Linux moves closer to commodity status, however, newcomers will tend to be motivated more by expectations and less by hopes.

That is, we are still at the nexus of the ideal and the proven. If the hopes are robust and can somehow accommodate portions of both the mainstream need and the fringe dream, then perhaps the end result will be not only a successful commodity for the masses, but also a nearly tangible good. This might represent a genuine evolutionary advance over today's dominant operating system.

Ray Woodcock ( is a Linux newcomer who is now working with Unix-like software for nearly the first time since 1982. His most recent written contribution to the Linux world appears at

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29 Jan 2000 13:33 jrappold

Another Newbie
As a newbie to Linux, I am most struck by the immature mindset of many of its users. I use many a Microsoft product, and for the most part, I'm pretty content with what I have.

I decided to use Linux though, as an alternative to what I do think is the unnecessary complexity of some Microsoft products. Visual Interdev literally gave me a headache everytime I used it, so I decided to go with an Apache/PHP/MySQL setup and have been very happy with that decision.

My point is, Linux and Microsoft can co-exist peacefully. Our IIS server, NT DNS, and NT PDC sit in the server farm, quietly doing their job day after day with few problems, along with our various Linux servers. I see no reason to change things simply because Micro$oft(I think Linux users should register that spelling as a trademark) "sucks" and Linux is the second-coming of Operating Systems.

I think this whole "Micro$oft", "Windoze" thing is a big put off to a lot of users, and really does make Linux seem like a system used by silly extremists. Of course, this is not the case, but it doesn't help. I believe if Microsoft got its legions to talk about "Linsux" or the "Gcrap" interface, people would think Microsoft users were a bunch of babies.

Another tendency I've noticed is the making of broad and incorrect statements concerning Linux or the software that runs on it. Star Office better than Microsoft Office? I don't think so (of course that's my opinion), but I don't believe the presentation system in Star Office is anywhere near Powerpoint. I do believe the Linux desktop and GUI apps will improve, but it's not there yet, and to proclaim otherwise is a disservice to new users.

Also as a new user, I guess it is a mistake to mention that you use Internet Explorer. At least in the mailing lists I use, such a statement will provide a flood of mail with statements like "the worse coded browser ever" and other such nonsense. I must admit, I've not looked at the code to IE to know if it is bad or good, but Linux users should look at what I think is a pretty horrid version of Netscape on Linux. I'm much better off using Lynx when I'm on my Linux System.

My point to all of this is stop the immaturity, misleading statements about the OS, and just let the many good things that are going on continue. If Linux ends up dominating Microsoft, that's great. If it doesn't, there's no reason it can't exist as a worthy alternative, or even an OS that exists along with Microsoft products. Drop the "war" mentatlity and just get on with it.

Maybe then, Linux will survive its users.

29 Jan 2000 16:56 tokimi

Just Some Thoughts for the Future

Of late, I have heard more and more hype about Linux replacing Microsoft Windows as the primary desktop operating system. As linux distributions have become more mainstream (i.e. we can find them in stores now) and the distributing companies have gained wider publicity, there seems to be a lot of speculation as to how powerful Linux will be.

There are those who say that Linux will trounce Windows and reign supreme. There are those who say that Windows can and never will be replaced by such a "slipshod" operating system. And there are yet others who see a peaceful coexistence between the two.

But I'm here to put in my two coppers on this. (Would you rather 64k DRAMs?)

Microsoft is big. Windows is everywhere. (But Microsoft is not the Borg. The Borg are significantly different. For one, I like the Borg.) As long as you're using x86 systems, your default operating system is still Windows.

Many would like to think of Linux against Microsoft like David against Goliath. I have to disagree.

At this point, Linux is just simply way too complex for your average user. Even if you made it as simple as DOS, it's still too difficult for most.

To take over the desktop market, Linux would have to be as simple as Windows or MacOS. (I prefer MacOS, but I'm weird.) And I think the interface for that is currently being worked on. (KDE, I believe.) But nothing to make it really simple.

Let's put it this way: Even with KDE and GNOME and everything else, can your mother or grandmother possibly use Linux? What about the cashier at your local grocery store?

Or answer this question: Do they even want to?

It is because of that question that I feel that Linux will never replace Windows in the desktop market. If you looked at the population of the Linux community, how many are normal? Most are computer geeks, some self-proclaimed, some not.

There is a certain amount of computer knowledge or ability that is requisite for comprehending Linux, or any dialect of unix for that matter. Most people do not wish to take the time to learn that knowledge. (And I really don't blame them.)

Linux is an operating system for hobbyists and those lucky few who deal with it in the workplace. It is not an operating system for the average person. As a result, Windows will always be the dominant OS in the desktop market.

The real future of Linux, and the various BSDs, is in the workplace. Information Systems technicians generally have (or should have) the knowledge and ability to deal with unix dialects. And, for most tasks, unix can outperform Windows. (But you have to take time to figure out how.)

Now, granted, your end users are still average people, but workplace machines (even those using NT4.0) have little intricacies that they have to remember. A KDE-type environment should be useful on the end machines.

But servers... Unix servers, to the best of my knowledge, outperform NT4.0 Server. Unix, Linux included, is ideal for servers. Correctly set up, a unix server can, in fact, be almost a fire-and-forget deal. (Almost being the key word however.) They're low maintenance, and don't need to reboot after most system upgrades. (And I'm sure the reader is able to provide even more reasons.)

However, Microsoft has been moving heavily into the server market, and there, in fact, many applications designed for client/server on NT4 networks. So it would be good strategy for Microsoft to do everything in its power to "encourage" people to not use Linux in the workplace. (I believe such tactics have already started, but I am not sure.)

Microsoft will not allow Linux to coexist peacefully, mainly because it is not good business sense. Also, unless the current lawsuits force a dramatic change in Microsoft business strategy, it will,in fact, do anything in its power to prevent Linux from proliferating.

As long as the desktop processor market belongs to Intel, the desktop OS market will belong to Microsoft. This much seems certain, at least to myself.

The place of Linux in the office is yet to be determined, and I feel that there hasn't been a lot of emphasis placed on that. (I could be wrong, however.) The Linux community has to make battle on multiple fronts, whereas Microsoft only has one. Unix has always been seated well in servers, whereas Microsoft has done extremely well (and at extreme cost to others) in the desktop.

Mayhaps if Linux becomes the de facto server, and perhaps workplace, operating system, then there will be a resulting proliferation into the desktop market.

But, for right now, Joe Q. Average is interested in ease of use, and drinking a six-pack of beer watching the Superbowl tomorrow. Not in a complicated OS like Linux.

29 Jan 2000 22:34 dogpile

Missing the point....
I'll completely agree that most OSS users are zealots,
having closed minds, and unable to find fault in their own products. However, your article takes a view which misses the point of OSS..

Linux does not NEED to lure the masses away from MS. Maybe that's what the commercial distributors wish to do, but that is not a mainstream goal of the movement. The goal is to provide a flexible solution to a problem where no suitable one exists. People wouldn't waste their time writing software if something existed that fit the bill perfectly.

Point 1) "Fringe OS" users will use what fits their needs best. They most likely learned computing on one of the 3 major platforms, and left it for the "fringe" OS for specific reasons. I dont think ZDNet telling them they're doomed will cause them to forget why they switched in the first place.

Point 2) Saying that multiple distributors must join forces to avoid confusion is possibly a valid point, but has not proven necessary in the past. WinCE, Win95/98, WinNT...all are similar, have API differences, dont run exactly the same software...yet don't provide much customer confusion. I belive people use Win98 because it is what came on their computer, not because they prefer it to NT. Linux will be the same. Most users will use what they learned, unless there is a technical reason to switch.

Point 3) While i agree this as a possibility, there are plenty more developers that work for the spirit of the goal rather than the profit. Even if the for-profit section left, i do not think the results would be tramatic (except for wall street)

Point 4) WINE won't attract too many will act as a very temporary window for people to decide if they wish to use Linux or Windows. People will either a) use WINE, figure they use it, so they my-as-well use Windows, b) shout at ISVs to port their apps so they can be run natively, or c) discard windows apps all together. I see option A as a big percent, but option B is catching on, and A will become less a problem

Point 5) Marketing will help the for-profit end. Linux itself will propagate without this. How do you get a userbase somewhere between 1 and 20 million (based upon which group you ask) using a product without marketing? Without forced deals with vendors? Milk, toilet paper, and toothpaste are products that fall into this catagory, not operating systems...but somehow Linux managed.

Bottom line: People use Linux not because it came on their system, but because what they had before didnt work like they wanted. They found a solution to a problem, that commercial OSes couldnt supply.

29 Jan 2000 22:58 hendrtw

Do desktops even matter then?
If argue for ease of use - then you elimate desktop computers out right. I believe the average user and clerks will be using appliances, not Windows soon. The desktop market will soon be the sole relem of developers, even game consoles like the playstation 2 have all the average non developer needs.

Linux should never water it self down for non developers! Unices was here long before Windows , and will be around long after Windows. People need services and dependability provided by these work horses. The reason UNIX will always exist is the fact that it's modular and lends itself to be a developers choice - when people move to appliances it won't be on Windows CE either.

With items like belttops from IBm running Transmeta chips coming... just my educated guess from following IBM. Linux has little to fear from Microsoft in the belttop/laptop market either. FreeBSD and Linux are quickly becoming embedded operating systems of choice. Dependability is to import in embedded machines to compromise.

Well, I got off on a rant - but remeber who told you about the IBM Transmeta belttops frist. =)

30 Jan 2000 01:49 saxifrage

Linux Users are from Mars, Windows Users are from Venus
I know the title's corny, but it works, so bear with me.

The problem will always remain that Windows and Microsoft managed to singlehandedly (and iron-handedly :P) unify the OS market -- and, according to Neal Stephenson in _In the Beginning Was the Command Line_, created the glut of cheap hardware that fueled the development of Linux, and other various i386 Unix OSes.

What this means is that basically, you have two entirely different categories of users. They don't generally interact, although I will concede that I still have to do lots of work with Windows (on other people's computers), and that my brother and sister frequently have to work on my computer when they need to print stuff. There's a very specific reason for this: Linux has what I call the `hacker's mentality.' We like tinkering with stuff, until it works, and we like fixing things that don't work -- and in particular, because we're stereotypically chronically short of high-end hardware and/or money, we use rejected old hardware to fuel our systems.

Meanwhile, the average Windows user prefers to keep upgrading his hardware every time that Microsoft releases a new bloated upgrade, because in his mind there is no simple alternative to Windows. They don't usually like tinkering with things, so if something doesn't work, they just have someone like a Linux user, who presumably could learn Windows in a relatively short amount of time even if he already didn't know it, fix it. Or they just deal with its shortcomings.

You will never convert the world to Linux. In fact, I personally don't think we want to. Do we want to see what has happened to the Windows world (`What ISP do you use?' `Oh, I use Internet Explorer.' Or -- worse -- `I use Microsoft Office.') become the fate of the Linux world?

The whole point of Linux is about rebellion. We don't want to dominate -- in fact, we can't, because we're really a truly non-corporate entity, despite the fact that there are companies that sell Linux, because we are not unified. At all. Therefore, we should leave the domination and proselytization to other companies; average users, who have no reason to convert -- I did so for three primary reasons, being price, MUSH and MUD servers, and LaTeX -- should stick with something that involves no extra usage.

But then again -- I could be wrong. Who knows? Linux could become the next operating system. People insist that my generation -- I'm really a Nineties / 00's teenager -- will only bear children that know more about computers. We might just finally reach a point where people know enough to understand it.

Or not. It's all up for grabs. But I can't imagine that we want the dumbing-down of our operating system to happen; let's leave that to Microsoft, guys.

30 Jan 2000 02:54 hanseno

Another oldie

With all this discussion about right and wrong mindset, I must state
that the mindset about linux needing to overcome windows is a wrong mindset.

I do not speak for anyone but myself, on this issue, now I've got that out of the way... let me point out, that using Linux is not a question of Linux being superior. It is about choice. Look at the people of China, they have chosen to be communist... and what concern is that of yours? Which is more wrong, to be a communist or to whish to destroy everyone who doesn't have the same opinion as you do? Windows is for Intel computers and everyone who doesn't use windows is defined a loonie and should be institutionalized?

For practical purposes, let us discuss the use of Windows... for all practical purposes, except for home use, windows is a very poor operating system. It does not recognize that there are other operating systems in the cyber world, and more or less refuses to work with any operating system that doesn't fit it's own category. Those who support it, wholeheartedly support that other operating systems, like linux, should be banned from optaining information that would enable it to be more user friendly (like information on multimedia technology). This sounds very much like Americans, who just can't live with that there exists a country in the far east or near east, where people have a different opinion than they do, and spend money and weapons in destroying those countries and/or overcoming them.

Now, the real practical issue... there *are* other operating systems in the world. Major companies, like Silicon Graphics Int. as well as IBM and a set of others, have for a long time, longer than microsoft, sold systems with different operating systems. Many of these are Unix, with which, Windows does not like to cooperate. On the other hand, Linux is a very co-operative operating system, being defined around unix, so it is much more likely to be able to co-exist on a network with other computers and operating systems and be able to communicate and use a complex distributed environment.

For me, at least, and I suspect for many others... Linux is about choice, of being able to have things the way you want it. And not having to fit into a mindset, that is both oppressive and narrow minded. This will naturally mean, that there will be many flavors of Linux, and most importantly it will mean that it will never be suitable for the average weenie. Normal users, won't install an operating system, that has a super user layout and *not* log in as that super user... normal user will feel deprived if he isn't the master of his own box, and will always be the super user and thus
compromise their system. For these, windows or macintosh will always be the right flavour.

The main point is, that we need to acknowledge that there are people with different views on things than we do. We need to understand, that there isn't just *one* correct operating system, and that there isn't just *one* correct desktop. Linux doesn't have to look like Windows, nor does Windows have to look like a Macintosh. And I am not a loonie, because I choise to go by my own instinct and weigh things with my own mind,, rather that buy something out of a store, that I already know doesn't suit my purpose. People will just have to learn to live with it, that they may have a neighbour that has a different view of life, like the cubans, and if they can't do that... they should get therapy. Starving nations to death, and depriving children of medicine, or contaminating soil for a hundred years sure doesn't fit my picture of "friend of mankind". And thus can hardly be the *right* opinion, no matter how big the crowd is that follows that lead... the crowd has a precedence of being wrong.


31 Jan 2000 23:56 zeusjr

I am an unix using crazy! But not like the rest of you, I set myself above the common good, exercising my inalienable rite to freedom! Freedom of free speech! Consider how the little bird, which is not so little as it is a bird (bird, bird, bird) eats from the palm as if you weren't a care in the world. Let this bird be microsoft, or, better yet! Let it be You, who art so high and mightily dictating the harpin gyou do when under the spell of the llama. Hear, here the llama rests, see how happy it is? You should be so happy.

I am hapy to announce a new gnu version of me (myself) also I, as in zeusjr2000! Or z2k, more stable than a ver (tm, r, etc.) And I can tell you, there are already many myths and communists set out to destroymy goal! Yes, it is true, that it is now gpl, but that (no that doesn't mean...) that one can consider it pure, also inter3sting.

Sting is not t5he end of it though- no linux is not for you! Neither am I! I am my own creature, not to be tameds by any1 man, woman, chld, feces, or

And now for the reciting conclusion, from the zeusjr gratest hits, arhuive III!!!

Not everyone cares abnout this latest devleopment, when polled, thirteen pouut of four said ""and i quote,"WHO FRUITIN CARES!" all the other s used unquoteables (Such as "ÿܤ3") so they were NOT NICE! In fact, no one cares whether or not anyone's retatred self goes back to school. nor if anyone's retarted self ever whent there, or is still there, and no, also isn't there more than one (ima ean school?) I heard there was, all of wohoch STRAYS from the FAQS!: ther e is noo cheap furby in bri---TURKEY.
Not like they're real, anyways, but WHO FRUITIN CARE?

02 Feb 2000 20:57 dsavard

Previous comment
Don't drink and type!

11 Feb 2000 08:20 gordonjcp

Magic words...
The thing with arguing "Could your mother (or grannie or whatever) use Linux (or indeed any other OS)" falls down though. Most Win95/98 users still get by with "mystical incantations" although they are slightly better hidden. Most people, however, can get by with them. For example, my mother has used my Linux box for internet access before. Now due to space and power constraints, it's not really set up optimally for ease of use, but given an instruction like "type in 'ifup ppp0' to force it to connect, if it won't by itself", she can get the thing to connect. Mostly users can live with this kind of thing, in much the same way as they know to pull out the choke on their car before starting, without knowing exactly what it does ("It just makes it work, OK?")


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