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:
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 (email@example.com) 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 http://www.linuxnewbie.org/articles/rwoodcock.html.
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