|GNU/Linux: Challenges to Opening Up the Operating System
A free operating system with its source distributed freely so that anyone can make changes just sounds too good to be true. Even more surprising is that this operating system has been around for over twenty years and is quickly being deployed on dedicated servers and embedded systems as the operating system of choice. Even eighty percent of the top 500 super computers in the world run GNU/Linux. However, despite this, GNU/Linux must overcome many hurdles if it wants to make a huge splash in the consumer computing market.
Linux was first coded in 1991 by a Finnish computer science student, Linus Torvalds. It was based off an old operating system called Minix, which was not the most amazing operating system, but had the benefit of having its source code publicly available. While the kernel, or core of the system, is called Linux, the set of tools that ship with it are from GNU, thus, it is called GNU/Linux. As interest grew, more people started contributing to Linux until slowly, Linux became the modern operating system it is today.
To understand the rapid growth of GNU/Linux, one must understand the philosophy of free software movement. From GNU’s website:
“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”.
Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it means that the program's users have the four essential freedoms:
This means that free software emphasizes users control over the software the giving the users the choice to do what they want with the software. It does not refer to not having to pay money for the software, but instead the freedom to use and distribute the software as the user wishes. This philosophy is the reason GNU/Linux is able to thrive and continue growing, twenty years after its initial release. Whenever someone sees something they would like to have added, they merely code what they want, and submit it to Linus for inclusion. If Linux deems the code clean enough to be put into the upstream kernel, that code will be available in the next release.
However, despite this wonderful philosophy, Linux has not been able to make a large impact on the end user. For instance, GNU/Linux is difficult to use for the average computer user. Great strides have been made in recent years to make GNU/Linux more user friendly, yet Linux does not have the user friendliness of the current leading operating systems. For instance, take GNU/Linux’s method of configuration: where current operating systems generally have graphical user interfaces available to configure all aspects of the operating system, with GNU/Linux, one must open a text editor and edit all the configuration files by hand. Sometimes, one must use the intimidating command line interface, or CLI. The CLI is the preferred method for administrating the system due to its speed, however, new users are easily put off by this. With the command line interface, one must memorize many commands. It is literally its own scripting language. However, recently, more graphical user interface tools are coming out for GNU/Linux, however, these are far too confusing and do not have the intuitive touch found in the graphical user interfaces of the other operating systems.
Furthermore, GNU/Linux hardware support leaves a lot to be desired. Although GNU/Linux supports more hardware than any operating system out right now, support for the hardware is cumbersome and difficult to set up. The fault here is not GNU/Linux’s code, but the fact that most hardware vendors do not provide GNU/Linux drivers or the vendors provide poor drivers. Therefore, the community must work to reverse engineer these drivers in ways that do not necessarily provide the full functionality of the hardware. In order for GNU/Linux to gain more mainstream recognition, more hardware vendors must start shipping Linux device drivers.
Unfortunately, the way Linux is now, shipping hardware drivers for GNU/Linux is difficult. While the core operating system is called GNU/Linux, the full collection of software that comes with the install disk is called a distribution and there are thousands of GNU/Linux distributions. Each with their own set of software and each built to fulfill their own purpose. For instance, there are minimalistic distributions that only ship with the bare minimum requirements to start the computer to fully-fledged powerhouse distributions that ship with everything one needs to run a set-top TV box. Supporting each and every one of these distributions is a support nightmare that most hardware vendors do not care to undertake. In essence, GNU/Linux lacks standardization. Many attempts have been made to loosely standardize the major distributions, but based each distribution’s philosophy and purpose, standardization is extremely difficult.
Another valid concern for those who are hesitant to jump ship to GNU/Linux is the lack of familiar software. Similar to the hardware situation, most software vendors do not offer GNU/Linux versions of their programs. Often, consumers rely on one software for their work, should it be image editing, video editing, or synthesizing music. The only alternatives are to either look for a native GNU/Linux alternative, which probably will not have all the features that were present in the old software and force one to learn an entirely new software. Another alternative is to virtualize another operating system to use the software natively; however, this is very hard on the resources and the program will not run at full speed. In the end, GNU/Linux’s market share is simply not high enough for most software vendors to bother making GNU/Linux software. Another misconception software vendors have about GNU/Linux is that since GNU/Linux is free software, the users will not pay for any software.
Linux users pay more than the average.
This misconception is proven incorrect by the “Humble Indie Game Bundle,” a bundle of games that allows the user to choose pay any price they like for the bundle of games. According to those statistics, the company actually profited more from GNU/Linux purchases than from Mac purchases. This proves that there actually is a sizable GNU/Linux market willing to pay for software that many of these software vendors could be tapping into.
Despite these hurdles, GNU/Linux offers something that none of the other major operating systems can provide: choice. Because of all the distributions and the strong developer community, there is so much software and hardware that can do amazing things. GNU/Linux allows one to personalize and configure their computing experience in a way that is best for the person, they do not have to settle for a mediocre design or an oversimplified design since they can pick one that works for them. Each desktop will vary from user to user and each desktop will be uniquely suited to each user’s needs.
Compiz 3D desktop
My desktop running Enlightenment
Lastly, many in the GNU/Linux respond to these concerns about user friendliness. Teams of developers work hard to reverse engineer drivers that are superior to the vendor drivers. Companies continuously challenge the concept of the conventional desktop and put out new innovating software that is often borrowed by the mainstream operating systems. Distributions want the conversion from any OS to GNU/Linux to be a smooth one so they even offer “live CDs,” which are CDs that allow the user to try GNU/Linux risk free without the need to install the operating system. Therefore, they can check to see whether they like the specific distribution, or GNU/Linux in general before they decide to commit and install.
While the old days of GNU/Linux user unfriendliness are over, much work is still necessary to bring the current state of GNU/Linux distributions on par with current mainstream offerings. Especially, with many users starting to be dissatisfied with the current direction that the mainstream OS’s are taking, alternatives to such OS’s will be in high demand and GNU/Linux is in position to grab a prime share of those users.
Timo Aaltonen, Jyke Jokinen. “Influence in the Linux Kernel Community” in Open Source Development, Adoption and Innovation: Boston, Springer Boston, 2007, 203-208.
This chapter describes that a very small group of people play a large role in the development of the Linux kernel. For instance, companies in Western companies hold the most influence on Linux development. This chapter does not pass judgment on the this control, nor does it attempt to analyze the consequences of having such few people being in charge of the development of Linux, but merely informs the reader that this is the data they obtained.
John Fontana. “Community roots bolstering Linux” in Network World, vol. 25, pp. 12, Aug 2008.
This journal article focuses on widespread contributions to Linux and the growth that Linux has experienced in the recent years. It has a completely optimistic view of Linux in that Linux’s growth percentage from 2007 to 2008 has been greater than Windows in both servers and clients. Moreover, it emphasizes the benefits of community contributions to Linux. Overall, it provides a nice contrast to the previous article with its positive and optimistic attitude.
Maria Antikainen, Timo Aaltonen, Janni Vaisanen. “The Role of Trust in OSS Communities – Case Linux Kernel Community” in Open Source Development, Adoption, and Innovation, vol 234, Boston: Springer Boston, 2007, pp. 223-228.
This article analyzes the role of trust in Open Source and uses the Linux kernel as an example of the Linux kernel. It explains that the Linux kernel hierarchy can be thought of as an onion, with all the most important people clustered towards the middle and the less important people are further away from the center. This article provides a balanced view on the effect of trust on the success of open source software.
Ross A Mauri. "Unstoppable Linux” in Vital Speeches of the Day 15 Mar. 2004: ABI/INFORM Global, ProQuest. Web. 6 Feb. 2012.
This speech explains Linux’s growth all over the world in the client. Although this article is almost a decade old, a lot of what it says still holds true. Many developing countries around the world are starting to embrace open source software, namely Linux, due to the many benefits gained by Linux such as low cost and security. It emphasizes the new hardware support and the number of large businesses such as IBM promoting Linux to make it a mainstream OS. This speech is very biased towards Linux, it does not try to explain challenges and shortcomings of Linux, but instead celebrates the successes Linux had achieves up to the speech.
"Linux rising" in Express Computer 19 Oct. 2009: Sciences Module, ProQuest. Web. 6 Feb. 2012.
Linux rising is an article that explains the rise of Linux in the server industry. The article explains that despite the recession (it partially implies that because of the recession) Linux servers have enjoyed a 24% increase over the years, especially due a Linux server’s ability to virtualize other environments in a cost effective and efficient manner. Moreover, it illustrates that selling the hardware and software is only a tiny portion of the revenue, the main revenue comes from providing support and other services after the purchase. Once again, this article is very pro-Linux. It does not really say anything bad about Linux or talk about shortcomings.
Author(s)*. “Title.” Internet: complete URL, date updated* [date accessed].
Joe Brockmeier. “Four Things Linux Needs.” Internet: http://ostatic.com/blog/four-things-linux-needs, April 10, 2008 [ February 6th, 2012 ].
This article talks about a lot of stuff the author thinks that Linux needs to become good. Honestly, I do not agree with most of this suggestions but I see what looking at sources that provide a viewpoint contrary to my own is important when writing a balanced and comprehensive article.
Serdar Yegulalp. “Why Linux Is Already A Success.” Internet: http://www.informationweek.com/blog/229215127, September 20, 2007 [ February 6th, 2012 ].
This blog attempts to argue that Linux is already a success, depending on how you look at it. If you think that Linux is not a success because it has not overtaken Microsoft Windows as the most popular and widespread OS in the world, then you are right. However, if you think Linux is a success because it has been adopted by so many people and companies that people are investing tons of money into the development of Linux, then you are still right. The author of this article takes the latter side to explain that Linux is already a success and knocking Windows or OSX off 2nd place is not required to make Linux a success.
Ragib Hasan. “History of Linux” Internet: http://www.ragibhasan.com/linux/ October 18, 2005 [ February 6th, 2012 ].
This article gives a comprehensive view of the history of Linux. Although it is an Internet site, the author is a university professor who keeps the webpage up to date. The author is pro-Linux and does not really criticize it beyond the general common criticisms.
“What is Free Software” Internet: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html January 25, 2012 [ February 6th, 2012 ].
This is a webpage that outlines the philosophy of the free software movement. It is written by the group that started this movement, and is thus very biased with their ideology.
Internet: http://www.humblebundle.com/ [February 6th, 2012 ]
This site just has a graphic I want.