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The Inevitability of Victory

I just read an interesting blog post about Montenegro [1]. Apparently a key to the process of becoming a country was acting like it was inevitable.

It seems that this method can be applied to many areas, one of which is the contest between Linux and some proprietary OSs.

For many years monopolists have convinced people that it was inevitable that they would monopolise all areas of software development. Why use any other software (even if it is more reliable, faster, has more features, and is cheaper) if a monopolist is about to dominate the market? The monopolist changes sometimes, the monopolist from ~1990 to now is different from the monopolist of the 1970′s, but the tactics of a computer monopolist remain the same.

The way to beat this is largely to just ignore them. There is an ongoing debate in some circles about when Linux will be “ready for the desktop“. I’ve been running Linux as my primary desktop environment since about July 1998, it’s almost 10 years of having Linux as my primary desktop environment. It seems inevitable that the Linux will take over the desktop – it’s far better for desktop use than it was 10 years ago when I switched.

Some people claim that Linux lacks driver support. Every piece of hardware that I’ve wanted to use over the last 10 years has had adequate support. Often second-hand hardware works best with Linux, hardware vendors have no reason to continue to support their old products on newer operating systems (they make more money if you buy new hardware to run the new OS). Not only is hardware support for Linux adequate, but long-term support is far superior (and I often get to use cheap second-hand hardware). Now that an increasing number of hardware vendors are supporting Linux for their new hardware (Intel, AMD, and most laptop vendors are doing some good work in this regard). It seems that everyone who has tried both says that writing drivers for Linux is easier than writing drivers for proprietary OSs, so it seems inevitable that Linux will end up with better driver support by all metrics.

Linux is designed for users. DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) is not something that interests Linux developers. Run Linux and your computer will obey you and give full quality audio and video. It seems inevitable that Linux will dominate the AV section of the market (it already dominates the computer work involved with creating movies).

Free software (of which Linux is merely the most famous and popular example) is based on the principles of open design and open standards. When you use a free software program to save a file then you can be reasonably sure that you will be able to read it back again in a few decades. Most free software uses file formats that are well documented and standardised. Sometimes there are bugs in programs and new versions will use files in a different way, this is sometimes a case when you rely on a bug in an old version. Using the older version of the software is sometimes required to properly access old data. Fortunately when you have the source to the older programs they can be compiled on new systems (so different types of CPU won’t matter). Also the lack of DRM means that an OS image can be virtualised. One thing that is on my todo list is to create a set of virtual machine images of some of the most commonly used distributions of Linux so I can easily compare distributions of 10 years ago with modern distributions – it’s not technically challenging and there is no particular technical or legal obstacle to doing this. This would also mean that if someone gave me a file in some strange format from 10 years ago I would have a better chance of reading it. It seems inevitable that as the value of data increases the desire to avoid OSs that prevent people from accessing their own data will also increase, and that will eventually squeeze out most closed software from the market. This doesn’t mean the end of proprietary software, merely the end of software that holds user’s data hostage.

The majority of the world’s population does not use computers. The computers that they end up using will be cheap because they can’t afford to waste so much money on new hardware. To make cheap machines means that there will be limited resources in terms of RAM, mass storage, and CPU power which require more efficient software. Also to properly take advantage of machines with small screens and other limitations changes to the design of the software will be required. It seems inevitable that the most open software will be adapted to such environments more readily than proprietary software.

Now this doesn’t mean that we can take a break from development. In the free software community there are usually many different programs to perform a particular task with competition between the developers of the various projects. The fact that a monopolist is inevitably going to lose it’s position is of little relevance to the competition between the various free alternatives.

9 comments to The Inevitability of Victory

  • Hi Russell,

    a few day ago, on a topic like your “It seems inevitable that Linux will dominate the AV section” statement that this is wishful thinking. I even thought about shouting out for help like “Houston, we have a problem”, because *especially* DRM and the non-playable Blu-Ray and other scrambled and DRM’ed HDTV formats *are* a big problem.

    But after thinking about it for a while, I came to the conclusion that you are right here. DRM is defective by design. The customers who nowadays buy into the big screen home Hollywood theater market just don’t get it how they lock themselves in.

    What we need are more projects like Peach and its predecessor Elephants Dream, and people will look our way with lots of envy.

    It’s a question of time IMHO. As a hardware vendor who only ships pre-installed FREE software, I can’t go and offer a HTPC now which will play anything high quality (like 1080p).

    But the more users we become, the more power we have – and if Hollywood ends up dying because the whole world turns to the pirate bay or such for good quality content, then that’s their problem and not ours. We warned them often enough to open their eyes and stop that stupid digital restriction right from the start.

    I see it like you. It’s not a question *if*, but only *when* we will have won. Victory seems inevitable indeed.

    Cheers,
    Wolfgang

    http://wolfgang.lonien.de/
    http://blog.thedebianuser.rog/
    http://www.zareason.de/

  • Olaf van der Spek

    > It seems inevitable that as the value of data increases the desire to avoid OSs that prevent people from accessing their own data will also increase, and that will eventually squeeze out most closed software from the market.

    What OSs do that? It sounds like an app issue, not like an OS issue.

  • The key is just don’t whine. If you ever run into a compatibility problem and anyone asks about it, just say “my security software blocked that” and give them a pitying you-are-so-pwned-and-you-don’t-know-it look.

    Here’s my old “quiet inevitability” post from linux-elitists. And another response to Yet Another Monopoly Whine.

    The most positive thing to come out of the Google/Doubleclick deal is that it made MSFT into the whiners. Their mojo is lost, their shark is jumped, it’s just a matter of time until the office furniture auction. Do they have good chairs?

  • Shannon

    I remember when you used to champion the inevitability of OS/2, Russell… ;)

  • etbe

    wjl: One problem with Hollywood is the low average quality of content that they produce. The best quality fictional content that you can display on TV is drama series such as “24″ and “Desperate Housewives” (you may not enjoy those series but I think that the production and plot quality is obviously better than the typical movie).

    You are correct that there are obstacles to HDTV, but as I’ve only just got SD digital TV and I own a heap of regular DVDs that I haven’t watched yet I won’t be facing such problems for a while.

    Olaf: Good point, I was mixing up the OS and application issues a little bit there. Although in the case of DRM the OS is involved in denying users access to their own data.

    Shannon: OS/2 could have beat Windows if IBM had the will. The advantage of free software (as for any loosely coupled organisation) is that there is no-one to wave the white flag. MS has hired a few senior Linux people over the last few years and gained nothing from it.

  • etbe> “One problem with Hollywood is the low average quality of content that they produce.”

    I couldn’t agree more here, Russell. The best things I saw during the last time were “Lost” and “The Wire”. For the latter, you need a “wire”, as it’s neither broadcasted nor planned to be where I live…

    cheers,
    Wolfgang

  • Shannon

    > Shannon: OS/2 could have beat Windows if IBM had the will. The advantage of free software (as for any loosely coupled organisation) is that there is no-one to wave the white flag. MS has hired a few senior Linux people over the last few years and gained nothing from it.

    Sure. Jokes aside, I do agree with your post that MS cannot sustain its monopoly forever, and they are certainly sliding downhill already. Whether or not Linux will prove to be the inevitable successor is debatable, however. At present Linux is the best viable alternative, but the future is by no means predictable and other contenders for a New Monopoly may well arise in the meantime – such as Google for example. A lot of it will have to do with the direction of consumer whims, and where the market decides to go, and which company (or free software movement) happens to get there first and seize the opportunity.

  • etbe

    Shannon: Linux is not a contender for a new monopoly, that is one of it’s strengths. The vast majority of applications run on Linux will run equally well on other versions of Unix (FreeBSD and OpenSolaris as two examples). There is a choice of C libraries. The Debian distribution supports kernels other than the Linux kernel (Hurd and the BSD kernels).

    Apart from all that competition there is also the possibility of forking free software projects.

    Google is not a player in the OS game. They don’t have an OS and there is no evidence to suggest that they could do a better than average job if they decided to create one. Storage of data on the net is not a replacement for a PC, there is a lot of stuff that you don’t want to give to google (EG bedroom photography).

  • craig

    that’s basically been my attitude for over a decade.

    Microsoft doesn’t matter because it is inevitably doomed to irrelevance. everything that they do has been or is in the process of being commoditised. a decade ago it was possible to see that this would happen. now we’re almost in the final stages of the process. MS will drag on for quite a few years yet, but the share market is brutal…once the market realises their dominance is fading, their market cap will vanish rapidly as investors panic and try to unload their stock. this wont kill them, they have too much in cash reserves to be killed overnight, but it will make them vulnerable to asset-stripping vultures.

    MS may, towards the end, attempt a desperate conversion to real open source. if they do that, then they may survive in a much reduced form, but they and their proprietary monopoly will still have lost.

    btw, regarding Olaf’s point. another factor here is that when users begin to expect & demand open access to their data, then the apps that they use to access and manipulate that data become replaceable commodity items, which means that users end up being free to use any compatible application on any OS. Application lock-in and OS lock-in reinforce each other and depend upon each other. break one and they both inevitably fail.

    Open Office is a good example. MS Office, particularly MS Word and Excel, is one of the primary mechanisms that keep people tied to MS Windows (with some grudging, delayed support for Macs). As OO becomes a viable alternative, the lock-in to MSO begins to unravel. This is already beginning to happen.

    this is why it’s important that FOSS apps like OO and Firefox and Thunderbird run on Windows as well as on linux and other free unixes. they are a stepping stone to free operating systems. Once users switch to free apps, their data is no longer a hostage to keep them on proprietary Windows.