Friday, June 25, 2004

My summit report

April 27th, 2004

Following is an artcle I wrote on my overall impressions of the Desktop Linux Summit:

The 2nd annual Desktop Linux Summit was held at the Del Mar Fairgrounds north of San Diego on April 22nd and 23rd. The event was sponsored by Linspire (formerly Lindows) and featured 17 panels on such topics as “International Expansion of Desktop Linux”, “Desktop Linux at Play” and “Multimedia on Desktop Linux”.

Are you sensing the trend here? Every hour of both days one could hear references to “desktop Linux”, and yet, for most of the summit, there never was a concise and consistent definition given to that phrase.

Were we concerning ourselves with Linux on desktop computers, as opposed to laptops and handhelds? That wouldn't seem to be the case, as there was a panel entitled “Get Up and Go”. According to the event program, this panel would address the fact that “Linux is no longer limited to desktop computers:how mobile will it get?” We never did discover exactly how mobile Linux could get, unfortunately. Due to the unexplained absence of Chris Pirillo of Lockergnome fame (whose name was misspelled in the program as “Prillo”; could that be why he decided not to appear?) this panel was reduced to a discussion of Linux pre-installed laptops being sold on college campuses by Morgan Lim.

Were we there to discuss Linux on the home desktop. Not exclusively, as there were several discussions of Linux in the corporate environment. Brenno de Winter (Microcost) moderated the International Expansion panel mentioned before. Panel members spoke about their efforts to convince corporate IT managers to migrate their systems to a consolidated Linux platform. Mike Ferris (Red Hat) expounded on how an integrated, managed desktop Linux environment, like the one provided by Red Hat, will result in better productivity in the workplace. It was revealed that in May, a major unnamed British bank will announce their migration to the Red Hat desktop environment.

Perhaps the use of the term “desktop Linux” was meant to refer to the graphic user interface, slightly different in each version of Linux, and in the opinion of many, not truly user friendly in any of them. If so, coverage of the topic was practically non-existent. The keynote address was to be presented by Jef Raskin, best known as the creator of the Macintosh. Mr. Raskin's presentation was titled, “The Humane Environment”, a discussion of the user interface and it's affect on the overall user experience. However, due to a family emergency, Mr. Raskin was unable to attend. He did provide print-outs of his speech. I would have enjoyed hearing his impromptu remarks on this topic, and no doubt the question/answer period would have been lively. As it was, I had some insightful lunch-time reading, but felt robbed of the opportunity to explore this issue further.

On reflection, perhaps the use of “desktop Linux” was to set a goal; the need to increase the number of Linux distributions on desktops, any and all desktops, from the home to the office. If this is indeed the goal of those who attended the summit, it would seem we still have many hurdles to overcome. Perhaps the best summery of those hurdles was presented by Doc Searls (http://www.searls.com/) in a follow-up to his presentation at last year's Desktop Summit, “Crossing the Chasm”. This year's presentation, entitled “Inside the Tornado”, focused on what Mr. Searls sees as the solution to the many difficulties ahead in the effort to bring Linux to desktops everywhere, the lack of overall ease of use. His analogy was the car rental business. No matter which car you have in mind as you approach the rental counter, you will end up renting a Chevy Cavalier. When Mr. Searls asked for a show of hands to indicate how many owners of a Chevy Cavalier were present, no one raised their hand. He then opined that no one actually owned a Cavalier because it's a boringly basic car; no frills, no fancy controls, just a really fundamental car that anyone can get into and drive. This, he said, is how Linux distributions need to present themselves to computer users for Linux to succeed in the desktop market. It needs to be an operating system you can boot into and use, without months of preparation, training and angst. This sentiment was reflected in the speech that Mr. Raskin intended to present. “How about providing Linux with an interface that is blidingly fast to use yet easy to learn and understand? How about an interface that is tailored to the reality of today's computers and today's users both in the home and in the enterprise?” The bottom line, he insists, is that “Linux needs a user interface that is as good as Linux itself. It cannot be another GUI, they have outlived their usefulness. Remember that the interface IS the product from the user's point of view.”

I came away from this summit with new insights into the difficulties of realizing the goal of a worldwide migration to a Linux desktop, not the least of which is that many countries still lack the basic necessities of modern life, like sufficient food, water and electricity. A village that still generates electricity for lighting with a hand crank generator is not going to be very receptive to a pitch on which operating system they need on their computers. I also learned that many vendors anticipate an increase in the use of web-based applications, even for the home user. Storing office applications on the hard disk, for example, is a waste of space for those who don't use them daily. Applications like office suites, available on the web and scaled to be able to handle a multitude of users at the same time, is seen as the future by many of the vendors present. The summit also gave me an appreciation of the difficulty of convincing corporate IT folks in the United States that migration from a Windows environment, or mixed Windows-Linux environment, to a complete Linux one is in their best interest and cost effective. It seems our European counterparts have an easier time at this due to the lack of a 98% market share giant like Microsoft complicating their efforts.

But I did not come away from this summit with any idea how the average Linux user such as myself could have any impact on the growth of Linux on the desktop, or anywhere else for that matter. I had a great time, and met many interesting people, but didn't learn what I hoped to learn as I prepared to attend the summit. Perhaps just by using Linux everyday, as I do now, by wearing my “Tux” shirt every time I go shopping at the local computer store, and by encouraging my friends and family to adopt Linux I'm doing the most I can to spread the word. Once I become more proficient at Linux, I can contribute my efforts to providing applications, or adding to the kernal. One day perhaps I'll even by able to design my own Linux version, like Texstar (http://www.pclinuxonline.com/index.php) has recently. Meanwhile, I'll be saving my pennies so that I can attend next year's summit, where perhaps I'll not only find out how I can help computer users at every level discover the advantages of Linux, but also find out just what the heck we mean when we say “desktop Linux”. I just hope I don't have to get there in a Chevy Cavalier.
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