From Visual Developer Magazine #54, March/April 1999


King of the Lusers



Because Linux developers don't work for money, they turn their attention to those parts of the system that interest them-and those parts of the system run heavily toward servers, the network layer, and the kernel.

I get flamed regularly for "flaming" Linux, as though any criticism of Linux necessarily wells from a desire to see Microsoft domination of the world. This is as silly as a lot of things in the Net culture, and I would shrug it off without comment except that much is at stake here: If those in control of Linux don't receive critiques gracefully and respond to them intelligently, Linux will fail. In fact, it's Linux's uncanny ability to evolve in a quality direction at near lightspeed that has gotten it where it is. Most of my criticisms involve a blind spot that the Linux powers acknowledge in only the most roundabout way: Client machinery.

Linux is kicking serious ass in server territory, and I'm rooting for it. But destiny is written on client desktops, and without client desktops I see a future with Linux's nose up against a wall.

Linux video is chaos, and nobody seems particularly concerned about it. There is no hardware abstraction mechanism for Linux graphics, and thus it's nearly impossible for graphics board manufacturers to create video drivers for it—there's no driver architecture to write to. If you're trying to install Linux for an arbitrary video board, you have to know an extraordinary amount of detail about the video board, sometimes to such absurd lengths as video timings. We had this problem at our office recently—and eventually we just gave up. Linux failed. I'm only willing to throw so many man-hours at something that should be plug-n-play.

If we can rip anticompetitive language out of Microsoft's licensing agreements that prevents box manufacturers from shipping competing OSes (which is the only settlement we really need in the DOJ case, and the one thing that almost never comes up for discussion) this problem can be circumvented. The box manufacturers can do all the configuration necessary.

A far worse problem is the Linux psychology, inherited intact from the Unix world, that client stuff isn't all that important, and if the "back end" is good enough, the client side will follow along. What Linux needs more than anything else is a standard client desktop that delivers snappy performance, ease of use, and longevity. The time will come soon when every Unix wizard on Earth is running Linux, but that's probably no more than ten or twelve million people. That's not enough. Linux needs a quarter billion users to stand on Microsoft's chest, and that's more Unix wizards than are ever likely to be born.

In Unix hacker-talk, a "luser" is a person who uses a computer without loving it, strictly because the work has to be done and the machine is the only way to do it. Lusers are noncombatants in the OS wars and don't much care what OS owns the machine, as long as they can figure out how to use it. 90% of all computer users are, by this definition, lusers, and Microsoft knows that they're where the money is.

Unfortunately, the lusers are where the mindshare is too, and without them Linux will fail. Because Linux developers don't work for money, they turn their attention to those parts of the system that interest them—and for whatever reason, those parts of the system run heavily toward servers, the network layer, and the kernel.

This is a dead end. What we really need is for someone of importance in the Linux community to stand up and declare himself the King of the Lusers. He doesn't need to be a luser (kings are, after all, of elite blood) but he needs to understand that the client desktop is the critical path to any hope of parity with (much less triumph over) Microsoft. He needs to thunk a very big fist on the table and say, It's time to create a workable video abstraction layer and standard desktop UI, with one API for application developers to write to.

Margins in the x86 box industry are razor thin. In one swipe, Linux could hand Microsoft's share of the price tag back to the box vendors—who would gleefully accept it, given a standard graphical luser desktop.

It's that simple, guys. Who will dare to become the King of the Lusers?