Monday, August 08, 2011

Rise of Consumer Computing and Fall of the OS

Like it or not, Linux as we know is changing. With the rise of the IPad, the face or the interaction between a user and their computer has changed significantly. The interface is simpler, touch interaction, full screen and instant-on. Interface between man and their machines has always been evolving. This most recent wave of change is significant in relation to Linux because it sees the goal of getting Linux everywhere being realized but at the cost of the Linux desktop. For years the battleground over Linux has stalled when it comes to MSOffice. The central role it places at the office, makes it a key target of any effort to implement Linux on the desktop. While OpenOffice is a choice, I have seen many efforts fail because OpenOffice was either too buggy or too MSOffice95. The countering point to this was the rallying cry of "focus on what you want to do, not the applications". To make it more palatable at the workplace, it was modified to "focus on producing work, not the tools". Even though users most of the times use the computer in the office as a super-typewriter, that is not using the majority of the functions in MSOffice, they still demand it to be installed, if anything else, for familiarity. That coupled with office politics and brand-consciousness, together with OpenOffice's own failings noted previously, halted most conversion efforts. Without weaning users off MSOffice, the Linux desktop efforts have either forced to take the "tech-users only" road or give business to Codeweavers for their brilliant CrossOver Office. This has been made worse by offices switching to web-based office systems such as Google Apps. MSOffice's resource appetite has driven users to these types of solutions, bypassing OpenOffice, the junction to desktop Linux.
I believe fundamentally that the relationship between the majority of users and their computers have changed. I am not old enough to be from the generation that had to build their first computers from kits but I have built and restored machine of that age to appreciate what personal computing might have been then. If you trace the evolution of computers in the home, you could draw a line from the first home computers for hobbyists to the personal home computers to the home office computers and laptops to the iPads and tablets (and in cases, smartphones too). In each step of this evolution, the user is still someone who wants to use a computer at home. But that person is no longer the tinkerer of yesteryear. They are not interested in how the computer works. That person now just uses the computer at home without even thinking. They don't think about using the computer, they think in terms of reading e-mail, using facebook and watching YouTube. Call it consumer computing. And if the past is any indication, those tools and concepts will start appearing at offices as users demand tools that are familiar to them to be productive.
In short, the place of the OS in our conscious thinking of computers is almost gone. Think about it. Windows was about hiding the command line. X Windows, KDE, Gnome were about that too. Browsers, HTML, Java and Flash gave us information and interaction within a window, obscuring the OS further. Now not only we don't see the window, we don't even see the OS. It all falls away as we focus on using the computer for whatever we want to use it for.
Will the choice of OS no longer be relevant? Will that work in Linux's favor? I think yes and yes. Look at the Linux underneath Android. It touts it's Linux connection to get the tech guys buy-in but soon enough it wouldn't matter and Google won't mention it anymore. IPad users don't care it runs IOS. They care that it runs.
When it come to running stable for longer, Linux is already there. There is an opportunity here. The 'fall' of the OS's importance is an opportunity for Consumer Computing solutions running Linux. Key to any success is apps and Linux has quality apps in spades. Nokia (soon to be MSNokia) bailed on MeeGo but don't count it out on tablets yet. Intel is hungry for the tablet market and may pull off another netbook-like push with tablet reference machines running MeeGo (followed by hordes of clones from China). Ubuntu is there with it's Unity interface. All it needs is compatible hardware. Not to mention other efforts to make Linux work on the multi-touch interface. Each effort represents potentially more Linux everywhere.

Why is this important to Linux desktop users? The success of Linux anywhere means more people with Linux skills having jobs. More support jobs for Linux-related software will be created. More hardware manufacturers will think of Linux compatibility in building their wares. More people who feel motivated to build applications for Linux because it is getting to be everywhere. Means more years of Desktop Linux for those of us who love it for what it is.

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