The comedian Steven Wright reported dreaming that everything he owned was stolen and replaced with an exact duplicate.
If you replace Windows with Linux as your organization’s preferred desktop operating system (last week’s column recommended that you carefully assess this option) your end-users just might feel like they’re trapped in Steven Wright’s dream, except the duplicates won’t be exact, and perhaps not quite as good, either.
The conundrum of Linux is that for the most part it’s a me-too operating system. Innovation happens elsewhere â€“ on Windows and the Macintosh for desktop applications and OS enhancements; on Netware, Windows NT/2000, or a commercial Unix for servers â€“ and someone says, “Hey, I can do that on Linux!” Then, through a quasi-Darwinian process, the open-source community quickly refines and debugs those applications and platform extensions it finds useful.
But can the open-source license model support true innovation, or is mimicry the best it can do? We don’t really know.
So long as Linux fails to gain dominant marketshare, this question is unimportant. But imagine for a moment that it succeeds. What then?
One school of thought says the innovative energy now directed at the Windows platform would switch to Linux, following the marketplace wherever it leads. This is a reasonable expectation for a free-market economy.
The distance from reasonable expectation to reality, however, can be pretty long, and another school of thought holds that in a mature marketplace like the personal computer, the open-source model doesn’t promise enough profit to support the risk of investing in truly innovative concepts. Of course, just because Linux is an open-source OS doesn’t mean applications that run on Linux have to be open source as well, but once you start buying non-open-source software for Linux you’re back where you started: MS Office XP for Linux, if it existed, would have licensing terms just as onerous and risky as does MS Office XP for Windows (and presumably for Macintosh).
When Adam Smith first wrote about market-based economics we were a nation of merchants and farmers. Affluence was the most anyone aspired to â€“ the establishment of a wealth-based aristocracy was a century in the future.
The open-source movement is, in a sense, a return to this merchant-based economy (not a communistic plot, as its extreme detractors claim). The open (source) question is whether, in the 21st century, affluence is enough anymore.