The End Of The Beginning Or The Beginning Of The End? (Part 1)

1/24/2013 4:21:32 PM

We contemplate the current state of Linux and its possible future

It’s usually around this time of year that we sit back and evaluate the current state of Linux and its possible future. ‘The year of Linux’ is often the title that’s bandied about and the author generally looks at what the various distributions have been up to, what significant changes have been made to the core modules, the kernel and so on. They then go on to announce something in the region of a 1% rise in use worldwide, with emphasis on some of the poorer countries who have adopted open source and free software as a way to cheaply embrace technology.

Description: The End Of The Beginning Or The Beginning Of The End?

The End Of The Beginning Or The Beginning Of The End?

Needless to say, this all fine and well, but an odd sequence of events have occurred this year, which have accumulated into something rather special for Linux. These event have catapulted it from the monitors of the enthusiasts and specialists and into the more generalised computing limelight. At the same time, however, these same events, although individually are certainly newsworthy, could very well have announced the final innings of Linux Armageddon.

The events, throughout the year, have each spelled the rise of Linux in letters writ large, but when looked at more closely and in a little more detail, can make for solemn reading. It all depends on your point of view, but we’ll see what you think at the end of this article.

Steam, Commercialization, Rants, Raves And Bugs Galore

The first of these events is a no-brainer. Of course, every member of the animal kingdom is probably aware of the Gabe Newell’s scathing comments regarding Windows 8 and Microsoft’s caging in of the development processes. “A catastrophe for everyone in PC space” was the now famous comment, closely echoed by the developer Blizzard and Minecraft creator Markus ‘Notch’ Person, who went on to say “I’d rather have Minecraft not run on Windows 8 at all, than to play along.”

Obviously all this stems from the early developmental releases of Windows 8, with what was then known as Metro and the draconian certification scheme that Microsoft applies to games and programs, which dictate conformity to the Microsoft gesture ‘touch language’ and the avoidance of any adult content for a program to appear in the Windows 8 Store. Alongside all this was the 30% cut Microsoft will take from accredited Windows 8 apps and the ‘follow our rules or you won’t be certified approach’ to developers.

The computing world balked at Microsoft and Windows 8. Another solution was desperately needed. Naturally, that solution came in the form of Linux. Suddenly Gabe Newell and others publically fell in love with Linux and started to extoll its many virtues and eventually the talk turned to creating a Linux version of Steam.

Within weeks, there were screenshots released of the FPS game Left 4 Dead 2 running within a window on a PC with Ubuntu installed. Not long after that there came a steady trickle of other screenshots and benchmarks stating that running the same game under Linux came out faster and better than running it on a Windows PC.

Description: The new Microsoft Windows 8 store screenshot.

The new Microsoft Windows 8 store screenshot

The result of all this attention to Linux was apparent in the state of the number of visits to the likes of DistroWatch, which saw a dramatic rise in visits to its main site over the last year. Those people who thought that Linux was purely for uber-geeks were now taking an interest in the operating system. In itself this didn’t do any harm to the popularity of Linux, obviously, but with it comes a dark cloud.

“Distributions differ far too much and the vast majority are so amateurish that it’s laughable”

When Ubuntu 12.10 came out, there were serious misgivings regarding the integrated Amazon search built into the Unity Dash. For many, they felt their OS of choice had sold out to the commercialisation of the internet, as simply typing in ‘webcam’ to access their hardware resulted in them being inundated with other choices from the Amazon store. For them it felt like commerce was watching their every move and force feeding them a diet of unwanted deals and offers. It’s certainly no secret that with each product sold by Amazon via the search Canonical takes a small cut, as stated by Canonical community manager Jono Bacon on his blog. This revenue will be used so “that we can continue to invest into the Ubuntu project to build new features, maintain our infrastructure and improve Ubuntu.” He went on to state that these product suggestions are not advertising and merely “search results that relate directly to the content you are searching for in the Dash.”

To add insult to injury, Canonical recently announced that Ubuntu 13.04 will offer users the opportunity to shop at Amazon directly from the Dash. Canonical’s vice president of online serivces, Cristian Parrino, recently mentioned on the Canonical blog that the new Instant Purchasing feature will allow the user “to purchase music or apps directly from the Dash, without opening a browser or a separate client.” While this may sound like an interesting addition to the already well laid-out Ubuntu, it also reeks of commercialised shenanigans.

Richard Stallman, the father of the GNU project and founder of the Free Software Foundation, recently vented his wrath at Canonical’s Amazon joining by stating on his blog, “One of the major advantages of free software is that the community protects users from malicious software. Now Ubuntu GNU/Linux has become a counterexample. What should we do?”

The crux of the matter here is that Stallman insists that going to bed with Amazon is essentially wrong, as per his ‘Reasons not to buy from Amazon’ entry, which you can view at To him, this behaviour constitutes spying and is therefore ultimately spyware. Although Canonical has already stated that any money made from the joint Amazon purchasing scheme will go back into Ubuntu’s development, Stallman goes onto say, “It behooves us to give Canonical whatever rebuff is needed to make it stop this. Any excuse Canonical offers is inadequate; even if it used all the money it gets from Amazon to develop free software, that can hardly overcome what free software will lose if it ceases to offer an effective way to avoid abuse of the users.”

Description: Steam on Linux installs and runs reasonably well for a beta

Steam on Linux installs and runs reasonably well for a beta

Interestingly, Bacon argued back the same day that Stallman was in fact spreading FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt): “This is FUD. When controversies such as this kick off from time to time about Canonical and/or Ubuntu, my approach has never been to try to convince our critics that they are wrong. My goal is not to turn the unbelievers into worshippers at the church of Ubuntu.” He did place on the top of this post that this is a personal post and not necessarily the views of Canonical, so at least we can forgive him for referring to Ubuntu as a religion!

Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu, defended the decision to include the Amazon searches in the Dash on his blog, Here Be Dragons. The basis of the post was one of trust: you have to trust Canonical as much as you would trust any other operating system or keeper of your data. As he so eloquently put it, “We are not telling Amazon what you are searching for. Your anonymity is preserved because we handle the query on your behalf. Don’t trust us? Erm, we have root. You do trust us with your data already. You trust us not to screw up on your machine with every update. You trust Debian and you trust a large swathe of the open-source community. And, most importantly, you trust us to address it when, being human, we err.”

“2013 looks as if it might be fraught with glitches, bugs and serious lapses”

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