I had a conversation with a journalist last night (who shall remain nameless. Ah, what the heck? It was with Ellen Cresswell). We were talking about a piece she had written, quoting Gartner's Research about yadda, yadda, yadda and Linux not being ready for the desktop.
At the end of the conversation, she laughed at me (and other GNU/Linux users) for getting worked up over Linux -- she said somewhat dismissively that Linux is "just an operating system." And I was kind of stunned. I couldn't think of anyway of anything to say in response. On those terms, sure ... Linux is probably not a serious contender in the desktop arena.
But that's not what flabbergasted me. It was the statement that Linux was "just another operating system." I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but at that moment, I couldn't articulate why I thought she was wrong.
I don't believe that GNU/Linux is 'just another operating system'. And to know why, you have to know why the GNU project was founded.
Richard Stallman started the Free Software Foundation because he couldn't get the hardware specifications for a printer while he was at the Massachusetts's Institute of Technology. He knew someone that had the specifications he needed, but that person had promised not to let Richard, nor anyone else for that matter, see them.
For Richard, it was a moral issue. Fundamentally, it's wrong to prevent people from sharing with each other. He felt so strongly about it that he began the GNU project (GNU's not Unix). Richard began writing software, and giving it away, simply because he believed that access to good software should be a fundamental right of anyone with access to a computer. To achieve that, he created the GNU Public License, which essentially states that you are free to change, modify and distribute a program, so long as you don't deprive other people of those same freedoms.
He set out to write a Unix-like operating system from scratch. Think about that for a moment -- the vendors began saying that he wasn't allowed to share their work with his partners and colleagues, the norm for the time, so he decided that he would create his own operating system. And he has had incredible success, and still to this day the GNU system is growing stronger.
GNU/Linux is about more than just an operating system, and about more than just fine-grained spin-locks in the kernel. It's about having the freedom to share with other people. And sure, that may sound trivial if you're a journalist and you have Microsoft buying you drinks and gives you free copies of whatever software you may want, but to me, the freedom to borrow a CD off a friend is very significant. I also take the freedom to share programs with other people seriously as well. I enjoy loaning people CD's of GNU/Linux and helping them install it. The icing on the cake is that this operating system, which you can download off the Internet, is really, really good.
I was recently asked to review the beta version of Corel's GNU/Linux distribution for PC World. I don't know if you've heard or not, but they've released a limited number of beta copies under a non-disclosure agreement. Essentially they say that you're not allowed to give anyone else a copy of the software. To be honest, I don't really think it's that big of a deal, but for me personally, the freedom to share is one of the most significant aspects of the GNU/Linux operating system. I'm not going to sign their beta-program license, and I will not sign away my freedoms. I don't agree, and I don't accept. My apologies to both PC World and Richard Stallman for initially agreeing to write the review.
I don't agree with Ellen that GNU/Linux is "just another operating system". It's about something more. I'm smart enough to know that this sounds a bit foreign to most people, and it will probably sound naive, but what makes GNU/Linux different is that it is based on the simple philosophy that people should be allowed to share with one another.
And to anyone who thinks that being able to share with one another is not important, or that it's naive, I feel sorry for you. And, I feel sorry for the Gartner Group, who doesn't realise that, either. If you want a relevant statistic, how's this: In 1999, the percentage of people who were able share 'enterprise-ready' or 'desktop-ready' software with their friends was, if not zero, a negligible amount. Any guess on my predictions for the same statistic in 2000?
You know what the problem with GNU/Linux is? It's really good. It's good enough to be compared, quite favourably, with Windows, and it's good enough to be compared with commercial Unixes. And there are people who take so much pride in their creation that they want GNU/Linux to succeed in the enterprise and on the desktop as well. And I applaud them for that. However, the fact that Windows is easier to use, or that Solaris has a better SMP kernel right now, doesn't phase me. For me, the freedom to share the software is far more substantial -- fundamental -- than any Gartner Group report, any Mindcraft benchmark, and any article written by any journalist.