My good friend and regular columnist Maggie Biggs posed an interesting question: what will Linux look like in five years? I have a simple answer: it won't look like anything. In fact, with any luck Linux should disappear almost entirely within five years.
I confess my answer is half prediction and half wishful thinking. I would like to see Linux disappear, especially from the desktop. No, I haven't torn up my Linux fan club card, and I'm not saying that I don't expect people to run Linux on the desktop. Quite the contrary, I believe Linux eventually will displace Windows on the desktop. I just think that, when that happens most users shouldn't have to know they're using Linux.
Let's face it: a huge number of computer users don't know why they are buying the latest and greatest versions of Windows. They just do it because it's the latest and greatest. When it comes right down to what they use the computer for, the operating system only gets in their way. They don't want to be computer users. They want to correspond with business associates and friends via e-mail. They want to browse the Web. They want to play games. They want to write documents or operate vertical applications. But they don't want to do all the tedious maintenance a computer requires. Nor should they have to. Computers are computers, after all. They're supposed to automate the tedious tasks. And there's no reason why they can't.
That's one of the biggest problems with Windows. After all of Microsoft's supposed innovation, Windows still unnecessarily exposes people to the guts of their computer. One of the biggest improvements to Windows in recent times was the creation of the My Documents folder that sits on the desktop. It created an opportunity for users to save and find documents without having to deal with disk drives and directories. It turned out to be a wasted opportunity, but that's another column. In the meantime, check out the Windows Yeah Write word processor at www.wordplace.com if you want to see document storage done right. The concept of saving and retrieving files is almost totally transparent to the end user. I'd give my eyeteeth to see Yeah Write ported to Linux.
So why should Linux displace Windows? On the surface, it doesn't look like Linux developers are addressing this kind of problem. The two most visible desktop interfaces, Gnome and KDE (K Desktop Environment) are just as complicated as Windows, if not more so.
But then I'd turn your attention back to Tivo, a Linux-based television set-top box that I've raved about before (www.tivo.com). Tivo has an attractive user interface that takes just moments to learn. People have no idea how close they are to running a typical Linux desktop computer when they use their Tivo.
The folks at Tivo are under no pressure to upgrade their version of Linux to the latest kernel and put the 2.4 stamp on their boxes. These guys can rip out of Linux whatever they don't need and add whatever they want; they don't need anyone's permission to do either. Linux really is the ideal appliance operating system.
Add to this equation the fact that the open-source KOffice productivity suite is maturing quickly and that Sun is about to release StarOffice under the GNU General Public Licence. Soon, developers will have all the tools they need to create desktop productivity appliances with foolproof user interfaces that hide the complexity of the operating system. As with Linux, they can mix and match whatever they want from the available Windows managers, productivity applications, and the like. They can rip out what they don't want and add what they need. And they don't need anyone's permission to do so.
The time is ripe to turn out a brilliant productivity appliance that is not driven by Microsoft's Windows and Office upgrade cycle, but one that probably runs Linux but isn't marketed based on the fact that it runs Linux. All it takes is one smart company to see the opportunity and grab it. Someone is bound to answer the call.
So what will Linux look like in five years? It'll continue to run the Web. It'll continue to grow in the middle tier. It will continue to displace Windows departmental servers. And it should displace most Windows desktops with something normal people can use but don't have to manage. But most people who don't read magazines such as Computerworld won't know that, nor should they.l Nick Petreley is the founding editor of LinuxWorld (www.linuxworld.com) and works for Caldera Systems. Send comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com* Maggie Biggs is a regular columnist and director of the test centre for sister publication Infoworld