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Saturday, 17 October 2009 13:14

Why more people don't use GNU/Linux: it's the apps, stupid

If one were to pose the question why don't more people use GNU/Linux, one would probably get as many answers as people who are asked the question.

Some would say this, some would say that. Often, however, people tend to forget that right from the start of the personal computer industry, just one thing has driven adoption - killer applications.

Yes, there are illegal and unfair methods used to gain market share for operating systems but, to a large extent, killer applications are what count.

In its early days, the Mac was a massive hit because of VisiCalc, the original spreadsheet developed by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. And when Windows got something of an equivalent in Lotus 1-2-3, use of the PC increased by leaps and bounds. It made Lotus boss Mitch Kapor very rich too.

Nowadays, the chances of one's first exposure to computing being on a Windows computer are close to 100 percent. Your parents may be GNU/Linux or Mac users, but at school the first computer one is exposed is always running Windows.

Thus, it is but natural that one's first exposure to applications are on this platform too. And once one uses Windows applications, if one were to use an alternative platform, one would tend to make comparisons.

And finally, at the stage when a computer user can exercise choice with regard to applications - whether it be buying or copying from a friend or off the internet - then he or she would tend to pick applications with which they are comfortable, applications that make them productive no matter what the task.

iTunes has gained its massive following because it is an easy-to-use, well-designed sleek application. It runs on the two main operating systems.

Forget the instability of an operating system, the viruses, malware, scumware and adware; a race that can put up with smoke from a little white tube that reaches temperatures of as much as 950 degrees centigrade at the tip during inhalation can put up with all those inconveniences and much more.

My son recently upgraded his MacBook to Snow Leopard; there is an annoying bug in the upgrade that forces him to refresh his wireless connection every hour or so. But I've never seen him use any other computer in the house - and we have one Windows PC, two MacBooks and three Linux PCs. He's familiar with all three platforms but he is willing to put up with the annoyance of reconnecting every now and then as long as it's on the Mac.

People are willing to pay to get Windows re-installed, use Windows which has so much malware that it runs like thick treacle or molten tar, and even lose the occasional dollar from their online bank accounts. Once they're used to applications on a platform, as Robert X. Cringely once said, it would take an act of God or the Internal Revenue Service (or its equivalent, depending on your country of residence) to make the average human switch.


So, just what are these applications? Let me make it clear that in some cases, the free application, the one which you can get source for if you're so inclined, is often the better one. In such cases,  it tends to show in usage.

Take the case of Firefox. It has gained an amazing number of users simply because it is a better browser. It had tabs much long before the makers of the common alternative, Internet Explorer, even realised that such a thing existed. It is much faster.

And it boasts such a wonderful array of add-ons due to its open source nature that you can dream of having some kind of functionality today and actually have it in place the next day.

Firefox has some terrible attributes too - it is a memory hog, tends to crash at times, and is often susceptible to malware that is spread via websites, same as Internet Explorer. But as I said before, users don't give a rat's about this. They want speed, they want features, and if those two factors suit, then the other downsides don't matter.

People use it on Windows, they use it on the Mac, they use it on Linux. It is not the best browser available. Opera, a proprietary application, is much better and I know of at least one veteran GNU/Linux user - the head of open source company CyberSource, Con Zymaris - who uses, and swears by, it. Safari, Apple's creation, looks more elegant than Firefox by miles, and is available for Windows too. But its userbase isn't anything close to that of Firefox.

Making open source applications available for Windows has one downside - there is no chance that anyone is going to switch to GNU/Linux to use those applications. Microsoft loves it too - just as long as the open source app does not compete with its cash cow, Office.

When it comes to HTML editors on GNU/Linux, there used to be two decent choices: BlueFish and Quanta Plus. The former is still around but after the arrival of KDE4, there is no Quanta Plus - yet. I hear that one is in the works.

At work, I use a free HTML editor called Arachnophilia - and neither Quanta nor Bluefish can hold a candle to it. Arachnophilia is free for use but there is no source available; the older version, which is no longer supported, is written in C, is light and intelligently crafted. There is a newer version written in Java which can be run on Linux but it is much slower and lacks many of the killer features which made its earlier avatar my favourite HTML editor.

I've passed it on to dozens of Windows users and heard nothing but thanks. And, lest one leap to conclusions, it has no GUI for writing mark-up, it has only source input, but it is very powerful and has many wizards to reduce the drudge aspect of working with mark-up.

There's one difference between me and the average user - I'm prepared to give up something in order to benefit in some better way. Running GNU/Linux is advantageous to me in so many ways that I'm prepared to put up with the inferior BlueFish when I need to do some work with HTML at home.

In my case it's Arachnophilia, but in the case of many others the killer HTMl editor may be HomeSite or some other commercial editor that is used by professional web-page creators. That killer application matters to them, to the extent that an inferior platform is fine.


A second case is that of Adobe Photoshop, a product from a company founded by one of the truly great programmers of our time, John Warnock. It is the application for manipulating graphics, to the extent that it has also become a verb. When using GNU/Linux, the alternative on offer is the GIMP.

Now I'm not knocking the GIMP - it has amazing capabilities and more than suffices for me. But compared to Photoshop, it is nothing but a poor cousin. For a professional graphics person, it is a no-contest, Photoshop, despite its huge cost, wins every time.

When it comes to GUI mail user agents, there aren't too many that can beat the free (but not open source) Pegasus Mail. This, again, is a Windows-only application. Written by an extremely intelligent New Zealander, David Harris, Pegasus beats the hell out of Outlook and all its various incarnations. Feature for feature, it just overwhelms every one of its competitors - it's well-designed and intuitive and powerful.

It used to be one of the must-use applications for me, but some years ago I moved to the command-line MUA, Mutt. After using Mutt, the use of any other MUA is something like drinking weak tea. No GUI mail user agent comes even close.

There are lots of other areas where Windows applications are that much easier to use and work without problems compared to GNU/Linux. There are areas like multimedia where GNU/Linux users are often disadvantaged because of proprietary codecs - but the average user really doesn't give a damn about things being proprietary or not.

Even when it comes to word-processing suites, Microsoft Office works much better on Windows than does - simply because the programmers at Redmond have access to all the Windows source code and those outside have to make do with the limited information provided to them by Microsoft.

In my estimate, is a perfectly adequate office suite - but then try telling that to all the office workers who love Office like they do their own children and are so familiar with it than even an upgrade to a new version results in protests.

And changing the app? Forbid the thought. A physiotherapist I know recently switched to due to the outrageous cost of an Office licence; when I visited him recently, his office assistant was doing everything but throwing her mouse at the screen while trying to do her work using (I showed her a few things to calm her down.)


Take the case of Skype, which is based on a proprietary protocol but provides versions for Windows, the Mac and Linux. The functionality available on Windows far outweighs that available for Linux; it is a killer app on Windows but hardly so on Linux.

It is used by businesses worldwide to reduce communications costs and is a handy instant messaging tool as well. The software is free. Having tested out the Windows version and being a user of the Linux version, I can well see why nobody would even think of Linux where this app is concerned.

On the other hand, there are plenty of areas where GNU/Linux shines. Take the case of k3b, a CD/DVD writing application created by Sebastian Trueg and part of the KDE desktop environment. I have tested more than a dozen similar applications to try and provide my wife, a Windows user, with a decent application for this task but, believe me, nothing can beat k3b.

There are times when like applications on the Mac cannot do a certain task - and k3b comes up with the goods. When you can outdo multimedia apps on the Mac, then one needs to sit up and take notice.

No amount of praise is too much for this truly great piece of work. And, as is often the case, the  creator and main developer is a modest man who refuses publicity.

But then you wouldn't find people wanting to switch platforms because of an application like k3b. People are willing to put up with much less capable apps in this area because they have killer apps for other tasks which are much more mainstream.

One cannot blame the developers of applications that run on GNU/Linux for this situation. Developers often create applications to scratch their own itches and are not bothered whether others use them or not. Those of us who have the opportunity to use their applications should only be grateful that we are saved the cost of buying a proprietary application and also that we have an application at all.

Lest we forget, users are not the most patient of people. They want everything yesterday.

When I bought my last PC, a single-core AMD64 box three and a half years ago, there was no Flash plugin for the 64-bit port of Debian (or any 64-bit distribution for that matter). It didn't bother me. A year or so ago, a version was released. A free approximation of Flash, called Gnash, also came into the software repositories, But, even if either had not come along, it wouldn't have caused me to pull my hair out.

Would the average user put up with not having Flash? No, the average user wants the cake, he or she wants to eat it and he or she wants to eat the plate as well. And they will be moved only by killer apps. That's how it is and that's how it will be for the foreseeable future.


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.



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