Laugh (or cry) if you want. But with each successive release of Android, and with each new iteration of Chrome -- soon to be ChromeOS -- it's looking more and more like Linux's future as any kind of mainstream product is in Google's hands. There's a lesson here.
An article at PC World took this stance, firing a salvo of controversy right from the start:
I used to think Ubuntu was destined to lead Linux into the mainstream, but now it's looking much more like Google--not Canonical--will be the first Linux vendor to truly challenge Microsoft.
Why not Canonical? Because while their server offerings have been adventurous and evolutionary -- hey, run your own cloud! neat idea! -- the end-user product has been little more than a recapitulation of all the standard Linux-on-the-desktop maneuvers.
The other problem is the end goal. The "Ubuntu bug #1 strategy" -- replace Windows with Ubuntu on the desktop -- has run its course. It's the wrong goal, adopted for the wrong reasons. It's not enough to simply build free alternatives to everything that already exists. An alternative has to be arguably superior in every way, and a compelling enough use case that people will gladly put up with the pain of switching. The only people doing this successfully right now with the the desktop are the folks at Apple, and they charge plenty for the privilege of entering their (very nicely manicured) walled garden.
Google, with Android and the Chrome product lineup, have used different approach. Don't force everyone to ditch what they already know and love. Instead, augment it in a sidelong, complementary way. It's easier to get people to switch phones than desktop systems, for any number of reasons -- the pricing structures, the way applications are delivered and consumed, the scope of the impact, and so on. Complement what people have for long enough and eventually you give them a possible reason to embrace the New Thing completely, when it becomes possible for them to do so.
Thing is, Google's successes with Linux will mean more for Google than it ever will for Linux. And that ticks people off.
For starters, it means another way in which doesn't get to become a brand. "Android" and "Powered by Google" are the buzzwords here, not "Linux" (as per the posters I saw the other month in the city). Remember "Invisible Linux?" Here it is.
It also means that Google is shunning the conventional Linux desktop stack and userland tools to make this happen, something which has inspired no small amount of bitterness from existing Linux developers. Instead of, say contributing back to the X stack or GNOME, Google has decided to roll their own stack for such things. When people express annoyance and disgust at this, I can only reply: where are they obliged to use tools that might not serve their needs? If Linux is raw material to be shaped by its developers -- and I believe that has always been the case -- and Google's molding it into something that people are actually willing to pay for in the form of devices that run it, how is that not a credit to Linux? Especially in the eyes of people who never open an IDE?
What upsets a great many people, I think, is how all this is being done by a company whose main product is not open source software. In fact, the vast majority of what Google does and is, is proprietary -- their search engine, their online apps (just try and find the source code for Google Docs), etc.
Fact is, Linux's future may well depend on companies like this. The most fascinating and truly useful Linux products will not come from companies whose primary missions are identified with Linux itself. Google elected not to become a runner in the let's-build-a-distro rat race, to look at Linux and ask, what could this do for us?, and build something new.
Love it or hate it, you can't ignore it. You can stamp your feet and be jealous -- or you can take a cue from that and try something different. Stop thinking of end-user Linux as something that always has to come in the form of a distro with KDE/GNOME or OpenOffice/AbiWord or ... etc., etc. Down that road lies stagnation.
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