I have an addiction: installing Linux. I’ve done it so many times I can set up any distribution on any desktop, laptop, or server with my eyes closed.
I use, administer, and develop for Linux every day. I first was introduced to it in 1997 and have used it professionally since. It’s a great system full of advantages over Windows and I highly recommend it in the server space.
But the desktop landscape is an entirely different beast–one which all distributions of Linux have failed to capture any significant market share. When Microsoft Windows and Apple have taken their tumbles, such as the failed rollout of Windows Vista, the botched Windows 8 interface, the sunset of Windows XP support, and the poorly received and performing Apple keyboard and touch bar design. All of these incidents increased interest in Linux, encouraging power users to seek viable alternatives.
But nothing stuck. Yes, there have been some converts to Linux, but not in any significant numbers. In fact, PC market share has been declining, largely in favor of phones and tablets. The numbers do not suggest those still using computers are flocking to Linux.
Privacy advocates have long advocated using Linux, and for good reason. Windows 10 is a surveillance nightmare and Linux provides real choice to users seeking to keep their information private. I think privacy is the number one reason to use Linux, and open source / free software in general. But even despite widespread knowledge of mass surveillance, it hasn’t been enough to make Linux a staple on the desktop.
There are lots of reasons for this, but I think the biggest is the lack of ecosystem surrounding Linux. Granted, that’s one of it’s most appealing factors. Rather than having corporate choices shoved down your throat, you pick and choose the parts you want to make up your computing environment. But this software ecosystem, and the features that are misused by corporations and governments alike, are they very things that make our lives convenient.
Siri, Cortana, and Google use the details in your email, your location, along with your previously collected preferences and interests to tailor convenient solutions for you. It’s not just marketing fluff. These ecosystems work to try to figure out what you want before you even know you want it.
I wish these ecosystems used this tremendous power for good and not evil. Granted, most of the “evil” we see in this software really is aimed at making a better product, but we can’t know the full extent of data collected and it’s use, and misuse, because the ecosystems are closed source. We can’t peek into Google’s algorithms or Microsoft’s telemetry to see what is being collected by us. We can only hope for a glimpse at what they want us to see.
For all its evils, it’s this ecosystem, even if partially fragmented between Microsoft, Google, and Apple (with an unhealthy splash of Amazon), that keeps me coming back to Windows. It lets me get my work done, both technical and writing, watch any streaming service I like, play my games, run my Adobe products, and run any piece of software I could ever imagine. It’s comfortable, familiar, and easy.
Of course, there’s a really good argument against giving into that kind of corporate surveillance. But as humans we are called upon to navigate a host of uncomfortable and difficult choices, sometimes where there are no good options. I feel like computing has become one of these situations. As a good friend of mine says–we must embrace the suck.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Companies could change, and computing could once again be more private. But the genie is out of the bottle and consumers have demanded more features and integration at the cost of privacy. The battle is over, and Linux keeps fighting it. I admire that. I think all of us in technology do.
But that war is over. The most we can hope for now is to mitigate the damage caused by overreaching surveillance. We are indeed in a brave new world, and big brother is watching. I use both references because both Huxley and Orwell were right.
We can fight back and change this digital dystopia, but I’m not sure we’re going to do it with Linux. Decentralization and blockchain technology might be the cure for this disease. But for now, the matrix is far too convenient. I like my grocery pickup, personal cloud-based assistant, and streaming entertainment services.
It seems they have won me over with bread and circuses.