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Eric Raymond on desktop Linux


Eric S. Raymond is one of the founders of open-source, and a good deal of Linux’s early popularity came from his non-stop beating of the drum for the free software operating system. Then, a few years ago, he bowed out of the limelight to live his own life.

Recently, however, Raymond shows signs of once more playing a bigger role in open-source circles.

When he appeared at the recent August LinuxWorld Expo in San Francisco, he said several things that some Linux fans will find more than a little controversial. Raymond and I, who go back far too many years together, also talked about the issues in a bit more detail out of the public’s eye.

For example, Raymond believes that within the next two years, the Linux desktop must grab a large share of the desktop market or it will never happen. His logic is that historically users shift operating systems when the hardware platform underneath them fundamentally changes.

That’s what happened when PCs went from CP/M-driven 8-bit computers, like the KayPro and the Osborne, to the MS-DOS 16-bit systems of IBM and Compaq. After that, Windows and Mac OS took over on 32-bit systems from Dell and Apple.

Now, we are moving from the 32-bit world to a 64-bit one. Raymond thinks that if Linux doesn’t grab its share of the desktop now, it will never get the chance.

And, how can the Linux vendors do it? Well, for starters, they must switch over to 64-bit computing as fast as possible.

It will take more than that, though. Linux has been running on 64-bit architectures for years. Indeed, it’s often been the first desktop operating system to appear on 64-bit chips like Intel’s Dual Core Processor and AMD’s Opteron.

Linux, Raymond is sure, also needs, one way or the other, to support proprietary equipment like iPods. “When a twenty-something year old comes up to me and I talk to him about Linux, the first thing he wants to know is: ‘Can I run my iPod on it?'”

Saying, as some do, that Linux should only support non-proprietary, DRM-free (digital-rights-management-free) media formats, like Ogg Vorbis, misses the point. If desktop Linux doesn’t become popular, no one will use it, and the open formats will become mere curiosities.

Thus, Raymond is certain that Linux must, no matter how painful it may be to some open-source purists, support popular proprietary software at least on the level of “user-space” applications. If that means paying licensing fees to the Microsofts of the world so that people can watch Windows media files, then so be it.

Raymond’s position could be described as an open-source version of realpolitik, the political concept that one must deal with issues as they really are, as opposed to how we wish them to be.

So, in the case of iPods, you can object all you like to Apple’s FairPlay DRM, but in the real world, if you want to get people using Linux desktops, you need to enable them to use FairPlay-compliant iPod software.

This is, to say the least, not a popular position with many current Linux users or companies. Of the dozens of popular Linux distirbutions, only Linspire’s Freespire takes this approach. And, this has proven to be a very controversial position.

With Raymond back on the open-source scene, and pushing his own vision of how the Linux desktop should evolve, the arguments are only beginning. Like it or not, the Linux desktop is going to be getting a real kick in the pants.

It will be more than a little interesting to see how this all plays out, especially as Microsoft’s Vista slowly, creakingly makes its way to purported January 2007 launch date.

A version of this story first appeared in DesktopLinux.

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