Desktop Dreams in the Wake of MandrakeSoft's Bankruptcy

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 11:14 PM
Linux's dreams for the desktop died today with Mandrake's bankruptcy filling. Yes, it was a worthy cause, and we fought hard, but now it is time to admit it -- it is over. No more. Finished. Done. Kaput. GNU/Linux's true place is on the server, and its time for everyone to recognize that. Is everyone with me? Yeah, right. Just to be clear, I don't agree with a single word I just said, but that statement is an exclusive first look at what all of the GNU/Linux desktop critics will start crying out once again. The reason I can say this with such certainty is that this has happened before. Other great GNU/Linux companies have come and gone, and each time the Linux desktop "dies." Somehow, mysteriously enough -- and if anyone can explain this to me, please do -- this dead desktop seems to be able to keep dying and dying and dying. It's almost like the Energizer Bunny, or if it isn't, the critics most certainly are.

It has been nearly two years since the demise of venture capitalists' darling Eazel, a company that burned through numerous millions of dollars of cash to leave behind... a file manager. I really wasn't impressed at the time, and I'm still not impressed. Eazel, in reality, did very little for the overall scheme of things, but as soon as it went under, the "Linux is for servers only" people started beating their drums of doom and gloom. At the time I took a stand against this thinking that one company -- particularly an insignificant one -- was going to single handedly kill off the GNU/Linux desktop.

The critics eventually calmed down, but then Dell decided to move out of the alternative OS desktop business, and all of a sudden the "dead" desktop had just died again. Now why anyone would take these folks seriously the second time around is beyond me, but people did and everyone had to endure the naysayers' awful end-of-the-desktop predictions again. By now, the Linux desktop has gone through more than a cat's quota of deaths, at least if we are to believe the critics.

You can take this article as your warning that these fellows will certainly be starting up again any time now. This time they do have a better case, the largest purveyor of desktop Linux has just declared bankruptcy, but they will still be as wrong as ever. How can I be so sure? Let us consider several of the myths that will surely circulate once again.

Myth #1: GNU/Linux was Never Intended for Desktop Usage
I've heard this one cited over and over again, and the sad thing is, that it shows that most people don't even spend enough time to research why GNU/Linux was created before they claim what it was intended for. Those that do a little research (very little, actually) will realize that Linus Torvalds, the College Student of 1990, was hardly designing an operating system for his Fortune 500 company's enterprise servers. Rather, Mr. Torvalds started GNU/Linux for his desktop computer.

One could argue that this changed in the 12 years since the advent of the Linux kernel, but even if we decide that GNU/Linux -- or, perhaps more broadly, UNIX -- was never intended for the desktop, the argument falls apart. First, the person who claims that might want to fly to Cupertino, CA as I'm sure Apple Computer's engineers would love to know that their UNIX-based Mac OS X isn't meant for desktops. They'd better start recalling all of those desktops they sold with it.

All right, so Apple is an exception, a critic might argue. Well let me ask this, then: what makes it an exception? Surely not Aqua, as a nicely equipped KGX (KDE/GNU/linuX) system is very similar in the overall "layout" of the system. Granted, Aqua might have some fancy bells and whistles, but at its core, it is a "wrapper" around a UNIX kernel just like X11 and your favorite desktop is around Linux.

It should also be said that intended use never stopped Microsoft from winning market share. Is anyone really going to argue that DOS was originally intended to power a GUI desktop? Or what about Windows XP? Is the fact that its NT kernel is the "heart" of most Windows servers an indication that XP isn't intended to be a desktop operating system either? I sincerely doubt anyone is going to suggest that, and any pundit that did would probably end up with a free pink sheet of paper for their trouble.

Myth #2: GNU/Linux isn't Intuitive Enough
This point is a bit more valid, but not much. Indeed, the GNU/Linux desktop is might not be as easy as Windows or OS X in a home environment. You can't go out to the store and buy the latest TurboSuperBlastEmUp game for it, nor the latest TurboTax (though Win4Lin solves at least the latter problem). However, for anyone from the SOHO sector all the way up to the largest enterprises, GNU/Linux is perfect for the business desktop.

The reason is, unlike other operating systems, that you get everything you need right out of the box. Most GNU/Linux distributions provide an office suite (or two), development, project management, financial, and communications tools as soon as you finish the installation. Further more, most Linux distributions today are simple enough that someone comfortable with installing a software program in Windows won't get stuck installing GNU/Linux.

It shouldn't be overlooked that in some ways GNU/Linux is also more intuitive than other operating systems. Consider, in the KDE desktop environment, how every application -- and not just Office applications -- get a multi-entry clipboard with Klipper, or how Konqueror can switch from a file manager to file viewer to web browser to ftp client (or even SSH client) all without any effort. Many users also comment on the fact that KDE's interface is actually more "common" among applications than Windows.

Myth #3: Free Software Just Can't Create a Desktop
There are plenty of arguments based on this line of thinking. Some will argue the fact that the lack of forced standards causes one to end up with too many different looking types of applications. Some will argue that the developers just don't care enough about users. And, most of all, some will argue that Free Software is a sure way for a software company to let all of its hard work go out the door without earning anything.

The forced standards argument is an interesting one. Most people don't like to be told what to do; yet they will argue that everyone should be forced into whatever interface Redmond or Cupertino decides we need. Never mind that the latest and greatest from these companies always require the latest and greatest hardware too. Conversely, once people get use to the idea of the GNU/Linux desktop, they like the fact that they can choose the desktop environment that fits them. Whether it is the small and fast Fluxbox, the utilitarian TWM, or the glitzy KDE desktop with Keramik or Liquid is entirely up to the user. Best of all, choosing one or the other doesn't lock you into using only applications intended for that environment. Thus, with this lack of "standards," it allows the user to move away from being forced to buy a size ten shoe (which, for most folks, will be either too big or too small), and instead choose the right size for them. Aren't you or your company better at choosing the proper interface for your task than some far away software development firm?

The second argument is also easy to discredit. Indeed, the developers who give their spare time to create GNU/Linux applications don't always put other users as the top priority -- generally they develop what they want. However, when you get together as many developers as a project like GNOME or KDE has, it has been shown time and again that virtually all of the different needs are met, as there are always developers in the project with similar needs. It has also been shown that a developer creating an application because he needs it is a lot more interested in making that application the best that it can be.

Finally, we come to the issue of whether a company can succeed while creating a Free Software desktop. That's where we can go back to the original focus of this article: MandrakeSoft. While it probably isn't generally advisable to use a bankrupt company as an example of how something can succeed, I do suggest that this company is exactly that. Prior to the arrival of outside management that operated the company from 2000-2001, MandrakeSoft was a profitable company. Yes, that is right. Many people assume that no GNU/Linux distribution was profitable until Red Hat's black quarter announced last month, but that isn't true at all. Furthermore, since the original co-founders retook the company from the supposed "experts," the company has again moved towards profitability.

MandrakeSoft, the Example
Thus, it is my opinion that not only is the GNU/Linux desktop going to stick around (even if it doesn't get much respect), but that MandrakeSoft has proven a great example of what Free Software can be. We have a lot to thank this company for, not the least of which is pioneering the easy to use Linux desktop.

Whether or not the company clears its bankruptcy reorganization -- and I sincerely hope it does -- it has helped to clear out all of the myths I listed above. Even if the company fails to recover, its management's wonderful commitment to the Free Software community means that its work will never be for naught.

Perhaps, besides the naysayers, that's something else MandrakeSoft shares in common with Eazel. While the initial company is gone, its Nautilus file manager has continued to grow and improve. This is an important demonstration of why everyone should support Free Software. When dealing with most companies, at least those in bankruptcy, one would have to worry about getting stuck with a discontinued product. With Mandrake Linux, it is just as advisable to go with it now as it was before, especially since Mandrake's community friendly approach has built up enough supporters that, like Nautilus, the progress of development will go on no matter what. Simple put, you can't say that for most other distributions, certainly not SuSE, LindowsOS, Xandros, or the others who have placed their core configuration tools and utilities under proprietary licensing.

The GNU/Linux desktop is far from dead, and so is Mandrake Linux. If only the naysayers could learn that.

The entire Open for Business team would like to express our wish for MandrakeSoft's continued success. As a shining example of the advantages of Free Software, at the very least, we would like to express our thanks for the many contributions that this company has provided to the community over the past few years.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@uninetsolutions. com.