This is one post in a series, describing challenges we need to overcome to make free software ubiquitous on the desktop.
Power users love Linux. It’s fast, customizable, personal, tweakable, and they can make just about anything work. Most peripherals can be made to work with Linux, it’s just that you normally need to wait a little while or know how to write the appropriate drivers or glue.
Office productivity workers love Linux too if all they do is web, email and a bit of office. They love it because it doesn’t go down for maintenance, it’s not subject to the same barrage of viruses and other defects for which Windows is sadly notorious. You can configure it as a thin client system and greatly reduce the total cost of ownership in these scenarios.
So the ends of the spectrum – the power users and the don’t-mess-with-my-system users, are already well serviced by Linux, and it’s getting better for them every six months. It’s the middle crowd – the guys who have a computer which they personally modify, attach new hardware to, and expect to interact with a variety of gadgets – that struggle. The problem, in a nutshell, is Granny’s new camera.
You gave Granny the PC last Christmas and set it up with Ubuntu because it Just Works. Everything’s peachy, no viruses or spyware, you can administer it remotely whenever you think it needs a bit of polish, and as far as you’re concerned it’s great. But then your brother gives Granny a new digital camera… and it only has drivers for Windows.
Solving this requires work at two levels – first there are possibly some drivers, and second there need to be relevant applications to manage the gadget’s content (music, photos, videos, GPS tracks, etc) and administer the gadget (firmware updates etc). As Eric Raymond has said – kid’s just want their iPod to work.
My own feeling here is that it’s all about critical mass. Once 5-10% of the people who buy these gadgets are running Linux (actually, a single brand of Linux), only then will the gadget manufacturers themselves start to care about it as a consumer platform for which their stuff should work. That goes for everything from cell phones, PDA’s, and smart phones to some of the more weird and wonderful things that people like to drive from a PC, like laser cutters and 3D printing machines. It’s partly just a matter of time, but then it’s also partly a question of how we communicate the state of Linux today (just like the issues in “pervasive support” (challenge #9).
The situation is definitely improving. To the extent that Apple continues to use free software components like CUPS, we benefit in the Linux world because printers that want to Just Work with MacOS will also Just Work with Linux. That’s a nice boost.