The revolution is boring

Innovation is a story of fits and starts

Yesterday I wasted a good hour and a half tracking live blog feeds of the Apple iPhone/iOS announcement.

I had good reason, being a tech journalist sort of person, and I had an ulterior motive: I, like many, wanted to see what sort of new phone came out from the kids at Cupertino, because my current Android phone is about to see the end of its days, due to a full drive, a contract renewal, and my admittedly geeky desire to get some new tech-bling.

Naturally, a new Android is foremost on my list of choices, and I am planning to check out the Nexus Prime announcement next week to see what's what with that model. But, it would be remiss of me not to at least hear what Apple had to offer.

I won't be one of the chorus of disappointed people who screeched about the lack of an iPhone 5 once the press event was over. It was the tracking of said screeching on the few live blogs that actually survived the massive traffic that was the cause of much of my wasted time. Like watching a train wreck, I saw in real time how Apple fans were filled with hope and anticipation, only to walk away bitter, sullen, and confused.

For my part, I thought the new phone, iPhone 4S, was a pretty good offering: despite the lack of a "5," the new phone seemed to have a fair bit of new features that should make it a decent upgrade for current iPhone users and a sharp entry into iPhone land for Apple newbies.

But it won't be enough to warrant a switch from Android, at least for me.

The situation with the phones has many parallels with my own Linux desktop solution. My Linux machine is currently not in my new office, due to a lack of certain features like a new shelf on which to set it and the need to run an Ethernet line to this part of the house. So, there it sits, while I use a virtual Ubuntu guest on an OS X host to do my daily work.

The Ethernet situation is about to be handled, and now I am looking at this desktop machine and, like my phone, wondering if I need something else.

Unlike the Android/iPhone situation, my choices will be much harder to sort, because the differences are far less dramatic. I have a difficult choice to make, between the upcoming Ubuntu 11.10, Fedora 16, and openSUSE 12.1. And that's just the upcoming stuff. There's still Linux Mint, Kubuntu, and a host of others waiting in the wings.

I realize this is somewhat of a cycle for me; every 12 months or so I wonder about a shift in desktops, and this time I am wondering why, more than anything.

While there are differences between the distributions I mentioned, and others that I haven't, the simple fact is that, except for interfaces, all of these distros are the same. They all run the same software (they'd better) and they are all administrated the same way, with just a few variations on package management.

This is something I've mentioned before: the differences between distributions have gotten to be so small, there seems little reason to shift back and forth, unless one distro breaks completely due to bad testing or a massive security hole. When I recently reviewed desktop distros for Linux.com (to which I am not linking, since that site is still--still!--down), I found myself trying to compare distros from the standpoint of how each would work for a certain type of user. In that context, I could look at the whole distribution as a single package of software and make some calls about which distro would be right for a new user, which would be better for a business desktop owner, etc.

But it was a ridiculously close call in many cases.

This is not a situation that's endemic just to Linux; I think Apple fans got a taste of it yesterday, and Windows fans saw it in the change from Vista to Windows 7: change sometimes isn't great; sometimes it's just improvements on what's already there.

It's rather ironic: when Linux distros and interfaces--because let's face it, it's the interfaces that get the most attention--make an an innovative jump, there are lots of complaints. For all of our talk about innovation, Linux users seem quite conservative about actual change.

KDE 4, GNOME 3, Unity--whenever there is a sharp change in an interface, there have always been complaints about the new interface not being baked enough, or ill-thought out. In some cases, the former is true, but in many cases, the latter argument seems a sort of conservatism that borders on Luddism. While I do not argue that change just for change's sake is valid, neither is the other extreme: keeping to the status quo for it's own sake.

This is why I get frustrated when a new Linux interface comes out and there are inevitable complaints and calls to revert back to what was old. We want change, but seem unwilling to accept that to get it, sometimes we have to make a quantum leap in our approach.

("Quantum" is used here in the proper physics sense: a discrete change with nothing in between. It does not always mean "big.")

The truth is, the technology revolution is often boring--small changes and advancements, punctuated by periods of disruptive chaos when something new comes along. Today, desktop Linux seems to be in one of those uneventful lulls, so we are seeing less differentiation in various approaches to a Linux distro.

How long till the next disruption, and what will that disruption be, is anyone's guess. Like many things in life, innovation can be a lot of hurry up and wait.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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