Why Linux Should Never Win

Declaring Linux the winner is optimistic, but also dangerous

When I attend the Ohio LinuxFest this weekend, a recurring theme at the conference was what do we do with Linux now that we’ve won?

This was not, I should add, the official theme of this regional conference that had more than 1,000 attendees this past Saturday. That theme was something along the lines of using free software to make a better world.

Yet, in no less than four talks I attended, from four people working for completely different projects and companies, I heard this “we’ve won” statement issued.

Did I miss the memo on this?

Don’t get me wrong: it is clear that Linux has made great strides in several technology sectors, especially cloud, mobile, and server. In those areas, Linux is a very strong if not the dominant player. With these impressive results, is it fair to say Linux has won?

On the traditional desktop, it is very hard to point at any one’s numbers and say Linux has been a success there. The current number making the rounds in the blogosphere is that a mere 1 percent of desktops run Linux. I kind of doubt that, but the true number may not be that far off.

Of course, sometimes you have Linux enthusiasts who will run numbers to Linux’s advantage. O’Reilly’s Caitlyn Martin tried to debunk the 1% number and decided that since the Linux netbooks sales in 2009 made up about a third of total netbook sales, then total Linux sales were likely closer to six percent.

I am having a hard time figuring out how just one year of sales in just one segment of the desktop market makes up for the 20 plus years of Windows and Mac sales. Sure. 2009 was a decent year, but what about OS sales/deployments in 2008? 2007? Those machines and older are still around, too. I wish Martin was correct, but in this instance, I believe she is being overly optimistic.

Regardless of whose numbers you choose to believe, the question of who has won is not a numbers game. It couldn’t be, for two very simple reasons: numbers change, and so does the game.

By 1980, UNIX had won. It had captured the computing market entirely. If anybody had claimed otherwise, they would have been called crazy. UNIX was it, for the rest of time.

By 1995, Windows had won. It dominated the desktop market, and there never would be a challenge to its dominance. Windows would remain king of the desktop forever.

That’s what people were saying back then. “We’ve won,” they would crow about their favored technology. The future of technology will always be [insert tech here] moving forward.

Look at UNIX now and try to make that statement again. Look at Windows and its slow decline and think what its market share will be in a few years.

Whether you are talking about numbers, influence, impact, or any aspect of technology, saying “we’ve won,” is not only potentially inaccurate, it’s also wildly dangerous. People who see things as a binary win/lose situation tend to throttle back when they reach the “win” goal. Complacency is introduced. People get sloppy, losing touch with the aspects of the tech that made it so great. And meanwhile, for every system that’s “won,” there’s an upstart coming up fast to take its place.

Remember when Linux was the “upstart,” and it used to drive us crazy? Declaring victory (which is arguably premature at this stage) just sets Linux up to be the target for our next upstart.

Is Linux doing great? Yes, absolutely. Can it do better? Yes, always. Because even if Linux captures market dominance in every sector, it must always be ready to change and adapt to new consumer, business, or technological needs. Growth, adaptation, and change must forever be a part of the Linux mindset (indeed, any truly successful project).

Because that which does not grow, dies. And declaring yourself the winner in one game never means you’ll automatically win the rest.

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