Top 10 Linux FUD Patterns, Part 4

In this installment of my series on the Top 10 Linux FUD patterns, I address two patterns that have more to do with software packages that run on the Linux platform than with the Linux OS itself. As I stated in a previous post, every believable piece of FUD has some element of truth behind it, and these two are no exception.

Linux FUD Pattern #3: With Linux, you cannot access old files or share new files with others

Do you remember the Word Processor Wars? For those who don’t, a conflict began in the early 1990s as to which word processing application was the “best”, the most feature-rich, and the one most likely to dominate the market. It was a fight to the death. Though this was largely a war over functionality, the decisive battles were often fought on the file system. Why? Because the ability to understand and use a competitor’s file structure has certain advantages. First, almost any hot new function can be replicated because a sample of data speaks volumes about the processes that created it. Second, the ability to open and use the other format eases transition away from the other product. Proprietary file formats became the weapon of choice, and the strategy, to lock as many users into them as possible. The mentality that whoever controls the data controls the world solidified.

Except for the occasional Is-Linux-Right-For-You? article in the trades, this pattern does not manifest in print very often. It is more likely a topic hotly debated between OS zealots. Most often, I have been personally presented this tasty FUD cake by folks that have no experience with Linux or its applications, who think (through no fault of their own) that we *nix users type all of our letters and papers in on the command line. I raise the fact that OpenOffice can not only open many other document formats but that it can *cough* natively export PDF files as well, and suddenly the eighth-grade-level trash-speak subsides.

File exchange is not a myth; indeed, it is a very important issue. Moreover, for anyone who’s been watching the OOXML vs ODF standoff, it should be clear that the Open Source community is very much in favor of a set of open documentation standards as well. Whether or not it used to be, cross-platform file sharing is just not a problem with today’s desktop environments and is becoming less so.

If this is a serious concern, my advice is to either save your files in a highly-interchangeable format from the start or have an exit strategy that entails migration to another app later. HTML is one option, but only if maintaining strict page layout is of little importance. I have had better luck with the Rich Text Format (RTF); granted, this is not an open format, but it is highly portable and since it is ASCII-based mark up, I can read it with a text editor in a pinch. Also, I tend to save copies of documents in Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF), not just because it is portable, but because it looks more professional when sending documents to others. When I upgraded to a new machine and installed Linux for full-time use, I had to convert all of my AutoCAD Drawing (DWG) files to the Drawing Interchange Format (DXF) for use with QcaD. Between that and converting all of the Works 2.0 documents to RTF, I spent many hours executing an exit plan that could have been avoided altogether – lesson learned.

Linux FUD Pattern #4: There are no good software titles for Linux

Looking back, the title of this pattern should have been “There are no popular software titles for Linux”, but in my haste, I typed the word “good” instead of “popular”. This gives the impression that this pattern addresses the quality of Linux software, an issue to be covered later under pattern #6. My apologies.

Nonetheless, this statement – as related to the popularity of software titles – is a highly relative one. OpenOffice and Firefox are wildly popular amongst Linux users. They are bundled with nearly every major distribution and receive a lot of press. They are also available for other platforms, and though they do not dominate these market segments, they seem to be gaining popularity.

The measurement used to determine popularity is an important factor underlying this statement. Is popularity based on customer registrations? Sales? How about the rack space devoted to software at the store? All of these metrics are biased toward commercial software and against free software. Considering the number of try-before-you-buy commercial apps available, download-counting may be a tempting metric to use, but it is biased in the opposite direction and doesn’t consider anomalies such as multiple installations or the ultimate rejection of the product by users. An unbiased consumer survey may be the only way to truly determine popularity. If anyone has actually accomplished this, please share.

Another important question is, does popularity really matter? There is a link between popularity and the fear that an app will eventually lose support, but that risk can be mitigated with a good exit strategy as discussed above. That fear is the target of this FUD pattern. Also, in my opinion, computing is not a popularity contest. If a software application meets my needs and the outlook for support is favorable, then I don’t care if everyone uses it or not. Sometimes, form is more important than function and sometimes it is not, but choosing an app solely because “everyone else is using it” is rarely an acceptable strategy.

The obvious exception is high-end computer games. Computer games in general have created a special culture, and each game has a following, large or small. Games are not about functionality and meeting requirements, but about being part of the culture…shared experiences are part of the entertainment. Admittedly, there are few “big names” producing or porting popular game titles to Linux, a trend that will continue until the gaming market demands otherwise. The desire to be a member of that culture can certainly be enough to dictate which OS to use some or all of the time. Hopefully, things will change.

Finally, the statement is much too general. While it may be true in respect to high-end games, the supposed lack of software is often exaggerated to include all possible uses of the OS, creating yet more FUD.

Cheers!
-Brandon

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