Linux FUD Pattern #7: Linux software is always behind the curve
For those in the United States, I wish many happy returns to you on this Tax Day, April 15th, 2008. I finished compiling my tax return about a week ago…on paper. It’s not all that painful, really, and I actually prefer doing it on paper. I’ve tried tax software in the past, but going through the motions of reading the rules each year to see what’s changed and performing the calculations by hand give me a sense of control over what I am reporting and more confidence in the results. I do not do it as some form of corporal mortification nor does it have anything to do with the lack of tax software for Linux…ah, and that last point is a great segway into the next item on my Top 10 List, Linux software is always behind the curve.
The lack of personal tax software, like the lack of commercial games, is sometimes cited as a clear indication that Linux is not yet ready for ‘prime time’. To be honest, I haven’t the foggiest idea as to why this is such a ‘tell-tale’ sign. I mean, look at what is being asked for. Given the relative number of Linux users out there, writers of commercial tax software are unwilling to incur the costs of writing, testing, packaging and shipping their programs to office-supply stores nationwide – the demand is just too low.
An Open Source alternative is possible, but there are several reasons why this will probably not occur. First, programmers are usually not tax lawyers, and tax lawyers aren’t cheap. Second, U.S. tax laws are not like the laws of physics – they change every year and can involve unintuitive calculations. Third – and this is directly related to the previous two – if you get it wrong and cause other people to lose money, it is likely that these people will be very upset with you and they may do bad things to you – the risk is just too high.
I’ve considered writing a basic tax-prep script in Perl, not for distribution but for my own use. However, I figure that the time spent on the initial version alone would far exceed the amount of time I’d spend doing my taxes by hand from now until retirement age. There’s really no payoff.
Regarding Everything Else…
The perception that Linux is behind the times, always playing catch-up, spawns from the fact that the development of Linux as a mainstream desktop environment has been, by and large, reactionary. Open Source programmers have spent the last decade or so making sure that the average user has a nice user interface, a productivity suite, a feature-rich art program, a powerful web browser, wireless networking, digital camera connectivity, and at least a couple of games – in other words, nothing new. Is this really a surprise? After all, many people have developed many programs for other operating systems for many years. Linux is young by comparison and there have been plenty of growing pains in its childhood. Moreover, if developers don’t address these basic needs first, it won’t matter what awesome software they do develop, people won’t want to use the platform.
So where is the proactivity? For a start, there are the distros. The emphasis has shifted in the last few years from providing the distro with the most to providing the distro with the least. Trends in PC recycling and ultra-small and/or ultra-cheap hardware show that small footprint is in. Live CDs, Linux on a (USB) stick, virtualization and embedded systems are also hot areas of development. All of these efforts share a common goal: proving that Linux is effective in a variety of situations, that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Flexibility is good. And don’t forget about non-desktop applications, such as clustering, and the use of Linux in process-intensive scientific research and graphics-rendering.
Finally, I’ll mention another hot topic, media formats. Linux always seems to lag in this department. The primary reason is that most of these formats are proprietary, and the format designers do not have an incentive to open the specifications; indeed, there is a much stronger incentive not to open them. This is a very complicated topic which I would like to explore in more detail in the future, so stay tuned.
Show Me The FUD!
Where’s the FUD in all this? Obviously, there is some truth to this perception, no? Until Open Source developers use the Linux platform to completely change the way people approach a problem or to provide a solution to a problem never solved before, the perception will not (and logically should not) change.
On the flip side, I think that the “behind-the-curve” card is grossly overplayed. Sometimes, the FUDster doesn’t realize or completely ignores the existence of viable Open Source alternatives that bridge the alleged “gaps”. This may show up in print but more often occurs in online articles when there is either no reader commentary allowed or the author is hoping for a good flame war to help increase readership.
In some cases, the “gaps” are warranted, such as when a given function is becoming obsolete or is not demanded from the start, yet the gaps are exploited to spread fear and uncertainty. For example, a FUDster could cite a lack of virus protection as a Linux weakness and the uninformed masses could accept it as reality despite the true demand for virus protection on Linux. The impact need not be direct either. The lack of tax-prep software may cause some to question the usefulness of Linux as an “everyday” desktop environment, even if they do not purchase such software themselves. And, for the sake of asking, do we really need to reinvent every wheel? Some software concepts were bad to begin with, but do we really want to perpetuate them?
Linux is behind in some areas and ahead in others. That’s life. Before you are convinced that Linux is completely useless just because it can’t replicate something (like your paper tax forms), determine why the gap exists and if that gap is really a problem. As always, be suspicious of generalizations and do your homework!
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