Free software's secret weapon: FOOGL
By Glyn Moody on Fri, 2006-08-18 03:03.
It's a long-standing joke in the free software world that this will be the year when we see GNU/Linux make its breakthrough on the desktop - just like last year, and the year before that. What's really funny is that all the key GNU/Linux desktop apps are already being widely deployed, but not in the way that people have long assumed.
The indestructible optimism about GNU/Linux appearing on the desktop seems to be the result of a misguided view that since it grew from insignificance in the server sector to become a serious challenger to Microsoft Windows there, the same is bound to happen to GNU/Linux on the client side.
But there are fundamental differences between the server and desktop markets. Free software has traditionally been written by geeks for geeks: this means that it suits well those whose job is tending a company's servers. By contrast, all the things that non-technical users demand – ease-of-use, an engaging user interface and above all continuity with what they are used to – have typically been absent.
Similarly, although it is difficult enough to impose a new server solution on an unwilling IT department, it is trivially easy compared to trying to get end-users to switch to a new desktop. After all, IT staff are paid to deal with IT problems (including their own), whereas general users just want to get their non-IT jobs done; a completely new IT solution is seen as an unnecessary distraction from their “real” work, to be fiercely resisted.
How, then, can free software overcome this apparently insuperable problem that end-users will be unwilling to try anything that differs substantially from what they were using last week?
The answer lies in an overlooked strength of free software on the desktop: the fact that it is cross-platform. Whereas Windows apps run on, well, Windows, the main open source programs typically run on GNU/Linux, Windows and Apple Mac (and often on other platforms too). What this means in practice is that users can make the transition to a GNU/Linux desktop in several stages. The rise of Web-based applications is another factor that helps to smooth the transition.
The first step – switching from Internet Explorer to Firefox - has been taken by huge numbers of people. The second phase, moving to OpenOffice.org from Microsoft Office, is currently underway, and is becoming more common thanks to the increasing adoption of the OpenDocument Format standard around the world. As a result, anyone whose main desktop applications are the browser and office suite, and who has become accustomed to using Firefox and OpenOffice.org on Windows (and to a lesser extent on the Mac), would be able to swap to GNU/Linux, with relatively little trouble, because they would be using the same principal programs as before, with almost identical user interfaces.
This might be called the FOOGL – Firefox/OpenOffice/GNU/Linux - approach. It is why, in some sense, the shift to the GNU/Linux desktop can be said to be already underway, since it is an incremental move that begins by moving to Firefox and OpenOffice.org, but remaining on Windows. The last step – moving to GNU/Linux – has not happened yet in large numbers, but it could do, once one remaining obstacle is removed.
The problem is that most people depend on three main software categories - browser, office suite and email - not two. Although Thunderbird is a fully cross-platform email client, it lacks a key feature, that of calendaring. This prevents most people from ditching Microsoft Outlook entirely, however appealing that might be from other viewpoints. The Sunbird team has been working on a standalone calendar app for a while, but the more recent Lightning project, a Thunderbird extension that adds calendaring, is probably a better hope because of its integration with the email client.
In addition to Lightning, there is also Chandler, now at version 0.6, which offers email, calendaring, contact management and more, and Evolution. The latter has long been a popular solution for GNU/Linux users, but for some years lacked a Windows version that would allow the kind of cross-platform strategy described above to be implemented. Happily, a Windows port of Evolution now exists. Also worth mentioning is the new generation of free Web-based (and hence cross-platform) calendars like Google Calendar and 30Boxes, which are increasingly popular.
All of these have their virtues and champions. But, in truth, which of them emerges as the preferred free email/calendaring solution for Windows users is largely irrelevant. What is important is that at least one becomes sufficiently mature that it can join the free software line-up of viable cross-platform alternatives to proprietary offerings, and hence boost the power of the FOOGL factor. Until that happens, the subject of migration to GNU/Linux on the desktop is likely to remain something of a joke.
Glyn Moody writes about free software at opendotdotdot.