To understand the IT industry, start with On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt. Prof. Frankfurt poses, but doesn't answer, the question of why there is so much B.S. in our society. He compares his subject to shoddy construction, and that's an analogy we can work with, because in software we're working at the thrilling edge of language and craftsmanship. We have the tools for dealing with B.S. in computer languages. Try to B.S. a compiler and that's a bug. It's time to tackle the B.S. problem head-on and start reporting bugs in human communications too.
Consider this filler, I mean essay, to be a bug report on the big companies that are doing Linux for the desktop. “Let's 'position' Linux as a simplified desktop for 'transactional users'”, they say. That's right—employees, if your company gives you Linux, that means Management thinks you're a human servlet. Decision-makers and content creators get a proprietary desktop OS.
Of course, offending the employees' pride might not show up on a TCO spreadsheet. But no executive would want to admit to running a division full of transactional, replaceable, outsourceable “human resources”.
But what about Clayton Christensen, disruptive innovation and The Innovator's Dilemma? Doesn't the cheap, good-enough contender always grow the features and stability it needs to win? Yes, when it lets in the customers left pressing their noses against the Expensive Stuff Store window. The Macintosh lets you do layouts even if you can't afford phototypesetting. Linux lets you put up a Web server without blowing the price of a Coupe De Ville on a UNIX box.
But selling less-capable products to customers who can get the good stuff doesn't fly. Seen an F-20 at an air show lately? It was a capable airplane, but it was positioned as an “export fighter” for air forces that weren't allowed to have, or couldn't afford, the F-16. Naturally, countries held out for the “real” fighter. Information freedom ideals can only go so far when vendors are patronizing Linux customers. “Aww, the little transaction worker filled out a Web form! Isn't that cute?”
Desktop Linux marketing is doing more harm than good, but work is under way to make Linux out-perform the other OSes. Robert Love's Project Utopia is bringing together the desktop interface and the necessary tweaking of hardware to make things work smoothly, not just securely (page 66).
Michael George has an example of how a thin-client environment almost works to solve a problem, but the project needed one key local app, the soft phone. See a hybrid approach to a VOIP station that works as a phone and a PC on page 72.
One of the projects where software excellence, not transaction-workerism, has triumphed, is Mozilla Firefox. Mozilla expert and author Nigel McFarlane died last month, leaving us with one last article (page 52). Let Firefox serve as an example for the standards the desktop is coming to meet.