Articles / Is Linux for Crazies?

Is Linux for Crazies?

Ray Woodcock writes: "In terms relevant to Linux, this freshmeat editorial glances at the tendency of mainstream viewpoints to dismiss other viewpoints as 'fringe,' the propensity of dissident movements to splinter into factions before they can effectively counter their primary adversaries, and the difficulty of creating stability without squelching curiosity."It's a world of causes and movements, political and otherwise. Typically, within these causes and movements, the center looks bizarre to the fringe, and vice versa.

You, personally, are a subscriber to various viewpoints. You may not always prefer to be thought of in that way, but even the decision to avoid controversy can be controversial. Regardless of what you do or believe, there is always a chance that someone, somewhere, would consider you a fringe lunatic.

People who support Linux are among the forefront of those who may as well stand up and yell, "Me! Me! Consider me a wacko!" This is not because Linux is actually nuts; it's just that it's still not mainstream, and therefore we can be reasonably confident that we could find a lot of people -- millions, perhaps -- who might say we are dreamers.

The difference between mainstream and fringe, in any issue or belief, is partly a matter of position: there happen to be some people who stand over there, and there also happen to be some who stand over here. Yet that phrasing makes the two sound equal. In terms of mindset, however, they certainly are not equal. People in the mainstream -- and especially people who are aware of being in the mainstream, and who find that awareness comforting -- often drop their minor issues with one another, for the sake of going with the flow and preserving unity. People in a side eddy, by contrast, do not have a strong, steady flow to go with, and therefore may not be willing or able to float along wherever the current carries them.

That is, your typical fringe lunatic will tend to be more activist and individualist -- more engaged and interesting, perhaps, or even more alive -- than your ordinary mainstreamer. These fringe people, bouncing off each other, create all sorts of controversies and splinter groups among themselves. And sometimes they cancel each other out, assuring that an oppressive mainstream force continues to exercise power. Perhaps you have seen that kind of counterproductive, factional argybargy at work in your workplace, your church, or your local political scene.

Today's Linux clamor is, no doubt, a necessary by-product of the ongoing search for superior solutions. It may be healthy, in the larger scheme, if some of us are elevating various Linux incarnations into god-form and ranking them -- RedHat above Apollo but Debian below Demeter -- while others have already scrapped Linux in favor of some other state-of-the-art operating system. As of today, Zeus has not yet chosen a favorite. That is, the next new idea may prove to be the best one, so we probably should encourage this imaginative ferment, even if a few people slam into one another and get hurt along the way.

The quandary, for me, is that I cannot plead for unity in the Linux world, because I'm not happy with what unity has wrought within the Windows world; and yet I sympathize with the newcomer whose first decision about Linux is, "Which Linux?" To someone who is used to thinking in terms of "Windows, of course", the need to choose among different versions of an operating system is like being asked, "And to which planet would you like your pizza delivered?" You've probably got at least eight or nine choices by now, and some are a lot more far-out than others.

You might say that the Linux-versus-Microsoft situation is like the present situation in Serbia, where Slobodan Milosevic is still in power. Some might consider that amazing, and many consider it tragic. Nevertheless, it it not unprecedented for a strongman to tough it out while his adversaries spend themselves on foolish wrangles. I would not generally equate the head of Microsoft with the head of Yugoslavia, but surely we have seen how both of these leaders profit by turning the random energies of their adversaries inward, against one another.

And yet the opposition does have long-term promise. Hence, to the extent that stock market terms apply, I would probably have to recommend a "buy and hold" strategy for Linux (and for the Serbian opposition). Someday, Windows is going to sink under its own weight, or Microsoft is going to become divided, internally or as a consequence of lawsuits or defections, or for some other reason the monster is going to stagger, but there are no guarantees on the timing, and certainly the challengers aren't yet ready to take over the show.

What ultimately justifies being a fringe lunatic is being right -- no, being PROVED right -- and if you're a Linux loonie, you're only going to be proved right when Linux works for people like Windows works for them. I hear your moans at that statement; I feel your shudders; and yet it's true. Windows doesn't deliver what a real operating system should deliver; but it does deliver a dream, and it does so with pretty colors and a lot of sparkle. That is a significant part of what people want from their presidents and their software, and we owe it to the world to show everyone that they can find fantasy and panache here.

There is really no alternative. Mainstreamers, I guarantee, will run like hell if you make them listen to Mao-versus-Trotsky debates between the devotees of Debian and the comrades of Caldera. In the first stage of operating system socialism, I know, there must be competition among corporate bodies, with each subscribing to the same overall philosophy and yet each seeking to twist the nascent state to its advantage. In the second stage, however, the Stalins will take over from the Lenins -- that is, the theoreticians will give way to thoroughgoing non-purists who will compromise with the Devil if that's what it takes to succeed.

In other words, I predict that the following provides a rough outline of what will happen before Linux can lure the masses from Microsoft:

  1. Proponents of other operating systems (e.g., BeOS) will become converted into either:
    1. the new fringe movement vis-a-vis the new Linux mainstream, and thus will be forgotten by most participants for some years, or
    2. temporary supporters of Linux who will conclude that a Linux world might support their further quest to an extent that a Windows world will not.
    Relevant parties may perceive that Linux has a degree of momentum that these other operating systems now lack, and that any near-term increase in these other systems' momentum will probably be offset by an increasing public sense that it would be premature to choose another operating system to replace Windows as long as fancy new operating systems keep popping up every few months.
  2. Commercial proponents of various Linux flavors will recognize that cooperation on the operating system will yield a larger long-term pot for their application software sales. That is, companies like Caldera and Corel will conclude that they gain more by producing one Linux rather than two, thereby capturing not only those who would have come to them anyway but also those who would find it simpler and more productive to stay with Microsoft rather than risk guessing wrong on their choice of Linux.
  3. Non-commercial proponents of various Linux flavors will rediscover and spread the joy of computing, attract more adherents, and become the guiding spirits of the movements described in points (1) and (2), above. If this fails, Linux may yet succeed, but these particular individuals will probably wind up irritating one another until most of them defect to Windows or to various groups described in points (1) and (2), above, leaving behind a hard core of angry not-for-profit Linux zealots who may be unwilling or unable to cooperate with anyone. In the latter event, the original ideals will become marginalized and will have little appeal, given their failure to produce real-world results comparable to those produced by Windows or by commercial versions of Linux.
  4. Windows Emulation (WINE) projects will prove to be substantially successful. That is, people will find ways to run Windows software on Linux. At present, Windows is far ahead. In one sense, it is getting even further ahead, since the number of people writing Linux code pales against the many thousands who write for Windows. WINE will mean that much (or perhaps even all) of those who program for Windows will automatically be programming for Linux as well. Granted, this strategy didn't work for OS/2; but IBM wasn't exactly a movement that people believed in, OS/2 wasn't free or open, and Microsoft may not be able to outmaneuver the Linux community as easily as it did IBM.
  5. As the other steps fall into place, marketing wizards will begin to take an interest in Linux and will develop ways to present its full glory -- and, if I judge the marketing profession correctly, even more than its full glory -- to skeptical mainstreamers.

If thousands of relevant players make the right decisions on these points, Linux will surely overcome Windows. It can be difficult for fringers to create conditions that might appeal to mainstreamers, however -- especially if the fringers are driven by a perpetual urge to go beyond other people's limits and are not constrained by the desire to make a living from all this. In short, corporate effort may be essential to the process. But I should not be surprised. History, I hate to acknowledge, is mostly driven by commerce-related fits and starts.

I don't relish the idea that we may someday have another corporate monstrosity to defang; but I guess I can't be entirely unhappy if one or two companies eventually dominate Linux by offering a superior operating system at a lower price. That would still represent progress as compared to the present situation. Perhaps the best we can hope is that the idealists (including those employed by corporations) can develop an approach that will maximize cooperation to the mutual advantage of most would-be competitors.

So far, a large number of the people who have installed Linux have done so because they had a dream for what it could be, rather than an expectation of what it already was. As Linux moves closer to commodity status, however, newcomers will tend to be motivated more by expectations and less by hopes.

That is, we are still at the nexus of the ideal and the proven. If the hopes are robust and can somehow accommodate portions of both the mainstream need and the fringe dream, then perhaps the end result will be not only a successful commodity for the masses, but also a nearly tangible good. This might represent a genuine evolutionary advance over today's dominant operating system.

Ray Woodcock ( is a Linux newcomer who is now working with Unix-like software for nearly the first time since 1982. His most recent written contribution to the Linux world appears at

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Recent comments

11 Feb 2000 08:20 Avatar gordonjcp

Magic words...
The thing with arguing "Could your mother (or grannie or whatever) use Linux (or indeed any other OS)" falls down though. Most Win95/98 users still get by with "mystical incantations" although they are slightly better hidden. Most people, however, can get by with them. For example, my mother has used my Linux box for internet access before. Now due to space and power constraints, it's not really set up optimally for ease of use, but given an instruction like "type in 'ifup ppp0' to force it to connect, if it won't by itself", she can get the thing to connect. Mostly users can live with this kind of thing, in much the same way as they know to pull out the choke on their car before starting, without knowing exactly what it does ("It just makes it work, OK?")

02 Feb 2000 20:57 Avatar dsavard

Previous comment
Don't drink and type!

31 Jan 2000 23:56 Avatar zeusjr

I am an unix using crazy! But not like the rest of you, I set myself above the common good, exercising my inalienable rite to freedom! Freedom of free speech! Consider how the little bird, which is not so little as it is a bird (bird, bird, bird) eats from the palm as if you weren't a care in the world. Let this bird be microsoft, or, better yet! Let it be You, who art so high and mightily dictating the harpin gyou do when under the spell of the llama. Hear, here the llama rests, see how happy it is? You should be so happy.

I am hapy to announce a new gnu version of me (myself) also I, as in zeusjr2000! Or z2k, more stable than a ver (tm, r, etc.) And I can tell you, there are already many myths and communists set out to destroymy goal! Yes, it is true, that it is now gpl, but that (no that doesn't mean...) that one can consider it pure, also inter3sting.

Sting is not t5he end of it though- no linux is not for you! Neither am I! I am my own creature, not to be tameds by any1 man, woman, chld, feces, or

And now for the reciting conclusion, from the zeusjr gratest hits, arhuive III!!!

Not everyone cares abnout this latest devleopment, when polled, thirteen pouut of four said ""and i quote,"WHO FRUITIN CARES!" all the other s used unquoteables (Such as "ˇ‹§3") so they were NOT NICE! In fact, no one cares whether or not anyone's retatred self goes back to school. nor if anyone's retarted self ever whent there, or is still there, and no, also isn't there more than one (ima ean school?) I heard there was, all of wohoch STRAYS from the FAQS!: ther e is noo cheap furby in bri---TURKEY.
Not like they're real, anyways, but WHO FRUITIN CARE?

30 Jan 2000 02:54 Avatar hanseno

Another oldie

With all this discussion about right and wrong mindset, I must state
that the mindset about linux needing to overcome windows is a wrong mindset.

I do not speak for anyone but myself, on this issue, now I've got that out of the way... let me point out, that using Linux is not a question of Linux being superior. It is about choice. Look at the people of China, they have chosen to be communist... and what concern is that of yours? Which is more wrong, to be a communist or to whish to destroy everyone who doesn't have the same opinion as you do? Windows is for Intel computers and everyone who doesn't use windows is defined a loonie and should be institutionalized?

For practical purposes, let us discuss the use of Windows... for all practical purposes, except for home use, windows is a very poor operating system. It does not recognize that there are other operating systems in the cyber world, and more or less refuses to work with any operating system that doesn't fit it's own category. Those who support it, wholeheartedly support that other operating systems, like linux, should be banned from optaining information that would enable it to be more user friendly (like information on multimedia technology). This sounds very much like Americans, who just can't live with that there exists a country in the far east or near east, where people have a different opinion than they do, and spend money and weapons in destroying those countries and/or overcoming them.

Now, the real practical issue... there *are* other operating systems in the world. Major companies, like Silicon Graphics Int. as well as IBM and a set of others, have for a long time, longer than microsoft, sold systems with different operating systems. Many of these are Unix, with which, Windows does not like to cooperate. On the other hand, Linux is a very co-operative operating system, being defined around unix, so it is much more likely to be able to co-exist on a network with other computers and operating systems and be able to communicate and use a complex distributed environment.

For me, at least, and I suspect for many others... Linux is about choice, of being able to have things the way you want it. And not having to fit into a mindset, that is both oppressive and narrow minded. This will naturally mean, that there will be many flavors of Linux, and most importantly it will mean that it will never be suitable for the average weenie. Normal users, won't install an operating system, that has a super user layout and *not* log in as that super user... normal user will feel deprived if he isn't the master of his own box, and will always be the super user and thus
compromise their system. For these, windows or macintosh will always be the right flavour.

The main point is, that we need to acknowledge that there are people with different views on things than we do. We need to understand, that there isn't just *one* correct operating system, and that there isn't just *one* correct desktop. Linux doesn't have to look like Windows, nor does Windows have to look like a Macintosh. And I am not a loonie, because I choise to go by my own instinct and weigh things with my own mind,, rather that buy something out of a store, that I already know doesn't suit my purpose. People will just have to learn to live with it, that they may have a neighbour that has a different view of life, like the cubans, and if they can't do that... they should get therapy. Starving nations to death, and depriving children of medicine, or contaminating soil for a hundred years sure doesn't fit my picture of "friend of mankind". And thus can hardly be the *right* opinion, no matter how big the crowd is that follows that lead... the crowd has a precedence of being wrong.


30 Jan 2000 01:49 Avatar saxifrage

Linux Users are from Mars, Windows Users are from Venus
I know the title's corny, but it works, so bear with me.

The problem will always remain that Windows and Microsoft managed to singlehandedly (and iron-handedly :P) unify the OS market -- and, according to Neal Stephenson in _In the Beginning Was the Command Line_, created the glut of cheap hardware that fueled the development of Linux, and other various i386 Unix OSes.

What this means is that basically, you have two entirely different categories of users. They don't generally interact, although I will concede that I still have to do lots of work with Windows (on other people's computers), and that my brother and sister frequently have to work on my computer when they need to print stuff. There's a very specific reason for this: Linux has what I call the `hacker's mentality.' We like tinkering with stuff, until it works, and we like fixing things that don't work -- and in particular, because we're stereotypically chronically short of high-end hardware and/or money, we use rejected old hardware to fuel our systems.

Meanwhile, the average Windows user prefers to keep upgrading his hardware every time that Microsoft releases a new bloated upgrade, because in his mind there is no simple alternative to Windows. They don't usually like tinkering with things, so if something doesn't work, they just have someone like a Linux user, who presumably could learn Windows in a relatively short amount of time even if he already didn't know it, fix it. Or they just deal with its shortcomings.

You will never convert the world to Linux. In fact, I personally don't think we want to. Do we want to see what has happened to the Windows world (`What ISP do you use?' `Oh, I use Internet Explorer.' Or -- worse -- `I use Microsoft Office.') become the fate of the Linux world?

The whole point of Linux is about rebellion. We don't want to dominate -- in fact, we can't, because we're really a truly non-corporate entity, despite the fact that there are companies that sell Linux, because we are not unified. At all. Therefore, we should leave the domination and proselytization to other companies; average users, who have no reason to convert -- I did so for three primary reasons, being price, MUSH and MUD servers, and LaTeX -- should stick with something that involves no extra usage.

But then again -- I could be wrong. Who knows? Linux could become the next operating system. People insist that my generation -- I'm really a Nineties / 00's teenager -- will only bear children that know more about computers. We might just finally reach a point where people know enough to understand it.

Or not. It's all up for grabs. But I can't imagine that we want the dumbing-down of our operating system to happen; let's leave that to Microsoft, guys.


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