Mike Schaeffer's Blog

August 12, 2008

I have a new favorite blog, the Linux Hater's Blog. Some anonymous Linux user has taken it upon himself to open a blog dedicated to all of the many reasons why desktop Linux sucks (which it does). While it's more than a little mean-spirited, this blog is the dissenting voice of Linux. It is the conscience that, if heeded, will make the Linux desktop a better place to work.

For all of the problems with Linux, it is also the one major platform that allows the motivated individual or company to actually address those problems. The single biggest difference between the Linux Hater's Blog and the (would-be) Windows and MacOS X Hater's Blogs is that on the Linux blog, it's actually possible to do something about the problems. Consider this: 18 years ago, there was no Linux, 12 years ago, there was no Gnome. In 1990, the Linux Hater's blog would have one post: "It doesn't exist, go buy Windows." The reason I mention this is that while it's easy to dismiss the benefits of open source as purely theoretical (i.e.: "Have you ever needed to recompile your kernel?"), the benefits of open source are the entire reason it exists at all.

To look at this in a bit more depth, consider the gnome-panel as an example. Based on the copyright claims in the source code, gnome-panel is itself a collaboration of Eazel, Helix Code/Ximian/Novell, Sun Microsytems, Red Hat, The Free Software Foundation, Ian McKellar, James Wilcox, Rob Adams, Vincent Untz, and Carlos Garcia Campos. All of these contributors found things to change or fix, 'itches to scratch', and all of them changed or fixed the gnome-panel. This is something that basically cannot happen in the model of closed source software. If you want to change something in MacOS X, you basically have three options: try to convince Apple it is a worthwhile change by trying to present (giving up the rights to) a business case justifying the feature, try to go to work for Apple in the right group and convince them to let you implement your feature, or reimplement the entire thing yourself.

As a result of these kinds of trade offs, cross-organization collaboration in closed source is a lot harder to come by than in open source. Closed source essentially divides the stakeholders in a piece of software into two groups: those that can take responsibility for the softawre by making changes, and those that cannot and must either accept the changes as provided or work around them. In that sense, Free Software is the licencing model that brings to software the democratic ideals of personal responsibility and the sovereignty of the people. Like any democracy, in the short term it will have issues compared to more centralized forms of planning, but in the long term it will be a much more vibrant and productive place to be. This is also why the Linux Hater's Blog is so very important. To see why, continue the analogy with democracy a bit, and consider the process by which the United Stated adopted its constitution.

After the U.S. Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, there came the long and highly political process of states ratifying new form of government. During this two year long debate, there were a series of papers, the Federalist Papers, written in support of the proposed Constutition. Less well known are the Anti-Federalist papers, a series of dissenting arguments against ratification. This dissent primarily centered around the lack of a Bill of Rights, and ultimatly led to the incorporation of a Bill of Rights as the first ten amendments to the constitution. The dissent was not just criticism: open process and free debate allowed it to be a key part of the construction of the Constitution.

This is a much grander version of what the Linux Hater's blog can do for Linux. By dissenting against the idea that Linux is already ready for the desktop (or the server), it also provides a list of weaknesses to fix.
Unlike a Windows Hater's Blog, the freedoms of Linux allow this list of weaknesses to effectively become a to do list for anyone or any company with the motivation and time to do the work. It is therefore not a liabilty to Linux, but an asset that derives its value from the freedom at the core of Free Software. Ironically enough, because of this, the 'Linux Hater' could easily turn out to be one of Linux's best friends.