Almost Famous

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The movie Almost Famous tells the story of William, a 15-year-old writer in the 1970s who bags an assignment from Rolling Stone Magazine to do an article about a rock band on the verge of stardom. The unlikely premise sets the stage for a road trip that's all about being true to yourself and coming of age.

Like the boy in the movie, Linux as a desktop operating system has come of age, and like the band he follows around, it's on the verge of stardom.

Because Linux is free, nobody knows exactly how many people use it.

The Linux Counter Project estimates there are 29 million users, which would give it just about 3.6 percent of the total personal computer market worldwide.

But a number of factors are likely to push these numbers higher.

First, a number of versions – called distributions – have made Linux much easier to install and use.

Up until a few years ago, Linux was mainly used on servers. Now, it's increasingly being used on desktop computers and notebook PCs.
In 2003, when the company I worked for at the time undertook a full-scale migration from Windows to Linux, users who were not adequately prepared for the change complained loudly. Today, most of those complaints have been addressed and Linux is an attractive, free and open source software platform suitable for office use.

In an analysis earlier this month, the technology journal eWeek found that two distributions in particular – Ubuntu and OpenSUSE – are worthy rivals to Microsoft's new Windows Vista operating system.

"Ubuntu's [software] catalog surpasses those of all other Linux distributions we've tested, and its software management tools outclass not only Linux rivals 'but also Microsoft Windows' and Apple Mac OS X's," eWeek wrote.

A second factor is Microsoft itself that will drive users to Linux.

Ever since the company launched its Windows Genuine Advantage program last year, I've said that heavy-handed efforts to crack down on software piracy would backfire. The market research company IDC seems to agree.

Instead of encouraging users to obtain genuine copies of Windows, Microsoft's anti-piracy efforts will cause many users to opt for a freely available Linux distribution, says Al Gillen, an IDC analyst.

This will be particularly pronounced in smaller, cost-conscious companies that now run on a mix of licensed and unlicensed Windows PCs. Instead of gaining a few more desktop licenses, Microsoft may end up losing the entire company to open source software.

Even the arrival of Windows Vista will give companies the impetus to consider shifting to open source.

"People will have the choice – they are going to get a major disruption and have to learn a whole new interface and way of working to switch from a previous version of Windows to Vista," says Jonathan Oxer, president of Linux Australia in an interview with ZDNet. "It's just as much disruption – or as little disruption – to move to a version of Linux … So what we will probably see is that a lot of companies are going to very seriously consider … not switching to Vista but switching to a Linux-based platform instead. "

None of these factors guarantees success, of course, and much still needs to be done.

In a series of blog posts, Mark Shuttleworth, founder of the Ubuntu Project, outlines a series of challenges that free software must hurdle to become ubiquitous on desktop PCs.

One of these he calls "Granny's new camera," referring to the ability to plug any number of gadgets and devices and have them just work.
Another challenge, Shuttleworth says, is the "extra dimension" of making the operating system more visually engaging.
To this list, I would add easy networking and games.

Users should not have to edit configuration files to set up a shared printer or a wireless network.

In addition, the availability of high-quality games is a must for many home users. Running Windows games under Wine just does not cut it, and paying a monthly subscription fee to run them under the proprietary Cedega system is simply unattractive.

Unfortunately, market conditions do not favor Linux games, either – and at least two companies that used to port Windows games to the open source platform have closed shop.

Progress in other areas seems more promising.

In terms of visual appeal, Linux has already come a long way. My Ubuntu PC, with the Beryl windows manager installed, is already more visually engaging than any Windows Vista or Mac OS X machine. What's left to do is to make Beryl less painful to install.

To a large extent, achieving plug-and-play depends on hardware manufacturers, who will only write Linux drivers for their printers, scanners, digital cameras, MP3 players, mobile phones and other gadgets once they see that enough of their customers are running on the platform. This is already happening, albeit slowly.

"It's partly just a matter of time, but then it's also partly a question of how we communicate the state of Linux today," Shuttleworth writes.
Near the start of Almost Famous, William's older sister takes one last look at the boy before she leaves home to start her own life. "One day, you'll be cool," she predicts.

For Linux, that promise has already come true. Now all that's left is to make it truly famous.

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