How long until invisible Linux?

A friend posed an interesting question recently: what will Linux look like in five years? I have a simple answer: it won't look like anything. In fact, Linux should disappear.

I would like to see Linux disappear, especially from the desktop. No, I haven't torn up my Linux fan club membership card. And I do expect people to run Linux on the desktop. In fact, I believe Linux will eventually displace Windows on the desktop. But when that happens, most users shouldn't have to know that they're using Linux, or that they're using an operating system at all.

Face it. A huge number of computer users don't know why they are buying the latest and greatest versions of Windows; they just buy it. When it comes to what they use the computer for, the operating system only gets in their way. They want to correspond with business associates and friends via e-mail, to browse the Web and play games. They need to write documents or operate vertical applications. But they don't want to do all the tedious maintenance a computer requires - and they shouldn't have to. Computers are computers, after all. They're supposed to automate the tedious task, and there's no reason why they can't.

That's one of the biggest problems with Windows. After all of Microsoft's supposed innovation, Windows still unnecessarily exposes people to the guts of their computers.

So why should Linux displace Windows? On the surface, it doesn't look like Linux developers are addressing this kind of problem at all. The two most visible desktop interfaces, GNOME and KDE, are just as complicated as the Windows desktop, if not more so. The two most promising file managers are KDE Konqueror and Eazel's Nautilus for GNOME. But as promising as they are, they are primarily useful only for geeks.

A non-geek shouldn't have to use a file manager at all. You should be able to open up your MP3 player and be presented with a list of categories for the albums and music you have available, whether they exist on your local drive, the network, or the Internet. When you start up your word processor, you should be easily able to find and edit whatever document you like.

With only a very few exceptions, the traditional Linux desktop doesn't seem to be headed in that direction at all. But turn your attention to Tivo, a Linux-based television set-top box. Tivo has an attractive user interface that takes just moments to learn. It automatically updates itself when necessary.

Now, consider this: if the people at Tivo had chosen something like Windows CE for the basis of their box, Microsoft would surely want Tivo to advertise that fact. Each Tivo box would probably carry the Microsoft logo and display the version of Windows CE that it uses.

Naturally, when Microsoft re-leased a new version of Windows CE, Tivo would have to upgrade its systems and start selling new boxes in order to look up-to-date and competitive with other systems that have adopted the new version of Windows CE. And Tivo would, of course, have to pay Microsoft a fee for every unit sold.

In sharp contrast, Tivo is under no pressure to upgrade its version of Linux to the latest kernel. These folks can rip out of Linux whatever they don't need and add whatever they want - and they don't need anyone's permission to do so, either. Linux really is the ideal appliance operating system.

Now, to go back to a theme from my previous column on StarOffice, let's add to this equation the fact that the open source KOffice productivity suite is maturing quickly, and Sun is about to release StarOffice under the GNU General Public Licence. Soon, developers will have all the tools they need to create desktop productivity appliances, to which they can add foolproof user interfaces that hide the complexity of the operating system. They can mix and match whatever they want from the available window managers, productivity applications and the like, just as they can with the Linux OS itself.

The bottom line is this: the time is ripe to turn out a brilliant productivity appliance that is liberated from Microsoft's Windows licence requirements and upgrade cycle. These appliances will almost surely run on Linux, but won't be marketed based on the fact that they run on Linux.

So what will Linux look like in five years? It'll continue to run the World Wide Web. It'll continue to grow in the middle tier. It will continue to displace Windows departmental servers. And it should displace most Windows desktops with something normal people can use, but don't have to manage.

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