The end of imitation

by Jono Bacon

We are facing an interesting future. Not only is the world changing in new and different ways, but the free/open software community is changing. With our array of fresh achievements and capabilities, we are offset by the challenges and threats that face our community. Through all this turmoil, challenge and elation we still have one thing intact though - our community.

As a system, Linux is beginning to enter what I would consider the innovation honeymoon. In the beginning, when Stallman crusaded for free software, Torvalds wrote his 'little' kernel and free software was seen by many as a cheap offshoot of shareware, the biggest challenge was creating an infrastructure. In the same way you cannot build a home without a house, you could not create a great Operating System without a sufficient Operating System. The challenge was set. Create and replace the key chunks of UNIX that made UNIX work well. The hackers set forth and most of the system was created in entirely free software.

Up until about a year ago, I think that imitation was one of the key targets for many Linux contributors. Developers around the world were creating alternatives to the common software on Windows and Macs, and we now have powerful alternatives such as Mozilla,, GIMP, KDE, GNOME and many others. Although some innovation was occurring at each step of this process, imitation appeared to be the subconscious target. If we cannot at least match the competitors on the level playing field, how can we even begin to overtake them?

Although useful, imitation has one key weakness - you are only as good as the product you are imitating. Despite that Linux is not directly copying Windows or Mac OS X (I certainly don't refer to 'imitation' in this way), the Linux community has sought to provide a compelling alternative for many of the same tasks - this is functional imitation as opposed to implementation imitation; imitate tasks as opposed to specific products. Until around a year ago, we had pretty much developed an alternative to Windows that was quite compelling. The regular Joe or Josephine could install Linux easily, access the web, send email, use productivity applications, run a server and more. There were certain key benefits with Linux such as network transparency in X, stability, performance etc., but Linux did not seem to offer a truly innovative solution to push people forward in really wanting it because of unique innovative features as opposed to simply assessing if it could replace their existing solution.

Recently it seems that some visionary hackers are pushing forward in making Linux step up to the next level of the game and truly innovate in how the OS progresses. Examples of such hackers include the Project Utopia brethren of Robert Love, David Zeuthen, Joe Shaw, Kay Sievers and others in making hardware just work. is another area making great strides. People such as Keith Packard, Jim Gettys, Havoc Pennington and others are pushing to create desktop technologies that are really opening up Linux and free software to a more flexible and powerful future. I am also encouraged by innovative projects such as Dashboard for finding information on related activities on your system. This is a new and untested ground, and it is great to see that hackers are brave enough to step forward and push their technology in new and different directions.

As the innovation continues and Linux is furthered and developed, it is inspiring to see that the important issues are gaining more and more importance. Usability is a subject that I have faith in to varying levels, and it is great to see that usability is a core concern with many software projects. As we continue to get easier and more accessible, the usability angle will not only rise in importance to imitate the ease of use of other systems, but we must ensure that we explore new and different areas too make our systems even easier to use. Yes, this is going to involve certain controversial features such as the GNOME Spatial Nautilus, but credit where credit is due - the GNOME folks stepped forward and had the balls to give it a shot. In my view it was a wise decision and has made the desktop easier to use.

Linux is a variant of UNIX. To some this will be reminiscent of an elegant, well designed Operating System. For many this will be reminiscent of a clunky, aging, complex, elitist system that only hardened system administrators could use. Part of the reason for the negative views of UNIX from a more modern desktop orientated generation is the fact that UNIX was never really designed for the desktop. Linux has been afflicted by a double edged sword; on one hand, UNIX is a dependable and tried and tested target platform to create a variant of, but on the other hand, basing Linux on UNIX fundamentally limits the direction of the system to a UNIX style system. When free software and Linux all kicked off, we could have quite easily ended up with just another UNIX clone, but we didn't.

Linux is exciting because it is bringing a powerful Operating System framework into a modern desktop orientated industry. Not only does this system retain the power of UNIX for hardened power users who crave for more power than a registry and control center, but it is ensuring that computers can be accessible to those who don't know their cronjob from their kernel. We could theoretically have the best of both worlds, and if Mac OS X is anything to go by, this is certainly possible. The really exciting thing though, is that Mac OS X shows what is possible from a mainly commercial standpoint - just imagine what the already well established open collaborative development model can do for us. We have only just scratched the surface.

For Linux to win we need to innovate. Innovation is not imitation but new thinking backed up by developers who actually care about their software. We have the enthusiasm, talent and potential, we just need to ensure that we all head forward instead of backwards.

What do you think? Accurate considerations or rambling rubbish? Chalk your views down below...


2004-06-17 10:40:47
Linux improves some aspects of clunky UNIX as well
I work with some Unix systems on a daily basis that were created by a commercial provider. They are all-right, but the fact they are so expensive and only used by a relatively small populace shows almost daily.

Contrast that with Linux, that is used daily by a comparitively large population... improvements of things that populace HATES about commercial UNIX can be expected... and not just on the desktop.

How about a version of vi that can handle extremely HUGE files. We rip out the commercial version and install the GNU version for the ability to do our daily work.

How about nice little switches (like -h for the df command) that make life just a little bit more sane. These are all end-user improvements in those "clunky non-desktop core unix tools" that are a blessing.

You can tell that they were created by people that said "there has to be a better way" and then either created it or pestered someone else to add it to their project.

And I thank, for one, thank them for it.

Sure the Linux Desktop gets a lot of press these days (as it should... I use Linux as a very powerful and functional desktop every day), but we should also bend a knee for those that toiled at making the "UNIX side" of Linux more friendly and useable.
2004-06-17 11:39:32
Hmmm Rubbish or ?
I like the positive tone of "moving" forward and innovation in the Linux desktop but I have a problem with your premise.

Why do people point to opensource as "copying" commercial software? Whatsup with that?

SOFTWARE (like MUSIC) copies itself endlessly.

Is opensource supposed to magically break the bonds of icons and menus?

Because opensource creates tools that have been needed on computers from the early days it is "derivative"?

There are categories of applications that both copy each other AND come to common conclusions about usage through practicality.

Is Gimp copying Photoshop (or Photoshop copying PhotonPaint or MacPaint) or just creating an image editing tool?

I think your premise is deeply flawed and only stands based on endless repetitions from handwringing webloggers. ;)

Look around and try to rethink your expectations of "innovation" vs practical solutions that are common across all platforms in the last 30 years.

After that try to look for the little things in opensource programs like "du -h" (as mentioned by newtechcity) vs commercial unix. Look again at the Gimp or Inkscape. Are you sure that they are only derivative? They bring many new things to the table but you're just not looking.

2004-06-17 14:20:16
The Italian enterpreneurs point of view of Linux & Open Source in general
I'm since 97 a Linux and BSD entusiasth, I'm writeing from Italy (sorry for my bad english), and here unfortunately is very difficult to widely deploy Linux or Open Source software in an enterprise enviroment.
The main reason is that the average of the italian firms are able to pay only for software able to manage in serious way MONEY TAX and LAW requirements.
Is very sad to say so, but is my esperience as an italian IT developer.Most of the italian firm make serious investment in software only if the law and the governement push them to do so.
As an example in this day all the firms have (absolutely) to comply a PRIVACY data mangement requirement (they dont feel the need but they are obliged by a law).So all the CEO are now looking for software to manage in automatic this issue...unfortunately no linux software is available. SO my feeling is.... ok Linux ..very nice tecnology...The desktop wonderful..but why there are not yet wide deployed ERP application running on it.
2004-06-17 16:39:30
Linux improves some aspects of clunky UNIX as well
I agree, the tools included with Linux are in general so much better than those included with commersial unixes. I'm always trying to use a handy option for a tool on Solaris and then remembering that that option is only on the Gnu/Linux version. The recursive '-r' option on Grep is a great example of an improvement that the free implementation has and the 'real' one doesn't. That's a trivial example but it shows how open source tools often go that little extra to make things more friendly where the commersial equivalents don't bother. It would take a fairly trivial amount of effort for Sun to add that functionality but it's just not worth their time. I think that it has a lot to do with the fact that open source developers are users also.