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Wed, 2004-Dec-29

Own the Standards

Harry Phillips writes:

Linux does not need a "Killer app", more open source projects need to be ported to Windows.

He refers to this article as his inspiration.

The article does not appear to be well-researched. It is an opinion piece, but I think it holds a few grains of truth. This blog entry is an opinion piece too, and is probably less well-researched. Today, we already see open source software creeping onto the windows desktop. Companies like Green PC in the sub-$500 PC market appear to love the cost savings they can make with a bit of open source software (in this case, openoffice) thrown into the bundle.

It's a niche with pros and cons, but I think some of the pros are notable ones. People may start to get used to working with openoffice software at home. Slowly it creeps into educational institutions, four years later it starts to make its mark on industry.

Maybe that's a pipe-dream. Doubly-so because I would rate the software's usability at around 2/10. I hate the bastard.

Nevertheless, the crossover of open source software onto the windows desktop is very interesting indeed. The mozilla and openoffice technology stacks are mature on windows as well as unix-like and mac platforms (as a short list). GTK applications are starting to make a splash as well. Gimp now has windows support which should continue to improve over the next few gtk revisions. Some might point out qt, especially given their recent version four beta release, which has been mature and open source for some time but still has the ring of "that company owns it, not us" about it and has a strong C++ aftertaste.

Anyway, the future is looking bright for open source software under windows. Why is this important?

I think the use of open source software on the windows platform is not that useful to open source. It may have positive impacts on the individual products. They may recieve more contributions and more feedback from the wider audience they've courted. This may feed back to a better overall user experience. It may even raise the profile of open source. On the whole, though, I don't think it will be a big win in and of itself. To me, the win is in retaking the platform.

For some years, Microsoft has been able to claim all the best software because of a self-fulfilling prophecy (as well in part to a reasonably sound software development platform). You need things to work under windows, so you develop for the windows platform. Java tried to break this model with the write once, run everywhere philosophy. This philosophy has been adopted by a number of other portable platforms that have been migrated over the top of windows. As I recall, the first major beachhead was retaken with perl. It was genuinely useful to windows users, and filled a hole that Microsoft had failed to. With more and more common platform between Windows and those other camps, it is starting to become viable again to write software that will work under other operating-systems "as well".

I'm currently tinkering with (nibbling at) an accounting system written in python. To get it working under windows all I had to do was to make sure it had only gtk dependencies, not those of gnome. I use sqlite as the file-storage-slash-database, which was also available trivially. I expect that if I add further dependencies they'll be available in a similarly straghtforward fashion. I can write once, and run (test) everywhere.

I think the most important problem in software at the moment is in defining practical platforms for the development of high-level software. I think the main risk to this problem being solved entirely is still the split between the three main free desktop camps. Mozilla, openoffice, and gnome (Did I forget KDE? Oh, my bad...) are all built on essentially-incompatable software stacks with three different sets of abstractions. I believe this harms the solution not only on the free desktop but on the windows desktop. If this problem isn't solved in the next five years or so (perhaps in the timeframe of the Windows Longhorn release) I think the tide may turn back again and we may find Microsoft dictating the platform once again. Perhaps Mono or other .NET clones will help us to still write portable software in that time, but my real ambition for open source would be for Microsoft itself to eventually be forced to contribute to the one true codebase.

I'm all for open source software under Windows, especially if it means that open source platforms become defacto standards under the windows dekstop. I would love to see sufficient momentum behind those platforms that they outevolve and outdevelop Microsoft's competition on its own operating system.

Once the standard windows desktop is gnome-based, why would anyone buy windows?

Benjamin (the dreamer)