The desktop opportunity

Ray Ozzie's sudden and dramatic appearance in blogspace has got a lot of people thinking about a lot of things. For Jeremy Zawodny, Ray's latest essay on leverage and reuse prompts a line of thought about what open source really could mean on the desktop:

But none of what I do is in the space of desktop applications...There really is nothing like ODBC, ADO, or OLEDB on Linux/Unix that has much traction...What about printing...?...The list goes on. There's a lot of common plumbing that's not there...Linux application developers haven't built the necessary cultural infrastructure to enable the level of component reuse needed to make Linux an appealing platform for application developers. [ Jeremy Zawodny's blog ]

Obviously I agree. It has long pained me that the radically productive tools of the open source world, and the amazing ingenuity of the people who inhabit that world, have made so little direct impact on most people's lives. Sure, we all depend on Internet infrastructure, but what we see and touch (and love to hate) is desktop software that cries out for a heavy dose of open source energy and methodology.

I'd go farther than Jeremy, and suggest that the primary cultural problem is not simply reluctance to build and then reuse components. More fundamentally, it's that the status economy described by Eric Raymond revolves around infrastructure rather than end-user applications. I once asked several open source gods: "Does the idea of millions of people using your software, and being empowered by it, excite you?" The answer was (paraphrasing): "Nope. We build infrastructure that we hope will impress other hackers. If they in turn use it to build apps that make lots of users happy, fine, but we're not interested in that." I found that shocking, and still do.

I would like to see Linux succeed on the desktop. Microsoft needs OS competition to keep it honest and on its toes. But I wish Linux and open source were not so nearly synonymous. That tight coupling works to the advantage of neither, and there are extraordinary opportunities at hand. Desktop software has grown dreadfully stale and boring. That's going to change as SOAP endpoints arrive on the desktop and inject new life into client-side software. The creativity, programming skills, and can-do attitude that open source developers have evolved working in the cloud will become relevant in new and even more interesting ways. Miguel sees this, but Evolution (so far) calls itself "a PIM for Linux/UNIX," not simply "a better PIM." My hope for Mono is not just that it could make Linux more viable. I also want the mainstream Windows platform to have access to the abundance of open source talent. Seems to me that could make the phrase "open source business model" sound a little less hollow than it presently does.

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