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Sunday November 23rd 2014

Winning The Desktop Wars

chromebooksChris Hall over at Foss Force wrote an article that I’ve been mulling over writing myself for quite some time. Chris claims that Linux has won the “war for the desktop”, and on top of that, won it a long time ago with Android. However, I’m not quite as enthusiastic about his claims of open source superiority. Did open source really win, or have we been hijacked?

Let’s take a second and think about the nature of the open source movement for a few minutes. There are several reasons why we would want the software we use to be open to examination: fewer bugs, control of the machines we own, the ability to modify and redistribute programs, the list goes on. However, I believe that the core ideal of open source is not actually freedom per se, but control. We want to be able to control when and how our machines are used, and when and how our data is used, and to ensure that control access to the source code is necessary.

With the mindset of control, let’s examine how much open source has actually won. Linux and BSD have been popular in the datacenter for years as an inexpensive alternative to commercial UNIX vendors like IBM with AIX and HP with HP-UX. Using Linux lets sysadmins fix problems, find and recompile software if necessary, and rely on their own knowledge of Linux internals instead of paid support. Linux in the datacenter put control of the machines back into the hands of the company that owns them. Likewise, Linux on the desktop, or laptop, puts the control of the computer in the hands of the owner of the computer. You are limited only by your level of knowledge and imagination for what you can make a computer running Linux accomplish. However, something happened on the way to popularity with the general public.

The Cloud

There is no denying the popularity of Android, or the burgeoning popularity of Chromebooks. However, both systems rely on the same backend for the majority of their services: Google. For Chromebooks, the entire concept of the laptop is to get the user online as fast as possible, online, and into using Google’s apps. Android is in a similar boat. The built-in Google apps are fairly good, but the point of the apps is to get your data into Google’s cloud.

The cloud takes the concept of control and flips it on its ear. Of course Google is going to release Chromium OS, because the source code of that operating system doesn’t matter to them. The only thing that matters is getting you online. So, if we take a look at the “stack” in use by ChromeOS, it looks a bit like this:

  • Server OS: Open (to a point)
  • Google Applications: Closed
  • Google Data Storage Format: Closed
  • Desktop Browser: Open
  • Desktop OS: Open

The only way that Android and Chromebooks are a real win for open source are if the users do not use closed source web applications. What is the difference between closed source web applications and closed source desktop applications? From a philosophical point of view, Gmail is the same as using Microsoft Outlook and storing all your data in pst files with a proprietary format. Think you can just reload any operating system you want on your phone? Not so fast. Think your Chromebook is the ultimate in open source? Verified boot might have you rethinking that.

Chris mentions the Ubuntu phone project, and I have high hopes for Canonical. They face an uphill battle, though. Open source means freedom and putting control of our data and our machines in our hands. Google’s Android and ChromeOS have the veneer of open source projects without any meat to them. Cloud computing is just another form of proprietary software. Loading it in an open source browser doesn’t make the web app any more open. I’ll be convinced of Google’s commitment to open source when the company releases the source code for Gmail and Google Docs.

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