The Problem with Linux; Laptop of the Month

Have you ever heard the term "disruptive technology"? Author Clayton M. Christensen coined the term in his book "The Innovator's Dilemma." Basically, disruptive technology is technology that's inferior to the status quo but good enough to win market share over time. Put simply, disruptive technology is "good enough." Recently, an open-source advocate referred to Linux as a disruptive technology, obviously believing that the OS is destined to defeat Windows. That idea got me thinking: Using more complex criteria than the simple definition above, I believe Linux needs to fulfill the following goals to qualify as disruptive technology: - Linux must have innovative features, valued initially by new customers, which will eventually form a competitive advantage. - Linux must be cheaper, simpler, smaller, and more convenient to use than the competition (i.e., Windows). - Linux must offer potential adopters a new and different value proposition.

On the surface, Linux might seem to meet these qualifications. But Linux is flawed, and not necessarily for the reasons you might think. I believe that open-source software solutions will dominate the future OS market and that Microsoft will continue to move closer to this market. Today's Linux is unlikely to unseat Windows simply because the technology is untenable for many enterprises.

When student Linus Torvalds originally devised Linux more than 10 years ago, he sought to emulate the OSs with which he was familiar at school--UNIX and a free UNIX clone called Minix. Working alone in the beginning, he started duplicating the functionality of the UNIX command line on his own system. And now, a decade later, Linux is simply the next UNIX. The OS looks and acts like UNIX; the difference, of course, is that Linux is cheaper than UNIX, runs on more hardware platforms, and isn't centrally controlled by one vendor or a small group of vendors.

However, Linux has many problems. First, Linux brings the same command-line "cruft" that ultimately supplanted UNIX with Windows, which was simpler to learn and administer. Linux's many applications and services, which duplicate those available on UNIX, provide the same inconsistent interfaces as they do on UNIX; thus, determining how they communicate with other processes is difficult. Like UNIX, Linux is a mess. One would think that Torvalds would have "done UNIX right" and fixed the problems; instead, he opted to mimic an OS that was already on the way out.

The Linux development process is also a problem. Unlike Windows Server 2003, with its tens of thousands of developers working in concert to address customer needs, Linux has a loose confederation of hackers and companies spread around the world, all with different goals. (For a detailed look at the Windows development process, please see my "Windows Server 2003 Road to Gold" series on the SuperSite for Windows, at the URL below). For much of Linux's development, important technologies such as device drivers were written only when a particular hacker needed such a driver to use his or her own hardware. But even now, with big companies such as IBM backing Linux, no central clearinghouse exists for features, UI guidelines, international concerns, accessibility, and other important capabilities that make Windows a mature environment. (Linux users still argue over which shell environment they should use.)

Linux backers will argue that these concerns are what made Linux popular to begin with and that the OS's popularity will continue for the same reasons. I disagree. Linux achieved its success because it was free and easy for hackers to get involved in its community. But for Linux to step into the real world of enterprise computing, it needs better standards, a central committee to determine the product roadmap, and a guiding hand that's more in tune with enterprise concerns than is Torvalds. In its present form, Linux is a good solution for a number of markets, but the OS doesn't have what it takes to be successful in the two most important (i.e., profitable) ones: the consumer (i.e., desktop) and enterprise server markets.

Disruptive technology? Unless Linux grows up quickly, it will simply provide Microsoft with the incentive the company needed to improve its products more quickly than it had been doing--incentive that products such as Apple Computer’s Macintosh, Novell NetWare, and IBM OS/2 once provided. And that's not disruptive--it's just the same old story.

Laptop of the Month: Toshiba’s Portege 3500
This month's laptop is Toshiba’s excellent Portege 3500, a convertible-notebook Tablet PC design that features a bigger screen, more horsepower, and better expandability than most Tablet PCs. Toshiba opted for the convertible-notebook design that Acer started with its TravelMate C100, but Toshiba made a few changes that sets the Portege apart. First, Toshiba ships the Tablet PC with a 12" screen, rather than the 10" screen that most tablet machines use. At 4.1 pounds, the Portege is a bit heavier than most Tablet PCs, but it's worth it. As a laptop, the Portege offers a comfortable, no-compromise, full-sized keyboard that most business travelers will prefer; as a tablet, the Portege's bigger screen seems more natural than other designs because it's closer to the size of a real piece of 8.5" x 11" paper.

From a design standpoint, Toshiba eschewed the dual-latch system that Acer used for its TravelMate, using instead a single, rotating latch that you use to change the screen between notebook and tablet form factors. My initial reservations about the hinge's stability were unfounded: In regular use, the screen is as steady as any laptop screen.

The Portege is also brimming with high-end (for a Tablet PC) hardware and ports. The machine I tested features a best-in-market 1.33GHz Pentium III-M processor, 512MB of RAM, a 40GB hard disk, and built-in 802.11b wireless technology. Its expansion capabilities are excellent, too. Although it has no internal optical drive (as is the case with all current tablets), the Portege includes a PC card slot, a CompactFlash (CF) slot, a Secure Digital (SD) card slot, and two USB 2.0 ports, in addition to VGA, Ethernet, modem, and audio ports. Integrated Bluetooth wireless technology is optional, and battery life is average--about 2.5 hours.

The Portege outperforms other Tablet PCs I've tested, and the Digital Ink feature never struggles to keep up with my handwriting. But what really sells me on this machine is its prowess as a standard notebook: I never felt like I was using a stripped-down machine. And I was always conscious that I could quickly switch to tablet mode when needed, giving me the best of both worlds.

If you're looking for a nocompromise notebook computer that you can occasionally use as a Tablet PC, the Portege is an excellent choice that I highly recommend.

Windows 2003 Road to Gold

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