Linux has been growing in importance for years in the darkened server closets. In the server world, Linux's cost and performance benefits have trumped its early weaknesses (Ease of use, etc.), making Linux the heir apparent to the Unix throne.
But that's the server, where geeks write software for other geeks. In the consumer world of personal computers and mobile devices, however, Linux hasn't fared particularly well precisely because the developers of Linux differ so markedly from the vast majority of the user population.
Linux developers, in other words, scratch very different "itches" from those plaguing most would-be Linux users.
It seems clear to me that, as Bill Weinberg astutely argues, the way forward for Linux is not in replicating Microsoft's desktop dominance, but rather in forging a new, consumer-friendly mobile Linux experience, one focused on the youth that are growing up mobile.
This "way" is being paved by Intel, Canonical, Novell, and other companies that have significant experience writing software for normal users, and not merely the alpha geeks of Linux. I've spent the past two weeks fiddling with different variants of Linux-based Netbooks, in particular the Linux Foundation's Moblin Beta 2 (Developed by Intel and Novell) and Canonical's Ubuntu 9.04 Remix for Netbooks, and I believe they are onto something.
The first thing that struck me when using Moblin is how it breaks new ground in defining a new personal computer experience, one designed for the narrow (hardware) confines of a Netbook but offering a limitless portal to social networking and a broad Web experience beyond.
As for Ubuntu, it's an even tighter user experience (though, to be fair to Moblin, it's still in beta and so many of its rough edges will be smoothed over by general release, I assume). This isn't surprising given Ubuntu's singular focus on usability. It doesn't require any specialized knowledge of Linux though it does give the user too much information on what's happening under the hood. The lay user simply doesn't care. We just want it to work.
The experience hasn't been without its difficulties. My experience with Ubuntu, for example, was plagued by constant nagging to install yet another package to be able to play proprietary codecs. Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols suggests that this problem is going away, but it can't leave fast enough. It's asking way too much to expect consumers to have to work in order to watch a YouTube video.
We are users, after all, not developers.
Slowly but surely, however, vendors are getting the Linux experience "right" for Netbooks and other mobile devices. I've been leaving my Intel-loaned Acer Aspire One Netbook around where my kids, ages four through 12, will open it up and experiment. Each one has quickly managed to find the games in Moblin and Ubuntu, and my older children were quickly browsing the Web and even typing up school reports. In minutes. With no coaching.
To me, this suggests the path forward for Linux is in new, as yet underdeveloped markets like mobile, and for an as yet under-monopolized audience: youth. My kids have grown up with Macs, but they're hardly grown up yet. Their experience with computers has been as much about mobile phones as laptops.
They are the most mobile-inclined generation the world has yet seen, making them an ideal target for new Linux-based mobile devices. As the Bible notes in Proverbs 22:6:
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Children's conceptions of what a computer must look like and feel like have yet to calcify into a Windows mold. They are the audience to win for those vendors interested in dominating the next decade of personal computing.
Old dogs strain to learn new tricks, making the Microsoft-conceived desktop a poor target for Linux vendors. The market is mobile. The market is children.
Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.