Car­la Schroder from Lin­ux Today repeats a ques­tion that I’ve heard asked many times:

“Here we go with anoth­er round of Lin­ux Today read­er com­ments. Let’s start off with an issue that has been on my mind: Ven­dors who boast of the their Lin­ux-based devices, but they only sup­port Win­dows and Mac clients. It’s a step in the right direc­tion, but would sup­port­ing Lin­ux clients be so dif­fi­cult?”

There are two major mis­takes that are often made in con­sid­er­ing this ques­tion:

  • that all “Lin­ux” sys­tems are the same
  • that by using Lin­ux in one place, it only makes sense that you sup­port oth­er “Lin­ux” sys­tems

We need to remem­ber that the only thing most of these devices share with a desk­top “Lin­ux” sys­tem (or even with each oth­er) is the ker­nel (i.e. the pre­cise def­i­n­i­tion of “Lin­ux”). The user­land is dif­fer­ent, and there’s a lot of their own pro­pri­etary stuff on it too. Even the hard­ware (such as CPU archi­tec­ture) is often wild­ly dif­fer­ent. I think peo­ple have grown to think it’s all the same since we call it all “Lin­ux”, but it’s not.

Because of this prac­ti­cal conun­drum (as total­ly dis­tinct from any philo­soph­i­cal or oth­er argu­ments), I have some sym­pa­thy for those who pre­fer to call the sys­tem we use on our desk­top and serv­er sys­tems “GNU/Linux”.

Argue all you want about its accu­ra­cy, but the fact is that it is far more accu­rate than mere­ly using the ker­nel name as nomen­cla­ture for the entire OS. It spec­i­fies a user­land that with the ker­nel com­pris­es a work­able oper­at­ing sys­tem. Come up with a bet­ter name if that makes you feel more com­fort­able.

This opens up a whole can of worms. If I’m an appli­ca­tions or device devel­op­er and I announce “Lin­ux sup­port”, what do I mean? Will it work on my mobile phone? On my tele­vi­sion? Prob­a­bly not. Chances are it refers to par­tic­u­lar ver­sions of par­tic­u­lar dis­tri­b­u­tions for a par­tic­u­lar archi­tec­ture.

If I pro­duce a device that is based on “Lin­ux”, what rela­tion does that have to oth­er “Lin­ux” sys­tems? None. It’s not just devices: anoth­er major cul­prit is Web ser­vices. Lin­ux runs most of the Inter­net, but many online ser­vices are not com­pat­i­ble with desk­top Lin­ux sys­tems.

The rea­sons for this are sim­ple:

  • cor­re­la­tion does not imply cau­sa­tion
  • the small mar­ket size of desk­top Lin­ux users

The first point relates to what I said ear­li­er, that there’s no con­nec­tion between the use of Lin­ux on servers and devices ver­sus its use on desk­top com­put­ers. The use­ful­ness of Lin­ux on servers and devices is firm­ly recog­nised in many sec­tors.

The same can­not be said for desk­top sys­tems, despite what we may wish. If it costs a devel­op­er more to sup­port a tiny mar­ket, they are prob­a­bly not going to do it. That’s just busi­ness. Com­pa­nies that choose to sup­port desk­top Lin­ux often do so for oth­er rea­sons, such as to fos­ter a developer/fan base or tap into a very spe­cif­ic set of users.

So every­one, I share your frus­tra­tions that many so-called “Linux”-based devices/services don’t inter­face with my com­put­ers, but I keep in mind the points made above.

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