25 years ago, I could leaf through my dad's _Byte_ and _Popular
Electronics_ magazines and actually learn something. _Byte_ was about
all the cool (in a budding geek's eye) things one could do even with
the limited hardware of the time. _PE_ was about electronics, not
necessarily computers but anything built from silicon.
18 years ago or so, there was the Commodore 64. How's this for an
open system? For about $15 or so (I forget exactly) one could get
the "Programmer's Reference Guide". This spiral-bound tome -- not
really a tome, it was about 5 inches by 8 inches and 1 inch thick --
had all the inner workings: explanation of assembly language,
listing of the instruction set, all the "Kernal" calls, list of the
I/O ports and what they did, and even timing diagrams for the
interfaces and a complete schematic diagram of the computer.
Ten years ago, I could walk into Software Etc. and find books on
just about any programming topic imaginable, at least where PCs
were concerned. One could find a good selection of software, too:
everything from MS-DOS to Windows to word processors to development
tools. As it happens, I bought my first Windows programming book at
a Software Etc.
_Sic Transit Gloria Mundi_. _Byte_ morphed into just one more bland
Ziff-Davis rag plugging the same products as all the others, and then
disappeared as a dead-tree publication. _Popular Electronics_ has
gone through three or four incarnations, and disappeared for a while;
it's back again, but it's just the kit of the week now. The C64 has
given way to the PC, a much more powerful machine of course, but
details of how the darn thing works are disappearing behind NDAs;
witness NVidia, Winprinters, and (ugh!) Winmodems. Software Etc.
sells games and little else, just like Babbage's (which is the same
company) and Electronics Boutique.
Much of this has happened because business chases the lowest common
denominator. Just *try* finding a book on writing a Windows device
driver among all the zillions of copies of _Office 2000 for Dummies_
and the like. When the largest market was the geek, one could get
geek-grade software and literature. Now the largest market is the
sort whose understanding goes little deeper than click-on-the-pretty-
icon, and geek-grade stuff is hard to find in the Windows world.
For a geek, much of the draw of Linux is that this dumbing down
hasn't happened yet. One can still get under the hood and understand
what's going on. One can still get in-depth literature; check the
shelves of a good bookstore. Want to write a device driver? You can
still learn how without signing away your firstborn. There are books,
there are HOWTOs, and if that's not enough, there's the kernel source.
Linux still has the qualities that got many a geek into computing
in the first place.
This is the strength of Linux, and the dilemma that it faces. Linux
needs market share to remain a viable platform -- not a monopoly,
just enough to assure decent hardware support and to force You Know
Who to play fair with interfaces and file formats. But Linux will
not get that market share from geeks alone. Linux must be accessible
to the masses, or it risks becoming a lab curiosity as You Know Who
embraces and extends everything else. Linux must also be accessible
to the geek, as a geek defines accessible, if it is to get any further
I do not think this problem is insoluble. A solution may already lie
in the diversity of distributions. Mandrake caters to the newbie,
Red Hat focuses on servers, SuSE ships everything including the
kitchen sink. And your geek will go for Debian or Slackware.
I end with a call for sanity among the Penguinistas. Every time some
nutcase yells at a newbie who's having problems, that's points for
You Know Who and its apologists and astroturfers. Better to answer
the usual complaints. When someone says it's too hard, point them
at your favorite newbie distro. When someone says X "sucks", point
them at KDE. When someone says they need to use Office formats, point
them at StarOffice and the various other open-source word processors.
Yes, there are gaps. No, Linux isn't perfect. Yes, we've got a good
thing going. But we're not going to get that market share by being
--------------===============<[ Ray Chason ]>===============--------------
PGP public key at http://www.smart.net/~rchason/pubkey.asc
Delenda est Windoze