posted by Bob Marr on Thu 10th Jun 2004 05:48 UTC

"Linux Needs Diet, Page 2/2"
Denying ourselves a chance

But let's think about some of the real-world implications of Linux's bloat. Around the world in thousands of companies are millions upon millions of Win98 and WinNT4 systems. These boxes are being prepared for retirement as Microsoft ends the lifespan for the OSes, and this should be a wonderful opportunity for Linux. Imagine if Linux vendors and advocates could go into businesses and say: "Don't throw out those Win98 and NT4 boxes, and don't spend vast amounts of money on Win2k/XP. Put Linux on instead and save time and money!".

But that opportunity has been destroyed. The average Win98 and NT4 box has 32 or 64M of RAM and CPUs in the range of 300 - 500 MHz -- in other words, entirely unsuitable for modern desktop Linux distros. This gigantic market, so full of potential to spread Linux adoption and curb the Microsoft monopoly, has been eliminated by the massive bloat.

This should really get people thinking: a huge market we can't enter.

The possibility of stressing Linux's price benefits, stability and security, all gone. Instead, businesses are now forced to buy new boxes if they are even considering Linux, and if you're splashing out that much you may as well stick with what you know OS-wise. Companies would LOVE to maintain their current hardware investment with a secure, supported OS, but that possibility has been ruined.

Impractical solutions

Now, at this point many of you will be saying "but there are alternatives". And yes, you're right to say that, and yes, there are. But two difficulties remain: firstly, why should we have to hack init scripts, change WMs to something minimal, and throw out our most featureful apps? Why should newcomers have to go through this trouble just to get an OS that gives them some real performance boost over Windows?

Sure, you can just about get by with IceWM, Dillo, AbiWord, Sylpheed et al. But let's face it, they don't rival Windows software in the same way as GNOME/KDE, Moz/Konq, OpenOffice.org and Evolution. It's hard to get newcomers using Linux with those limited and basic tools; new Linux convertees need the powerful software that matches up to Windows. Linux novices will get the idea that serious apps which rival Windows software are far too bloated to use effectively.

Secondly, why should users have to install Slackware, Debian or Gentoo just to get adequate speed? Those distros are primarily targeted at experienced users -- the kind of people who know how to tweak for performance anyway. The distros geared towards newcomers don't pay any attention to speed, and it's giving a lot of people a very bad impression. Spend an hour or two browsing first-timer Linux forums on the Net; you'll be dismayed by the number of posts asking why it takes so long to boot, why it's slower to run, why it's always swapping. Especially when they've been told that Linux is better than Windows.

So telling newcomers to ditch their powerful apps, move to spartan desktops, install tougher distros and hack startup scripts isn't the cure. In fact, it proves just how bad the problem is getting.

Conclusion

So what can be done? We need to put a serious emphasis on elegant design, careful coding and making the most of RAM, not throwing in hurried features just because we can. Open source coders need to appreciate that not everyone has 3 GHz boxes with 1G RAM -- and that the few who do want to get their money's worth from their hardware investment. Typically, open source hackers, being interested in tech, have very powerful boxes; as a result, they never experience their apps running on moderate systems.

This has been particularly noticeable in GNOME development. On my box, extracting a long tar file under GNOME-Terminal is a disaster -- and reaffirms the problem. When extracting, GNOME-Terminal uses around 70% of the CPU just to draw the text, leaving only 30% for the extraction itself. That's pitifully poor. Metacity is hellishly slow over networked X, and, curiously, these two offending apps were both written by the same guy (Havoc Pennington). He may have talent in writing a lot of code quickly, but it's not good code. We need programmers who appreciate performance, elegant design and low overheads.

We need to understand that there are millions and millions of PCs out there which could (and should) be running Linux, but can't because of the obscene memory requirements. We need to admit that many home users are being turned away because it offers no peformance boost over XP and its apps, and in most cases it's even worse.

We're digging a big hole here -- a hole from which there may be no easy escape. Linux needs as many tangible benefits over Windows as possible, and we're losing them.

Losing performance, losing stability, losing things to advocate.

I look forward to reading your comments.

About the author
Bob Marr is a sysadmin and tech writer, and has used Linux for five years. Currently, his favorite distribution is Arch Linux.


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Table of contents
  1. "Linux Needs Diet, Page 1/2"
  2. "Linux Needs Diet, Page 2/2"
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