Monday, January 12, 2009

Nonfiction Monday: Becoming part of the story’s an article in The New York Times today about Ubuntu, the popular, consumer-centric version of the Linux computer operating system. I don’t want to get too geeky (and I’m not a regular Linux user), but I do see a story in here that is very interesting to me in the way it involves school children. While you’re not likely to know somebody who uses Linux regularly here in the US, in Europe, it appears to be another matter: “The Macedonian education department relies on Ubuntu, providing 180,000 copies of the operating system to children, while the Spanish school system has 195,000.” Less than half a million users appears to be nothing to Windows’ global dominance of desktops, but it’s not necessarily the numbers of users; it’s who those users are: kids.

Still, let’s get a sense of the numbers and where they are. Add to the kids in Spain and Macedonia, all the young people from from the US, Europe and Asia who have bought tiny, cheap laptops like the Asus Eee or Dell’s Mini 9, many of which are most affordable when loaded with Linux instead of Windows, and then there are kids who are using laptops provided by the One Laptop Per Child project, most of which will be running Linux. Put all of this together, and you get a very interesting group of young people who are having a fundamentally different experience of software than their parents.

Is this a big deal? Maybe, maybe not. There’s no way to know because it’s never really happened before. In the earlier days of PCs, Apple had a significant toehold in schools (correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that’s true), whereas DOS and later Windows prevailed elsewhere. Years later, “Mac user” and “Windows user” are practically cultural categories (for my part, my first computer was an early Mac and I’ve been a largely faithful Apple consumer ever since). But the differences between Linux and Windows or OS X are much greater, and operating systems and computers are much more integrated into our lives than they were then. The difference between Macs and PCs for users are cosmetic and ergonomic, whereas the difference between Linux and Windows or OSX are financial and philosophical. If Linux gained traction with even a small fraction of young people, what happens ten or fifteen years later when they enter the workforce? I think it would be fascinating to consider this in some depth.