Skype – How the other half (or 85%) lives

As you’ll know if you read this regularly I’ve been living in an open source/Windows-free world for a while now and I love my Ubuntu desktop, I find I don’t miss Windows at all but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some sacrifices I have to make for it. This week I was reminded rather graphically of the fact that we Linux users are very much a minority in the software world still. I live in my own little Linux bubble most of the time and I forget sometimes just how small our community is compared to the legions of Windows users all around us. I don’t have any hard figures to quote here (couldn’t be bothered to look) but I would estimate that at least 85% of the worlds home computer users are staring a Windows desktop right now… or more likely a nice blue screen of death hehe 🙂

Anyway, It seems that for a lot of software companies Linux users come at the very bottom of the pecking order, even lower than Mac users who still seem to get a bit of a bum rush at times. The amount of Windows-only programs out there is just staggering. Most of the time I find open source alternatives to proprietary apps easy to come by but every so often I hit that brick wall that makes me want to scream and shout “Linux exists as well, hello we’re over here at the back of the bus trying not to upset the ‘normal’ people!!!!” I had one of these moments this week so here comes the rant, brace yourselves 😉

I just started using Skype (I’m so cutting edge haha) the popular VOIP tool and I quite like it so far. It’s not open source sadly, not even close and I know Gizmo Project is a lot more open but it’s hard to ring people on Gizmo because nobody has it, they always ask what you’re Skype ID is, if you mention Gizmo they tend to go “oh… yeah… Gizmo cool… so what’s your Skype ID then?” Fortunately Skype do offer Linux and Mac versions of their software and seem to at least put a little effort into it but the situation is far from rosy. When you go to download Skype there is actually a Linux section on the site which is something of a novelty for us and there are even binary installers for quite a few different distributions, not just the normal build-it-yourself source code option. This is all great and I commend Skype for it, however I realized this week how limited our client software is compared to the Windoze version.

I was talking to a Windows using friend (yes I have them) the other day in a conference call, he mentioned how cool it was that Skype highlighted the person who was talking in the call window during conferences and I though “oh the Linux version doesn’t do that”. I’d always known that our version was a stripped down offering compared to the Windows one but I never realized quite how much until I actually compared them. It seems that most of the features from the Windows version are non existent. If you go to the Skype site and look at the different version numbers for Windows, Mac and Linux I think it pretty much tells the story of the software pecking order today, at least as publishers see it.

Skype Windows – Version 3.2 (with 3.5 already in beta)

Skype Mac – Version 2.6

and the loser is… Skype Linux at version 1.4 beta, not even an official release

I’ve heard from Mac users that their version isn’t much better than ours and I can believe it. The sad reality is most software publishers only care about Windows, the perception seems to be that Mac and Linux are just niche markets with little value. It’s simple economics, you can’t argue with it but how do we change it? Everyday I hear about how the Linux adoption rate is increasing and people are becoming more aware of it but I just don’t see it in my daily life. Most of my friends and family just use Windows and I suspect it’s the same for most other Linux users. I have managed to convert some people but most aren’t interested. It’s sad but it shows how much work we have to do to get Linux up the pecking order.

Great strides have been made in recent years but somehow I doubt 2007 is the year of Linux on the desktop, it seems that every year since 2001 has been “the year of Linux” but so far it’s only been a false dawn. There seems to be a bit of complacency creeping into some corners of the Linux community that we’ve made it now and we don’t have to try anymore. I include myself in this as I have been guilty too, this Skype example reminded me what a small and insular community we can be at times. There is also an element who use Linux because they feel it’s exclusive and makes them smarter than everyone else, they don’t want joe public moving in because they want to preserve their exclusivity. I use Linux because I believe in the core values behind it and I want to get the word out to a larger audience. It’s the only way for us to succeed, we need to stop fighting each other, stop fighting about which distribution is best and focus on real goal of getting more people to dump Windows and get onto Linux. The numbers don’t lie we are still a small minority and only when the numbers change will the industry attitude change with them.

Some people think we’ve “jumped the shark” but sadly it’s not true, we must carry on promoting ourselves and pushing open source software to be as good as it can be and then maybe, just maybe we’ll get to the front of the bus. This fight is not over, we’ve barely even got though round one and you can be sure nobody in Redmond will be throwing the towel in anytime soon.

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