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I have rehearsed recent history here only partly to get it into the record. More importantly, it sets a background against which we can understand near-term trends and project some things about the future (I write in mid-December of 1998).
First, safe predictions for the next year:
Extrapolating these trends certainly suggests some slightly riskier predictions for the medium term (eighteen to thirty-two months out):
At first glance, these trends look like a recipe for leaving Linux as the last one standing. But life is not that simple (and Microsoft derives such immense amounts of money and market clout from the desktop market that it can't safely be counted out even after the Windows 2000 train wreck).
So at two years out the crystal ball gets a bit cloudy. Which of several futures we get depends on questions like: Will the Department of Justice break up Microsoft? Might BeOS or OS/2 or Mac OS/X or some other niche closed-source OS, or some completely new design, find a way to go open and compete effectively with Linux's 30-year-old base design? Will Y2K-related problems have thrown the world economy into a deep enough depression to throw off everybody's timetables?
These are all fairly imponderable. But there is one such question that is worth pondering: Will the Linux community actually deliver a good end-user-friendly GUI interface for the whole system?
I think the most likely scenario for two years out has Linux in effective control of servers, data centers, ISPs, and the Internet, while Microsoft maintains its grip on the desktop. Where things go from there depend on whether GNOME, KDE, or some other Linux-based GUI (and the applications built or rebuilt to use it) ever get good enough to challenge Microsoft on its home ground.
If this were primarily a technical problem, the outcome would hardly be in doubt. But it isn't; it's a problem in ergonomic design and interface psychology, and hackers have historically been poor at it. That is, while hackers can be very good at designing interfaces for other hackers, they tend to be poor at modeling the thought processes of the other 95% of the population well enough to write interfaces that J. Random End-User and his Aunt Tillie will pay to buy.
Applications were this year's problem; it's now clear we'll swing enough ISVs to get the ones we don't write ourselves. I believe the problem for the next two years is whether we can grow enough to meet (and exceed!) the interface-design quality standard set by the Macintosh, combining that with the virtues of the traditional Unix way.
We half-joke about ''world domination,`` but the only way we will get there is by serving the world. That means J. Random End-User and his Aunt Tillie; and that means learning how to think about what we do in a fundamentally new way, and ruthlessly reducing the user-visible complexity of the default environment to an absolute minimum.
Computers are tools for human beings. Ultimately, therefore, the challenges of designing hardware and software must come back to designing for human beings -- all human beings.
This path will be long, and it won't be easy. But we owe it to ourselves and each other to do it right. May the Open Source be with you!