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Girls in Tech, and Is Linux Doomed on the Desktop?

Girls in Tech, and Is Linux Doomed on the Desktop?

A controversy arose when Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst told attendees at a conference he didn't know how to make money with Linux. A strange admission for a Linux company CEO, to be sure. On another note, Linux geeks pondered how to attract more women -- to their profession.

By Katherine Noyes
03/30/09 4:00 AM PT

Well it's been a contentious few days on the Linux blogs, what with Ada Lovelace day happening last week and the subsequent emergence of several incendiary topics.

Most fiery of all, perhaps, were comments made separately by a few different people suggesting that Linux will never rule the desktop. Of those, the most notable was undoubtedly Red Hat's CEO Jim Whitehurst, who cited financial and other concerns.

Putting it plainly, "I don't know how to make money on it," he reportedly said at the InfoWorld Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco last week.

"Wow, Jim, really?" shot back Ken Hess at DaniWeb. "Perhaps you shouldn't be CEO of a Linux company."

'The Desktop Will Die'

Whitehurst also questioned the relevance of the desktop itself in a few years, and that viewpoint was echoed elsewhere.

"If you draw a line giving the rate at which Linux is taking over the desktop you'll see it'll take several years from now to become the biggest operating system on desktops," began kaikokan at Handle With Linux. However, "This is never going to happen, because the desktop as it is will die long before we reach this point."

Bloggers at Slashdot wasted no time in responding to Whitehurst's comments, while those at LXer picked right up on those at Handle With Linux.

"If I don't know how to make money from orange juice, should I tell people that drinking it is stupid?" asked Andr T. on Slashdot.

"People have been predicting the death of the desktop since the early 1990s, if I remember correctly, arguing that everyone would [prefer] mobile and specialty devices," wrote jdixon on LXer. "There has been a degree of truth to this, but overall the desktop still seems to be doing fine."

Then again: "Viva Linux! Viva CheTux!" added ColonelPanik. "The only thing that will kill the desktop, any desktop, is the RIAA and the government."

'I Find It Shocking'

"I find it shocking that leaders in the GNU/Linux community would trot out ideas that GNU/Linux cannot dominate the desktop," educator and blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider. "Adoption of GNU/Linux on the desktop is growing faster every year. The current economic downturn is causing OEMs like Dell to concentrate on emerging markets which have no lock-in. This is the year of GNU/Linux and they are ready to accept defeat?!?"

The desktop client is a commodity system, Pogson explained: "Any OS will do; the least costly and most friendly will win, and that's GNU/Linux for the foreseeable future."

Similarly: "I'm shocked they had a whole conversation about Linux on the desktop without ever bringing in the people who actually do Linux on the desktop," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. "How can that be a meaningful conversation without Ubuntu?

"Will Linux make it on the desktop? Probably," he added. "Will Red Hat have anything to do with it? I seriously doubt it."

'It's a People Problem'

Not everyone saw it that way, however.

"I would agree with the idea that Linux will never dominate on the desktop," Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean said. "This isn't to say anything of Linux -- it's actually a 'people' problem."

Specifically, "it has nothing to do with what Linux supports, what theme is on the desktop or anything else," Dean told LinuxInsider. Rather, the matter for most is that "it's not what I'm used to," he said.

Where Linux can, and is, dominating, however, is in embedded markets, Dean noted: "The reason here is that people's idea of what is 'normal' is still changing."

'Society's New Desktop'

It is possible that the desktop and who "owns" it will be moot as more technology is embedded and users no longer think in terms of "settling in front of their computers in some room away from the rest of the home," Slashdot blogger yagu agreed.

"As I stood waiting for my train this morning, I watched people all around me reading their e-mail, sending text messages, surfing the Web and catching up on the morning news," he explained. "None of them had a 'desktop.'"

The good news about many specialized devices such as smartphones is that "Linux is competitive there," yagu told LinuxInsider. "Linux excels where small footprints and flexibility drive requirements for fast, reliable and affordable technology. In many ways, Linux is well-positioned for what is society's 'new desktop,' where activities that have long been the domain of PCs now are readily available on gadgets."

'Getting Girls Into Tech'

Indeed, "the traditional desktop has become less important than ever," Slashdot blogger drinkypoo agreed.

"As more unconventional computer platforms gain market share, the importance of being able to run Windows software decreases," he told LinuxInsider.

Speaking of the unconventional, Carla Schroder of Linux Today wrote a blog post back in February that we've been dying to pick up on. Titled "Getting Girls Into Tech," the post notes that women are few and far between in technology, with some speculation as to the reasons that might be.

Ada Lovelace Day!

Now, we here at LinuxInsider are proud to include some "girl geek" types of our own, so it was with great glee that we discovered that last Tuesday was none other than Ada Lovelace Day, "an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology."

The news got picked up on the Open... blog -- which asked, "Where are the alpha *female* hackers?" -- as well as on LXer, so we couldn't resist getting some more perspective.

"I would personally put Carla Schroder on my list of notable female hackers," Dean said. "I'm not sure if she contributes a lot of code, but I know she contributes a lot of knowledge."

While "I don't know of any really high-profile female hackers, that's mainly because most of the hackers I know, I know by handle or project position and not gender," he added.

'I Do Not Know Why'

"There are still too few ladies participating in IT," Pogson agreed. "As a teacher, I see it in schools. A few of the girls do not mind getting their hands dirty ruling a PC, but software development seems a bridge too far. I do not know why."

Girls are "good at whatever they try," he added. "A few years ago, I used OpenMosix, a variation on Linux for clustering. Some ladies in a college in India contributed a wonderful patch to make OpenMosix handle shared-memory applications.

"So there are women who participate and change the world," he added.

Nevertheless, "it's a very male-dominated environment and it's hard for women to be taken seriously in the field," drinkypoo added.

A Matter of Choice?

Why that's the case is a question "I've wondered about my entire career," yagu said. "I've wondered NOT because there were so few women in technology, but more about why people wonder."

Even after "years of special programs to encourage women to take the technology track, their numbers decline after a small rise from these efforts," he explained. "Women can choose technology. Women are exceptionally capable. Women haven't chosen technology in the same numbers or percentages as have men.

"I'm not sure what the controversy is, or why people care so much," yagu added. "I don't see discrimination here, I see choice. I don't see lack of ability here, I see affinities. I don't see a problem here, I see great opportunity."

Gaming for Girls

Perhaps the best insight of all, however, comes from Michelle Hall, a former English major who admits she "hadn't touched a Linux box until about 8 months ago."

Hall is now cofounder of QuinnCo, a company that makes Qimo, a downloadable version of Linux customized for kids.

"I'm now up to my eyeballs in computers, having to learn as I go, and wishing that someone had, at some point, convinced me that computers were cool, appealing, interesting," Hall told LinuxInsider. "I really think that's what's lacking: Girls don't have any real idea *why* they should want to be dabbling in the computer field."

A few simple things could promote technology among girls, Hall added. "We need to see an increase in feminine gaming: There are few Windows-based girly games on the market -- far fewer than games geared for boys -- and I've not been able to find anything in the open source world that promotes gaming in girls.

Teaching by Example

"We've got *great* games introducing programming skills," such as "Scratch," "eToys" and "TurtleArt," she explained, "but looking at them from a girl's perspective, they're not the most appealing. Doing nothing more than putting a purple skin on the games might make them appealing. Making games with characters that are girlish would promote further involvement, as well."

Showing girls what a computer degree can DO is important as well, Hall said.

"I can't imagine that 95 percent of girls have ever spoken to someone in the technology industry, let alone a woman who can testify as to what a girl can DO with technology," she pointed out. "That's a large portion of why I am the person who represents QuinnCo in the schools. The boys don't hesitate to talk to me about what I do, but neither do the girls.

Role Models Needed

"I think it's important for women within the technological realm to go out and speak with girls, to teach and show them what girls can do," she added.

In short, "I am by no means an important person in the industry -- I'm just doing the best I can do to give kids better opportunities," Hall said. "But I might one day speak to that one child -- the next Steve Jobs, the next Albert Einstein, the next Stephen Hawking -- and encourage that child to do what he or she wants to do most.

"And maybe, just maybe, that child will be a girl, and she will go on to do things to change the world," she concluded. "That's the most I can hope for."


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