Desktop Linux: The dream is dead

If Linux ever had a shot at becoming a major desktop OS, that moment has now passed.

It kills me to say this: The dream of Linux as a major desktop OS is now pretty much dead.

Despite phenomenal security and stability -- and amazing strides in usability, performance, and compatibility -- Linux simply isn’t catching on with desktop users. And if there ever was a chance for desktop Linux to succeed, that ship has long since sunk.

Over the past few years, modern Linux distributions such as Ubuntu have utterly transformed the open-source desktop user experience into something sleek and simple, while arguably surpassing Windows and Mac OS in both security and stability. Meanwhile, the public failure of Windows Vista and the rise of the netbook gave Linux some openings to capture a meaningful slice of the market. But those opportunities have been squandered and lost, and Linux desktop market share remains stagnant at around one per cent.

I should emphasize that I'm not by any means talking about the demise of Linux itself. New projections from the Linux Foundation credibly show that demand for Linux on servers will outstrip demand for all other options over the next few years. And, as I'll discuss at length in this article, Linux has already established itself as a dominant operating system on mobile and embedded devices ranging from tablets and phones to TVs and printers.

But for anyone who has longed for a future in which free, open-source Linux distributions would rival premium commercial operating systems from Microsoft and Apple on desktop PCs, now might be a good time to set more-realistic expectations. Though I personally wish that the opposite were true, the year of the Linux desktop will never come.

Missed Opportunities

A few years ago, I infamously went on record with the belief that the stage had been set for a significant breakthrough in Linux adoption rates. After all, Ubuntu had created a virtually idiot-proof distribution that was as easy to install as Windows or Mac OS X. Hardware driver support had reached critical mass. Even major PC makers such as Dell had stepped up to offer Linux as a preinstalled option on laptops and desktops.

At the same time, consumer sentiment toward Windows Vista had reached such abysmal depths that users were clamoring for other options. And to sweeten the prospects just a bit more, the emergence of netbooks gave Linux a nearly unchallenged new platform to dominate for months on end. If there was ever a time for Linux to rise up, 2008 was that time. But it wasn't meant to be.

Although Asus managed to spark a massive trend with cheap, simple netbook PCs, it opted to ship systems preinstalled with a Xandros distribution that left a lot to be desired. Other vendors moved just as clumsily with a host of bad options that gave Microsoft room to sweep the market by extending the life of Windows XP. In that one gesture, all hope was lost for Linux's netbook revolution. Meanwhile, desktop users who fled Windows Vista mostly just switched to Macs or reverted to Windows XP.

By the time Microsoft released the Windows 7 beta in January 2009, Linux had clearly lost its chance at desktop glory.

Why Linux Failed on the Desktop

The failure of Linux to catch on with mainstream PC users will come as no great surprise to most observers, but the reasons for its failure are often misunderstood or, at the very least, grossly misstated. Linux didn't fail on the desktop because it's "too geeky," "too hard to use," or "too obscure," as casual detractors so often claim in online forums. On the contrary, the best-known distribution -- Ubuntu -- has received high marks for usability from every major player in the technology press, and it features a menu layout nearly identical to that of Mac OS X.

Ultimately, Linux is doomed on the desktop because of a critical lack of content. And that lack of content owes its existence to two key factors: the fragmentation of the Linux platform, and the fierce ideology of the open-source community at large.

User expectations have shifted dramatically in the past few years, and it's no longer acceptable for any PC to fail at basic media viewing. DVD playback and video streaming from premium sites such as Netflix are now fundamental capabilities that any computer should have. But the politics of the open-source world make that a nearly hopeless dream for Linux.

"I share the hope with everyone that free and open-source software will rise to meet the requirements of content delivery," says longtime Linux developer Jeff Whatcott, senior vice president of marketing for Brightcove, a company that specializes in online video streaming. "But that's not happening."

"DRM is not popular with the open-source crowd," says Whatcott, lamenting that the open-source community at large remains so steadfastly opposed to digital rights management technologies. Without those systems, commercial content providers have no incentive to embrace Linux. And Whatcott points out that even if the open-source community were willing to go along, the DRM arena is dominated by "deep, deep patent pools," making a free, open-source alternative unlikely anyway.

Meanwhile, even common streaming technologies such as Flash -- which Whatcott helped bring to Linux in his previous role as a Macromedia (and later Adobe) product manager -- deliver poor results on Linux.

"It wasn't for lack of trying," Whatcott says. "At the time, Macromedia put extensive resources into figuring that out." But despite the hard work of a team of engineers "that loved Linux," the fragmentation of the Linux platform and the hurdles presented by what Whatcott describes as "alpha-quality" drivers for audio and video hardware made success elusive for the Flash development team.

The Desktop Itself May Be Irrelevant

We shouldn't be too hard on Linux, though. After all, there are stark signs that the desktop itself is becoming irrelevant.

"The war between cloud and native apps has already been won on the desktop," says Guy Ben-Artzi, CEO of Particle Code, which makes cross-platform tools for mobile-app developers. "When it comes to desktop development, everything is moving to Web technology. If I was really pushing for Linux right now, I would not be focusing on desktop applications." Instead, says Ben-Artzi, Linux proponents should push aggressively for open Web platforms.

Kevin Mahaffey, CTO of mobile security company Lookout, agrees. "Linux can be successful on the desktop if it has a great Web experience," says Mahaffey. "The growth of things like HTML5 will help to give Linux a user experience that's on par with other platforms."

According to all of my sources, if there's any last hope for Linux on the desktop, it's HTML5. As the next-generation Web standard establishes a common set of open media-streaming technologies, it will offer a glimmer of hope to those who want to maintain Linux as their desktop OS, increasing the odds that whatever content or services they want to use will work on their open-source PC. Of course, that's assuming the DRM problems magically disappear.

"In a strange way," says Brightcove's Jeff Whatcott, "iOS may save the Linux desktop indirectly." Brightcove has thrown its resources into developing HTML5 streaming tools, and according to Whatcott, "what's driving that is iOS."

But if Linux ever manages to win equal footing with Windows or Mac OS X in a cloud-centric world, it will likely be a hollow victory, made possible only through the sheer irrelevance of the operating system itself.

Our Mobile Future

"Forget about the desktop," Phil Robb, director of HP's Open Source Programs Office, tells Linux developers. "I think that's not where the effort should be put."

Rather than continue to fight for a tiny sliver of desktop market share, Robb says developers should concentrate on areas where Linux is strong. "Linux is already strong on small, mobile devices. If you're looking for ubiquity and impact on the planet, the Linux community should pat themselves on the back because they've already secured a victory on mobile."

And it looks like Robb is right. Even before Google's Android emerged, LG and other companies had turned to Linux to power the underpinnings of feature phones. Now Android and, to a lesser degree so far, WebOS (which HP recently acquired in its buyout of Palm) are putting Linux at the forefront of smartphone and tablet innovation.

Simultaneously, Linux has emerged as the go-to platform for embedded systems that power Web-enabled HDTVs and set-top boxes ranging from Roku and Google TV to Boxee and a multitude of others. Of course, to the end user, Linux is transparent in these offerings, and the experience is a far cry from what traditional Linux desktop enthusiasts have come to know and love. Notably, these implementations tend to be closed rather than open, showing only a simple set of menus to the end user.

End of the Road?

It has been a long trek since Linus Torvalds wrote the first Linux kernel as a college project in 1992, and the landscape has shifted considerably along the way. Despite grim prospects on the desktop, Linux has clearly asserted itself as a major platform that's here to stay. And of course, passionate open-source proponents will rightly stand by their favorite desktop distributions despite the challenges ahead.

But at this point in history, it's hard to deny the evidence: With stagnant market growth and inadequate content options compounded by industry inertia, Linux basically has no chance to rival Mac OS X, much less Windows.

PCWorld executive editor Robert Strohmeyer has been a Linux enthusiast since 1994, and still believes in the virtues of open source. Follow him on Twitter as @rstrohmeyer.

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