Is Linux on the Desktop Dead? – It’s not a blunt “yes” or “no” answer

Is Linux on the Desktop Dead? – It’s not a blunt “yes” or “no” answer

GNOME LogoUbuntu Logo

The founder of GNOME, Miguel de Icaza, had shared his opinions and views on the state of Linux on the desktop and “what killed the Linux desktop”. It’s quite an interesting read and many of his points seem fairly valid. The thing that striked me the most was in respect to his point on various Linux distributions having different dependencies, packaging systems and core libraries. The end result is that down the line your app may not work completely correctly because of changes across multiple Linux distributions and the fact that at any one time different Linux distributions may be using different libraries, versions of GTK+, etc.

There is a reason why I included the Ubuntu logo here. Ubuntu is by far the most popular Linux distribution on the desktop, and my belief is for any project the scale Ubuntu is to be successful, requires an organisation behind it that is commercially sponsoring the project. In the case of Ubuntu, that’s obviously Canonical. And Canonical has been lucky to get partnerships with key hardware manufacturers and because of the increasing user-base of Ubuntu in general, more software developers are becoming interested in targeting Ubuntu, surprisingly gaming developers included. While in comparison to Windows and OS X there isn’t wide-spread software developer support, OS X and Windows has both a larger user base and a software developer culture (especially on OS X with respect to developer culture) than with Linux. Is Linux dead on the desktop? I don’t think so. I think many Linux distributions has become very user friendly over the years; and I don’t just mean with respect to ease of use, but also with compatibility, which a consumer does not want to have problems with. Many people have faced problems with their hardware and Linux distributions: it could be wireless not working or poor graphics drivers that prevent the end user from being able to play games even though their graphics card may support hardware acceleration. I think the primary four reasons Linux is not popular on the desktop is:

  • Incompatibility with hardware or drivers that do not work properly (hardware acceleration, video-related issues, wireless performance, etc.)
  • Not the same as how Windows works or the kind of apps that an end user is looking for isn’t available.
  • Later on down the line an update breaks something. I’ve not had anything major break as a result of a software update, but recently an update caused a glitch with the Launcher as a result of a bug in compiz.
  • No major backing with hardware manufacturers.

One thing I think Canonical needs to bet big on is tablet computers and smartphones. Unlike computers, consumers are not expecting Windows on smartphones or tablet computers (but perhaps this may change with Windows 8 on tablet computers). There are other organisations working on mobile platforms, including Mozilla with their “Firefox OS” for smartphones (previously referred to as Boot to Gecko). Mozilla’s approach to smartphones is that all apps will be HTML5 apps rather than apps using platform-specific APIs. In essence, the HTML5 apps would make use of APIs in JavaScript to interact with the hardware on the phone, such as the internal microphone, orientation sensor, etc. And speaking of smartphones, how about Android? Well, it’s obviously a mobile platform, but underneath the UI, APIs and libraries is Linux. Android is based on Linux. And Android is largely one of the most popular smartphone platforms in many markets around the world. Chrome OS is also based on Linux; but because it has the commercial backing of Google and with Google’s reputation, hardware manufacturers such as Samsung have signed on board to ship computers with Chrome OS preinstalled. While some people think Chrome OS and Chrome OS devices haven’t been very successful, Chrome OS devices have been popular with those that want an instant-on and simple computing experience – seeing as the operating system itself primarily just consists of the Chrome web browser. Canonical definitely has leverage to bring success to Ubuntu for the future, first and foremost because of Unity and Canonical’s persistence for success, but also because:

  • Canonical is a commercial organisation, and they sell services primarily to corporate customers.
  • Ubuntu is free, and so the overhead of a licensing fee is out of the question. The savings can get passed down to the consumer, and manufacturers can offer cheaper computers and devices to consumers.
  • Ubuntu is being adopted on an increasing scale on the desktop in corporate environments. Many companies are switching over to Ubuntu because of the savings of running computers with Ubuntu installed rather than Windows.

But why Unity? Because Unity is made so it works well using a mouse and a touchscreen. There is no inconsistent user interface for those that have touchscreens (such as tablet computers) and those that don’t, while not compromising on the usability of the user interface with using a mouse and keyboard.

While it may seem like I’m going off-topic speaking about Ubuntu and Canonical, Ubuntu is based on Linux. Ubuntu has measurably had the most success of any Linux distribution on the desktop as of now. But any platform needs concrete developer support. Without good apps, no platform is successful – especially smartphone platforms. It will definitely be interesting to see how successful Firefox OS will be. And like Android, Firefox OS uses the Linux kernel.

Read Miguel’s blog post.


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