The Linux desktop: with great success comes great failure

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: will be the year of the Linux desktop. Even in Linux circles, this is greeted by the eyes. Here’s the funny thing, though: Linux won the hearts and minds of end users a long time ago, even as the Linux desktop continues to spin its wheels.

How is it possible?

The paradox is easily explained. But when it comes to Linux’s failure to capture the hearts and minds of desktop computers, it’s a complicated story. I’ll explain it to you.

First, the paradox: according to the last Annenberg Report Surveying the Digital Future, the average American now spends 24 hours a week online. Meanwhile, Kleiner Perkins’ partner Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report 2018 shows that the average adult in 2017 spent 5.9 hours per day watching or listening to digital media.

And what to do about 95.6% of all websites work on? With the exception of Microsoft sites, the answer is Linux. Facebook? Linux. Google? Linux. Yahoo? Linux. Netflix? Linux. I can go on and on. You can use Windows on your desktop, but it’s actually just an interface for Linux-based services and data. You might as well use a Chromebook (running on Linux-based Chrome OS, by the way).

But in fact, Windows is no longer the primary operating system for end users. Oh yes, it still dominates the desktop, but the desktop hasn’t been the end user king of the hill in quite some time. According to StatCounter calculations, the most popular end-user operating system from September 2018, with 40.85% market share, was – drum roll, please – Android. Who – guess what – is Linux based.

So, in many ways, Linux has been the number one operating system for end users for some time.

But not on the desktop, where Windows still reigns supreme.

Why? There are several reasons.

Back in the days when the Linux desktop debuted, Microsoft kept it as a niche operating system using powerful tactics with PC vendors. For example, when Linux netbooks gave Microsoft serious competition for low-end laptops in the late 2000s, Microsoft unearthed XP Home from the cemetery to stop it in its tracks.

But Microsoft’s eager competitiveness is only part of the story. In fact, Microsoft has done very well with Linux lately. It’s fair to say that it no longer tries to prevent the Linux desktop from gaining traction.

No, what has done more than Microsoft to keep the Linux desktop down is the Linux community.

First, while the large Linux companies – Canonical, Red Hat and SUSE – all of them support Linux desktops, they all decided early on that the big money should be made with servers (and nowadays with containers and the cloud). The biggest Linux players identified the Linux desktop as a small market – and then did very little to change that.

But there is more to it. The Linux desktop has also been plagued with fragmentation. There is no single Linux desktop; there are dozens of them, and they don’t look alike at all. There is the Debian Linux family, which includes Ubuntu and mint; the Red Hat team, with Felt and CentOS; Arch Linux; Manjaro Linux; and many others.

And then there are the desktop interfaces. Personally, as a dedicated Linux desktop user for decades, I like having a choice between GNOME, KDE Plasma, Cinnamon, Xfce, BOYFRIEND, etc. for my desktop interface. But most people find it confusing.

It all only scratches the surface. There are also many incompatible package managers: Debian Package Management System (DPKG), Red Hat Package Manager (RPM), Pac-Man, Zypper, and many more.

You would think that everyone would learn to play well with each other. Nope. Do not arrive. The fragmentation keeps getting worse, it seems. For example, the next generation of program installers will use a container-based approach. Do we have a single standard for this? Ha! Ubuntu has Snap, Red Hat to Flatpak, And the two will never meet.

This is all as confusing as it gets for newcomers. Heck, confusing even for Linus Torvalds’ dive buddy, VMware Open Source Director Dirk Hohndel, who wrote, “The current situation with dozens of distributions, each with different rules, each with different versions of different libraries, some with some missing libraries, each with different packaging tools and packaging formats … which basically says to App developers to go, focus on platforms that care about apps. “

So, yes, 2019 will be the year of Linux end users who don’t know they are Linux end users. But, “the” Linux desktop as a consumer alternative to Windows? No, that will never happen, not until Linux developers can play on the same page.

I will continue to be a Linux desktop user. For me as a power user this is the best of all operating systems. But for most people, Linux will never replace macOS or Windows.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

About Jon Moses

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