The 'year of the Linux desktop' has passed

Many in the open-source community have been waiting for the "Linux desktop" to arrive for years, but they appear to have missed obvious signs that we're beyond it.

Tech Culture

For those still waiting for the year of the Linux "desktop," I regret to inform you that it has already come and gone.

Through the efforts of the open-source community, in conjunction with independent hardware and software vendors, as well as Web developers, Linux is well beyond its toddler years and is almost past its rebellious teenage years. Did you notice?

For many people, the answer is "no." I, for example, have been a Mac user since 2002 and haven't touched Windows for more than five minutes at a time since then. I've also not necessarily been the biggest advocate for desktop Linux over the years, with RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady pummeling me for my ignorance.

But in my new role at Canonical, I've switched to using Ubuntu on my Lenovo ThinkPad X200s and have found Linux comfortably routine. Like my Mac, it just works--no drama with day-to-day Internet activities like e-mail, Web browsing, IM, Twitter. It lets me do all the things I used to do, and still largely with the same applications I used on my Mac.

So, to the extent that "the year of the Linux desktop" means "the year that Linux is apples-to-apples comparable with Windows," we're there. But if we mean "the year that Linux surpasses Windows in market share," we have years to go, but we also have some reasons to believe that we're on track.

You see, a funny thing--the Web--happened on the way to the Linux desktop, making most of today's computing experience as accessible on Linux as it is on Windows or Mac OS X. With Firefox, my Linux browsing/application experience is the same as it was on the Mac, thanks to the Firefox add-ons and the fantastic Weave service. (I am even able to access tabs I left open on my Mac from my Linux machine through Weave.)

Other barriers to Linux adoption, including compatibility with popular software such as Apple's iTunes, are crumbling too, with rumors swirling that Google may build a competitive, cloud-based offering, and other services like Rhythmbox vying to fill the void.

The other thing that happened to the Linux experience is that savvy software vendors started to offer Linux support out of the box, rather than through painful kluges. Examples: TweetDeck and Skype. Yes, you can choose to use free-software alternatives to these (such as Gwibber for Twitter), but you don't have to do so.

Hardware support is also improving, with Dell taking the lead on Linux support and others, including Lenovo, Acer, and Hewlett-Packard, following suit. (My particular Lenovo model isn't officially supported, but I have yet to encounter a problem with driver support. Even add-on peripherals like my Plantronics headset worked perfectly out of the box.)

I could go on, but the point is that the desktop battle is largely over for Linux. There's really no reason not to use it, other than habit. Habits, of course, are hard to break, especially those that don't really qualify as "bad habits," in the traditional sense.

So what can the Linux world do to create the magic that will make people want to go Linux? After all, if someone already has Windows installed, why bother uninstalling it? (Keep in mind that most users aren't hung up about freedom--they just want their computers to work.)

Well, one obvious answer is that Linux can help to break open emerging markets such as India. As Gartner Vice President Brian Prentice suggests, entirely new open-source ecosystems have the potential to form in markets like India that are rich in people but poor in desire to pay Western software prices.

India is probably best positioned to figure out the "magic" that it needs in a desktop. Linux offers India and other emerging markets the chance to build an operating system in their own images.

Another answer is that we'll see more of the magic happening in the cloud, much of which will either favor open-source platforms or at least treat them equally. Twitter is just the latest company to parade its affection for open source, and it has been hiring open-source developers such as Michi Busch (Lucene committer). Such developers aren't likely to confine their code to Windows or Mac.

Add this growing collection of Linux-friendly cloud services with a rise in Netbooks and other alternative computing form factors, and I believe that we'll see more hardware vendors opt for the flexibility of Linux, even as Microsoft tries to hold the line on pricing and configurations.

We'll also see more appliance-like models of Linux "desktop" development, including's Kindle and new Android-based tablets. It might not be Canonical or Google or Novell or Red Hat with its name on the package, but that's the point: with Linux, it doesn't have to be.

Don't get me wrong; the Linux development community has a lot of work to do. But today, it's a matter of innovating beyond Microsoft and Apple, not one of replicating them. The drudgery of following is over. It's time to lead.

So stop waiting for Linux to arrive on the desktop and other personal-computing devices. It has already happened, and the trend is gathering speed.

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