Barriers to year of linux on the desktop

This post is a tribute to Linux Hater who sadly has retired. He was insightful and right about many things, although sometimes a bit too whiny. Linux currently holds about 1% market share on the desktop. It has gained 0.5% in 2 years, whilst Mac OS X has gained 3%, and MS Windows has lost 4%. In the browser market Firefox is now nudging 20% market share. Can Linux ever achieve that? A single ‘Year of Linux on the desktop’ is unlikely, but it’s a popular meme, so lets to play. It’s some number of years in the future. Ubuntu ‘Satisfied Squirrel’ has built on slow, steady growth. Linux desktop share now nudges 20%. What might this future Linux desktop be like, compared to now?

Linux is too difficult to install

Now: This goes back to the early days of Mandrake Linux, before Ubuntu. The installers asked about every detail, from the desktop environment, through to which boot loader. We’ve progressed since then. Installing Ubuntu Linux is as easy, if not easier, than installing Windows Vista. It will even migrate favourites, emails and other settings from Windows for you.

Future: It didn’t matter how streamlined the installer was. Installing any OS is an arduous and risky task, that normal people don’t do. Install-fests, haven’t scaled, but automated deployment has proved very popular in the corporate sphere. Pervasive packaging, hardware independence, & LTSP have streamlined IT provision. At 20%, almost all consumer linux desktops come pre-installed, straight from the manufacturer, only geeks install their own OS.

Status: Work in progress

Linux is too difficult to configure

Now: The classic view of Linux is configuration through the command line and text files. This is still true of many programs targeted at power users or developers. The major desktop projects, particularly Gnome, have paid much to making configuration easier. It’s still sometimes necessary to drop to the command line or gconf-editor, these are becoming rarer. A freshly installed Linux desktop still needs more configuration than a Windows desktop, for the typical user. Future: Manually configuring a Linux desktop means answering only a few questions. Everything is automagical that can be made so. It began with Zeroconf and spread. Now, only an email address/password are needed to configure email, contacts, calendaring and document collaboration - everything else is inferred or discovered. Backups are a 2 click or even 0 click affair. The Linux desktop has truly become a fire and forget appliance. Status: Just beginning

Linux is too hard to develop for

Now: Independant Software vendors are the backbone of the Windows ecosystem, Microsoft makes it easy for them prosper. Development tools on Linux are prevalent and very easy to install (although no single tool rivals Visual Studio). However, from the perspective of an ISV Linux is unattractive, the problem lies with the instability of the platform. The stack is still rapidly evolving, especially in the multimedia space, libraries are being replaced on a yearly basis. Deploying third party software is a chore, outisde the repositories everyone reinvents the wheel. There are at least 4 partially incompatible distros that must be targeted, each with 2 or more versions to package and test on. Future: Individual installers have been abandoned, distrusted due to widespread spyware and trojans. App Stores have replaced package managers, the same interface manages distribution packages and purchased applications. GTK and Qt have shipped with robust multimedia widgets for years. Status: Just beginning.

Linux is too unstable

Now: Unix has a reputation for rock solid stability, as does Linux on the server. Desktop Linux is another matter. Gnome, KDE, Firefox and OpenOffice are young in comparison to GCC, Emacs, Vim & Pine. The desktop projects are still adding features, faster than fixing bugs. Linux desktop and Windows are roughly equal in stability. Future: The amount of new code has if anything increased. The core components & applications have mostly stabilized, effort now goes on umpteen niche applications targeting at the average user Status: Just beginning

Linux doesn’t work with my hardware

Now: Brand new hardware is more hit than miss with Linux, typically one must wait 6-12 months for drivers to trickle through from the newest kernel release to a distro release. Hardware that is 2 years or older is well supported, often better than on Windows. There are significant gaps such as PDA syncing and full iPod support. Future: More hardware is supported by in-tree, open source drivers. Larger vendors release Linux drivers with their hardware and work with distributions to get them deployed. There is a stable interface (possibly DKMS) for these drivers to integrate with existing releases, so new kernels break the drivers less. There are still gaps, PDA syncing more or less works, but others remain. Status: Just starting

Linux can’t display the websites I visit

Now: Nearly all European & American websites work with Firefox and Konqueror, Internet Explorer has lost it’s strangle hold. A few niche sites still require ActiveX, or stubbornly stick to bad habits. The breakdown varies regionally, and corporate Intranets lag behind the curve. Flash 10 is the multimedia standard and Silverlight 2 have just been released. Future: Internet Explorer still has a majority, just. Cross browser websites are seen as the norm. Flash is still going strong. Silverlight continues to struggle on, but hasn’t gained the critical mass it would need to corner the market. Status: Nearly there

Linux can’t play my music or my movies

Now: Ogg Vorbis and Theora are still born as audio/video formats. MP3, AAC, MPEG 2/4, H.264 and FLV are the victors. Linux can play these with minimal tweaking, but DVDs or Blu Rays require manual intervention or just don’t work. BBC iPlayer support has been promised for over 12 months now. Future: The MP3 patents have expired, there is much rejoicing. Old timers still manually install libdvdcss and libbdaacs, but many people simply pay $20 at the App Store for Fluendo Player or CyberLink PowerDVD. There are rumours that Apple may announce iTunes for Linux in the next 12 months. Status: Just starting

Linux can’t chat online with my friends

Now:Dependant on the territory, either Windows Live Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger or some other closed network rules the roost. A few brave souls manage to configure a cross-network client for text only chat. With one exception, Skype, no official clients exist for Linux, and third-party clients support only the bare minimum. Future: Jingle has finally been adopted outside Google Talk. Pidgin has been replaced by another, more multimedia, instant messenger. Cross network messaging is still an arms race, but it’s easier to configure and XMPP is slowly becoming the standard. Status: Work in progress

Linux can’t connect me to the Internet

Now:**Linux is a network OS, but connecting a Linux Desktop through anything but an ethernet cable is hit and miss. 3G, VPN, ISDN & ADSL modems require fiddling and manual configuration in all but the very latest version of Network Manager. ISPs will not support Linux

  • their software and step by step guides cater only to Windows or perhaps Mac. At best, setting up a connection requires discovering the proper parameters and figuring out where to enter them Future: A few brave mainstream ISPs support Linux, the machine can even autoconfigure given an Internet Settings File. Status: In progress

Linux can’t play my games

Now: Wine has recently released 1.0 and it’s irrelevant to most games players. Future: Wine has recently released 2.0 and it’s irrelevant to most games players. Status: Lost

Linux can’t run Photoshop

Now: Photoshop, AutoCAD and ArcGIS users make a small but vocal proportion of the overall user base. They’re exacting and their work is valuable. There seems little prospect of their products running on the Linux desktop. The vendors apparently don’t consider the potential market worth the expense. Future: Market share has tipped the scales. AutoCAD was the first to be ported, engineers wanted to run their workstations on the same platforms that ran their aerodynamic simulations. The GIMP has scrubbed up and begun attracting more professional designers. Adobe is keeping tight lipped, rumours are spreading, the demand is too great for them to ignore much longer. Others such as ArcGIS Desktop have Windows technologies too deeply ingrained. Wine offers some measure of stopgap. Status: Not yet started


There’s a lot of work still to do. It certainly won’t happen this way, there’s a good chance it won’t happen at all. There are other issues, such as usability and MS Office compatibility, that I’ve not touched on. Firefox has shown it’s possible, we should be aiming at 20% desktop market share within the next few years.