Where is the Linux desktop going?

While I like the Linux desktop a lot, I don't pretend that it's that popular. That's why I found it fascinating that, despite everything Microsoft has been able to throw at it, desktop Linux still managed to claim 32% of the netbook market.

And Microsoft has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at desktop Linux. For example, the Redmond giant has strong-armed vendors into not selling Linux-powered netbooks; lied about Linux sales; and all but gave XP Home away to keep vendors from including Linux instead . Despite all that, it seems, according to ABI Research, that desktop Linux has actually grown in the last year.

ABI reports that almost a third of the netbooks that will have shipped in 2009 came with Linux. Last year at this same time, ASUS, then the world's biggest netbook vendor, said that only three out of ten of its netbooks were shipped with Linux. In fact, looking ahead, Jeff Orr, an ABI analyst, predicted that Linux will overtake Windows on netbooks by 2013.

Why? Because it's cheaper. The rise of ARM-powered netbooks with Linux that will bring laptops to the $100 price range is expected to help Linux take over the bottom-end of computing.

This will put Windows in an interesting spot. Mac already owns the high end, and Linux will end up with the low end. At the same time, more and more of our work will be done with online services, with Google Docs and the like, almost all of which are based on Linux.

Historically, being in the middle of a market isn't a comfortable place to be. People who want the best will turn to Macs; people who want a bargain will go to Linux. The usual argument is that everyone already uses Windows and they need their applications. Fair enough. But what happens when you don't need Windows for the programs you use every day?

I've already argued that your grandparents can do quite well running Linux with the applications that are on available on the Web. IBM's latest desktop Linux partnership with Ubuntu is all about getting business users to use Ubuntu for their basic platform while running SaaS (software as a service) applications like Lotus Notes for office work. And Google's Chrome operating system, while Linux-based, is clearly going to further blur the line between the traditional desktop and the Web 2.0 world.

If these trends continue, I expect that by the mid-2010s we'll see a world where Linux will be becoming the most popular desktop operating system. Most people may not notice it, though, because no one will be advertising it as Linux; they'll be promoting these Linux-based, Web application-enabled PCs as do-it-all, portable computers the same way smartphones are promoted now.

Does anyone except the most techie people know in 2009 whether it's Android, Symbian or Windows Mobile powering our phones? No. Will anyone except our older, wiser and perhaps even more techie selves know by 2015 what operating system is running on our netbooks? I doubt it.

We're getting ready to go into the post-desktop operating system world, and it's going to be fascinating to see how it all comes together.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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