Is the Linux desktop dream dead?

Will Linux ever become a major desktop operating system, the way that Windows XP was? My colleague over at PC World, Robert Strohmeyer, thinks that "The dream of Linux as a major desktop OS is now pretty much dead." I beg to differ.

Many of his points make sense. Strohmeyer wrote, "Ultimately, Linux is doomed on the desktop because of a critical lack of content. And that lack of content owes its existence to two key factors: the fragmentation of the Linux platform, and the fierce ideology of the open-source community at large." But I disagree with his emphasis.

Those factors haven't helped desktop Linux, but they haven't blocked its success. Yes, too many Linux distributions was a problem for independent software vendors (ISVs) like Adobe, but take a closer look. How many versions of the Linux desktop actually have enough market share to matter to the major ISVs? I'd argue there are only two: Ubuntu; and Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) and its community forefather, openSUSE.

Ubuntu gets the nod because of its popularity and the SUSE family because it's the only other desktop Linux with much commercial support.

Fedora? Sure, it's very important to cutting edge Linux users and developers. For most users or the business market though? I can't see it. The other popular desktop Linuxes, like Mint, a particular favorite of mine, are based on Ubuntu. I've yet to find an application that can run on Ubuntu that won't run on Mint or any of the rest of the Ubuntu family.

As for the "fierce ideology of the open-source community at large," I have several objections. First, it's not the "open-source" community that has ideological problems that annoy proprietary ISVs; it's the "Free Software" ideologues with Richard M. Stallman at their head. Second, and my real point: no one in the Linux "business" really cares what they think. We can happily argue over the benefits of pure GPL Linux distributions like gNewSense or why everyone should use Ogg Theora instead of MP4 as a video codec, but does anyone really care outside of hardcore Linux circles? No, no they don't.

Try it yourself. Ask your friends who use Ubuntu but aren't deep into Linux what they think about running a pure GPLv2 stack and watch their puzzled expressions. I would venture to say, based on my experience with all the many Linux users I've met, that most of them won't have a clue. That's because Linux actually has matured into a mainstream operating system and now has users, not just techies and programmers.

As my buddy Joe Brockmeier at Network World pointed out, there's now a tempest in a teapot over whether or not Ubuntu's parent company, Canonical, is handling copyright assignment in a way that would make the company "Open Core". Joe asks, "Does it matter?" I'd argue that for 99% of all Ubuntu users, the answer is no.

The real problem with desktop Linux acceptance was the same one it always had. Microsoft has maintained a near-monopoly on the traditional desktop market. Only Dell, of all the major PC makers, ever really supported Linux. Everyone else would sometimes toss a crumb to desktop Linux, but that was it.

So why am I not ready to give up on desktop Linux since neither Vista's failure nor Linux on netbook's success brought Linux to millions of new desktops? Because, I don't see a failure. I see a sea-change in desktop computing. Strohmeyer sees it too, but again we look at its importance in different ways.

The 21st-century desktop isn't based on the fat-client desktop of the last 25-years. It exists on the Web in Web-based applications and software as a service (SaaS) and what I call "Content as a Service." If the content providers have their way, you'll view content from the Web instead of downloading it. You see this in Apple TV, Hulu, Google TV, and all the other recent Internet TV news. Desktop Linux can live in such a world. Windows, however, can't.

Think about it. Why should anyone pay real money for Windows when all you really will need is an HTML 5 compatible Web browser? Besides, Strohmeyer and I can both agree that these days tablets and phones are where things are happening. On those platforms, Windows has proven to be a non-starter while Android is kicking rump and taking names on smartphones.

There's a reason why I opened my story by mentioning Windows XP. I believe XP was the apex of the fat client desktop movement. Neither Linux nor Windows 7 will ever be as important as XP was on that kind of desktop. In the new desktop, where applications and content are more often than not provided by Linux-based servers, Linux will do quite well whether your main interface will be on a laptop, desktop, smartphone, or a tablet. It's Windows, not Linux, that has reason to fear this future.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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