Opinion: Linux desktop turns 10; world yawns

A decade after the launch of the first distro for casual users, desktop Linux is still struggling

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Needless to say, that deal spelled the end of Corel's Linux experiments, but Corel's Linux OS lives on to this very day. The Corel Linux desktop was sold off in 2001 and became the foundation for Xandros' Linux desktop and its Presto instant-on desktop.

Desktop without a home

Corel, while a path-breaker, never became Linux desktop leader. In a way, that's been the story of the Linux desktop ever since.

No single company or distribution has ever become the obvious market leader for a long period of time. True, Ubuntu is very popular; in 2007 it was the first Linux to be preinstalled on computers from a major PC manufacturer (Dell). But Ubuntu is hardly a household name.

And for every step forward, all too often there's a step backward, such as when Lenovo stopped offering SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) as a standard option on its ThinkPad laptop line.

In addition, Microsoft has continued to do its powerhouse best to keep users from ever seeing -- never mind buying or using -- a Linux desktop. The most recent example of this: when Microsoft brought Windows XP Home back from the dead and practically gave it away to netbook makers to stop what had been the explosive growth of Linux on netbooks.

Linux vendors also haven't made it easy for the Linux desktop. Back in 2000, for example, Red Hat's then-CEO, Matthew Szulik, told me that competing with Microsoft on the desktop wasn't a good use of Red Hat's resources. That's been Red Hat's policy ever since. The company has made hundreds of millions of dollars from its server line, but its desktop offerings are barely noticeable. Indeed, Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat's current CEO, recently questioned the future of the Linux desktop altogether, calling it "kind of ridiculous in this day and age."

A lack of marketing and advertising, infighting among the open-source faithful and an environment that's often unfriendly to newbies have also hurt Linux desktop adoption (see "Five ways the Linux desktop shoots itself in the foot"). So it is that today, while there are many excellent Linux desktops available, including Ubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE and SLED, the Linux desktop remains a niche player.

That may still change. For example, the as-yet-unreleased Google Chrome OS, which is based on Linux, will have the backing of one of the few companies big enough to go toe-to-toe with Microsoft. In addition, new low-power, low-cost netbooks based on ARM processors with Linux OSs such as Android may yet retrieve the netbook market for Linux.

But without better support from PC makers and its own vendors, it's hard to see Linux ever blossoming into a prime-time desktop player, as Corel dreamed it would a decade ago.

Related links:

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, a Computerworld blogger, has been writing about technology since CP/M was the dominant desktop operating system. You can learn more about Steven and read some of his other stories on his Practical Technology site.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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