Why Linux will never go mainstream on the desktop

Summary:I really didn't expect the post I wrote last week about Linux (The world just isn't ready for Linux) to generate the interest that it did. After all, it was written by someone who's been using Windows since DOS and who is currently sitting in front of two screens - one with Windows Vista in it, the other running XP Pro. But the post obviously struck a chord with some people (and a nerve with others). I also have people offering me copies of nearly every version of Linux imaginable!

I really didn't expect the post I wrote last week about Linux (The world just isn't ready for Linux) to generate the interest that it did.  After all, it was written by someone who's been using Windows since DOS and who is currently sitting in front of two screens - one with Windows Vista in it, the other running XP Pro.  But the post obviously struck a chord with some people (and a nerve with others).  I also have people offering me copies of nearly every version of Linux imaginable!

I've read as many of the comments as time allows (currently the count stands at over 500) and watched the poll results come in (more than 10,500 of you voted - thanks for sharing your thoughts) and I think that the time is right for a follow-up post.

[poll id=17]

Ultimately, people are willing to pay for simplicityThe first thing that struck me were the poll results.  Fully 28% of you claim to be running Linux on all your systems while another 50% are planning to increase the number of Linux systems you run.  Those are incredible numbers but I think that they have more to do with the type of audience that the post drew, rather than being representative of the kind of growth in users that Linux is going to experience over the next 12 months (although I expect that someone will use the data to say just that).  Currently the desktop Linux user base stands at about 1% (the figure varies wildly depending on what source you look at), so if 28% of you are already running Linux then that means that the readership here is made up of a large number of users that fall into that 1% user base. 

Some of the comments made in response to the post I made were very interesting too, and some of the points are worth picking up on.  The rest of this post consists of my thoughts and feeling about some of the issues raised.  Before I do that though, I just want to share with you the best TalkBack entry I read.  It was posted by Uranus65:

Dude, here's my prediction: Now that you have decided to use Linux to some extent, you will become obsessed. Some days you will throw your arms up and say your done with it. But you will be back, spending hours trying to burn a CD or something. We've all been there before and we are still here, using Linux.

:-)

Next page -->

PC games are dead, it's time to switch over to games consoles

Really?  Maybe for Linux users, but for Windows users gaming on a PC is still pretty popular (and the astronomical price of the PS3 is going to make more people think about coming back to the PC.  The old "consoles will replace PCs" argument has been going for years, but fact is it hasn't happened yet.  The reason is simple - PCs are upgradable and can carry out a wide range of tasks, consoles cannot.

But hardware support on Linux is good - all my stuff works!

If all your hardware works, great.  Congratulations.  But ask yourself these two questions:

  • How much extra effort did you have to go to to get it to work?
  • Did you research your purchase in advance to make sure that it would work?

If you answered "yes" to either of these questions then you are willing to go to more effort than the average home buyer looking for a new printer, scanner or video card.  Your average buyer isn't even willing to do enough research to make sure that they get the lowest price (that's how stores that charge over the odds stay in business).  Is this the kind of person who's going to check to see if there's Linux support for what they want?

Poor hardware/software/games support is not a Linux issue

True.  It's a developer issue.  But developers (and the folks who pay their wages) are following the money, and at present there's not a lot of money to be made from the Linux market.

Another reason that hardware support is patchy is that manufacturers don't want their code secrets going open source - it's easier for a business to deal with another business than it is to deal with the open source community.

Linux is more secure than Windows

Yes, but ... do you think that the average user who runs executable attachments sent to them by email or who consents to the installation of adware or spyware on their machines would really be safer on Linux? 

At present there's a bar of technical competence that users wanting to make use of Linux have to be able to clear.  This alone makes them unlikely to be the kind of people who do things that put their systems at risk.  Security is not about software, it's mostly about education.

Next page -->

There are plenty of Linux distros to choose from

That's not necessarily a good thing - experimenting with different operating systems is a pretty big deal for most users.  Again, it comes down to one thing - time. 

Linux distros change daily/weekly/monthly

Again, this isn't necessarily a good thing. 

What's the problem with Linux - There's plenty of forums where users can ask questions and get answers

Yes, true.  But how many additional steps does this add to whatever you were doing in the first place?  This also raises a number of other issues:

  • Where to ask the question
  • Phrasing the question
  • Waiting for a reply
  • Being able to make use of the information provided
  • What happens if you don't get the issue resolved?

Remember what the average user is like.

People don't buy software in stores

Explain all the stores selling software then.  For better or worse, people like going to stores, asking a few questions, being lied to by salespeople and spending money on physical products (even if they are just big cardboard boxes with a CD inside).

What about WINE?

WINE is a great idea (and one heck of a technological feat) but why bother - it adds another layer of complexity that doesn't need to exist if you run Windows.

Linux doesn't have DRM

If Linux is to become a realistic alternative to Windows or Mac, I believe that, for better or worse, it's going to have to learn to live with DRM.  Many home users have money locked up in DRM-protected content - far too much to throw it away.   Apple doesn't have an iTunes for Linux.

Why is Windows so popular?

Because ultimately, people are willing to pay for simplicity.  We live in a world where the "IBM compatible PC" became a "Windows PC" and breaking into that market is tricky enough for companies like Apple - and it has deep pockets to spend on advertising. 

It's also got to be remembered that Windows is more than an operating system, it's a whole ecosystem.  Around Windows (the OS) is an enormous hardware, software and entertainment industry supporting it and feeding into it. 

What about Linux on a business desktop PC?

Depends on what is being done on that PC.  If it's a simple terminal or data entry system (think call center) then Linux could be a valid alternative.  If it's a PC that spend time working with Office documents, then sticking with Windows and Office is safer (alternatives to Microsoft Office are more than adequate in a home environment, but in a business environment this kind of move could be costly).  If the system needs to use tools like Photoshop, then it's a choice between either Windows or Mac.

Next page -->

Where does that leave Linux?

Simple - as an alternative to Windows.  It suits some people who are willing to put the time and effort into making it work for them. 

Why haven't I moved over to Linux?

A combination of two things really - 99% of my work is Windows based and I've invested over a decade into Windows as a platform.  On the whole I don't have a problem with Windows - I can do pretty much everything I want and find apps for all my needs. However, I do feel that running Windows on PCs that don't need much user interaction (such file storage systems) is crazy.  This is going to be the area where I leverage Linux.

Closing thoughts

Reading what I've written here about Linux might make you think that I'm anti-Linux.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I use the Windows platform because that’s what suits me best, but to be honest I'm pretty agnostic when it comes to software as a whole.  I wouldn't spend the money I do on software if it wasn't worth it.  As it stands, every dollar that goes from my pocket and into Microsoft's pocket is a dollar well spent.

If it works, it works, in my mind there's no better test for anything than that.  The problem with Linux as it stands currently is that it's not the easy option.  It lacks the simplicity and wide range of hardware and software support that your basic user wants and it lacks performance software and cutting-edge hardware support that many power users demand.  It works for people with the time and energy to make it work, but for people who just want to get on and do what they want to do, Windows is by far the simplest choice.

Do I believe that Linux will, one day, go mainstream on the desktop?  My guess is that it won't.  Even given a level playing field it has too much competition from Microsoft and Apple.  Even Apple, with deep pockets, have found out how hard it is to make any kind of serious dent in Microsoft's user base. 

Anyway, do Linux users really want to mainstream the OS?  Really?  Or would that take away the geek factor?

<< Home >>

Topics: Operating Systems, Hardware, Linux, Open Source, Software, Windows

About

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is an internationally published technology author who has devoted over a decade to helping users get the most from technology -- whether that be by learning to program, building a PC from a pile of parts, or helping them get the most from their new MP3 player or digital camera.Adrian has authored/co-authored technic... Full Bio

zdnet_core.socialButton.googleLabel Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.