Why Linux will never go mainstream on the desktop

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.


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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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  • Narrow scope

    Adrian, I didn't see much point in adding post #501 to the previous flamefest. However, since you're asking ...

    The two flaws I saw with the previous list were that:

    1) You placed far too much weight on home systems. Most of your objections (games, hardware, etc.) are pretty much moot in a commercial environment, while the advantages (security, remote administration, etc.) of Linux are minimized. Of my current and former cow-orkers, only a handful couldn't have used Linux with at least equal productivity (and quite a few of my current ones do.)

    2) Your whole thrust is US-centric. Especially in light of Microsoft's crackdown on piracy, we can expect a [u]lot[/u] of Linux uptake outside of the USA -- which leads to the well-known network effects to address the rest of your issues. That's one edge Apple never attempted since they are even less available to the low end than Microsoft.

    My take is that desktop Linux adoption will be greatest in Africa, Asia, and South America for the next few years, with Europe following. In the meantime, there will be under-the-radar adoption in US businesses. The first effect that you'll notice won't be a slip in Microsoft's market share.

    Instead, to begin with you'll see more of the Novell-style blocking moves. After that, expect to see more moves to prevent OEM preloads [1], followed by reduced prices and other attempts to actually compete on the merits and preserve market share -- which, after all, is [b]everything[/b] in platform software.

    I don't know whether the major break will be the reappearance of boxed software for Linux in stores or major OEM preloads, but an early indicator will be more Adobe-like moves by developers to produce Linux-compatible versions.

    Not this year, certainly -- but the economics are compelling. Those of us who remember the days when IBM would always dominate the PC business see too many similarities.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Footnote [1]

      Don't forget, the Consent Decree expires at the end of 2007. After that, the gloves come off again.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
      • Not quite correct

        The time limits for the consent decree were extended by the DOJ and Microsoft earlier this year to expire in 2009.
        Confused by religion
        • Details, Milly

          [i]The time limits for the consent decree were extended by the DOJ and Microsoft earlier this year to expire in 2009.[/i]

          The only extension was on Microsoft's requirement to document their APIs and protocols, which they haven't done yet.

          Everything else expires next year.
          Yagotta B. Kidding
    • I don't believe that a crackdown on piracy will help Linux

      I don't see it making enough of a difference. Why pirate Windows when Linux is already free in that case? Windows is pirated so much in these countries because it's desired. I don't see that changing - I just see the cracks getting better.

      I know I placed a big emphasis on the home market, that's because I think that it's here Linux has to gain traction. Microsoft is too good with the old TCO boogy man and that keeps many businesses in line.
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
      • Windows is pirated because it is the de-facto standard and it is all they

        know and can get support for. That would change really fast if piracy could be prevented. Do you have any idea what wages are like in some of these countries?

        A $200 computer with Windows and MS Office triples in price compared to one with Linux/OpenOffice. Would you spend six months wages on Windows/MS Office, or would you switch to Linux.
        • You answered your own question.

          "Windows is pirated because it is the de-facto standard and [b]it is all they know and can get support for.[/b]"

      • Relative pricing

        [i]I don't see it making enough of a difference. Why pirate Windows when Linux is already free in that case?[/i]

        In other news, it seems that MSWindows is actually cheaper in much of the world than Linux. You can get a computer preloaded with pirated MSWindows for the price of the computer, but the Linux disks still cost money if only for the physical media.

        No fooling.

        [i]Microsoft is too good with the old TCO boogy man and that keeps many businesses in line.[/i]

        Yes, but that's a horse with only so much wind. Too many companies are installing Linux servers, for instance, and getting their own numbers on relative costs of Linux and MS servers. Once they start comparing [i]their own[/i] TCOs to the stories they get from the FUD factories they stop trusting the FUD.

        Again, expect a story very similar to what happened to IBM's domination of the PC business in the 80s: there's a point reached where the decision makers get over their fears off "off-brand" suppliers and then it turns into a commodity market.
        Yagotta B. Kidding
        • Relative costs

          You wrote:

          "Too many companies are installing Linux servers, for instance, and getting their own numbers on relative costs of Linux and MS servers."

          Ah. So that's why Linux server growth is in single digits and Microsoft sales in servers are becoming greater than salles of Office.

          And now the Linux server will be running SuSE, Microsoft endorsed and Microsoft advocated and Microsoft interoperable. Companies can be sure when it's Microsoft's version of Linux. Until they decide to switch.

          I'll assert that cost differences are not significant if the initial price of the product customers expect to buy is acceptable.

          ZDNet did a poll which found that say 75% of responding companies were satisfied with their investigation of costs and performance. And say 65% had done no research at all.

          What do you have to know if you're already satisfied?
          Anton Philidor
    • Why bother with an alternative to Windows?

      Moving from Windows is a choice, not an accident. If a Windows user summarizes by saying If it works, it works, then he's not actively looking for an alternative.

      And cost in developed countries? Windows is either "free" on a purchased computer or at an acceptable price separately. Organizations do expect to pay for software.

      Making a product an alternative is expensive. When even the companies which have major Linux distributions have given up on the desktop, it's unlikely the money will be spent.

      The only problem I can see you asserting is price in developing countries. But then you have the issues of piracy (which is introductory) and the chance to grow an industry on a widespread operating system, and the image of Windows and Office as the world's software.

      Image is more significant than you might think. For example, the developing world receives a large number of condoms. When they're sold instead of given away, use increases. If something is considered to have value, it does.

      And then there's the implied insult of something being cheap and in use only in backwaters. People want to escape the thought that they're living in backwaters, not accept it.

      There have been a number of observations that if Linux does not make progress in the next couple of years, the desktop has been settled for decades. (The epochal event is 64-bit computing.) The duration may be exaggerated, but the meaning is reasonable. And Vista is arriving...

      In sum, the world is satisfied with Windows, aspires to use Windows, expects the future to be Windows.

      That's a difficult situation to overcome.
      Anton Philidor
      • Good point

        "In sum, the world is satisfied with Windows, aspires to use Windows, expects the future to be Windows.

        That's a difficult situation to overcome."

        I agree with that 100%. This is why I strongly believe that Linux needs to get a foothold in the home market - until then, schools are going to be more Windows biased because that's what employers need and employers are going to stick with Windows because that's what people know.
        The problem with the home market is making people realize that Windows is not an inseparable part of a PC, instead that it's just an OS. The catch here is that people want their PC to look basically like everyone else's PC.
        Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
        • Software on the shelf

          Few home users are in a position to migrate that easily, because these days they have software collections they have built up over the years that they wont toss out overnight. There is enough wailing already when a new Windows breaks some old game (like Vista losing IPX support). Now extend that to EVERY title they own. Forget WINE and such; half these old titles are multimedia and expect to access the graphics card directly, and probably the CD driver too.

          Sure there are lots of Linux Grandmas out there who have been set up by their geek relations, but thats very different from migrating people who already use PCs to good effect and have a comfort hedge around what they do.

          You COULD build a car that is driven using a joystick and throttle lever. It would work, do the job and might even be safer to drive. But just try selling the idea to the world, even for free.
          • Re: Software on the shelf

            Yes, very good points it is very difficult migrating a user towards a new software application muchless an entire Operating System and Office Suite.

            Trying to convince the end user it is better is like trying to fend off bees covered in honey.
            Linux User 1
          • What do you mean? COULD

            A car [b]has[/b] been built with a joystick and it doesn't have a throttle lever, as the joystick also controls the throttle and brakes. Unfortunately it isn't any safer than the conventional controls as it is, and I use the term loosely here, the brain controlling it on which the level of safety depends. However that said the rest of your post is true.
        • But not everywhere

          Linux needs (and will) get into schools, becouse here where I live, schools budget is not geting larger. And software prices is getting a larger bit of that budget.
          So when schools gets OpenOffice.org and linux, those students will get used to that software. And they will demand that later. That is the way into homes of ordnary people.

          And public organisations that now is turning on each dollar and cent, will also change. Look at Munich.

          So large companies will not be leader in converting her. Which is a problem for adopting Linux, I give you that. But neither will home users, they never was (look at IBM pc and what exister before). But schools will, as it been before.

          (No, Linux isn't hard to user, it is quite easy to use. Compare to bying OS and hardware separatly, there is a big hassle. If harware vendors sell Linux, they se to it that it will work like MS Windows, work when you turn it on. Compare same thing.)
      • You ignore the growing anti-american environment world wide. Also do not

        underestimate the power of Governments switching to ODF and alternative word processors. MS Office is critical to Microsoft maintaining the monopoly. Also do not forget the move to web applications and the reduced depencency on Windows. There will be a time when the average consumer can just buy a computer with a browser and nothing else. Heck, that is already true for those that just use email. browser, simple word processing, and simple spread sheets. Can you say Google? The next generation is ready to be un-chained from a specific computer that has their applications and data.
        • DonnieBoy, you live in a

          world of wishful thinking. Hey, at least I give you credit for having faith in your convictions, regardless of how badly misplaced they may be.
          • He's right on the Anti-Americanism

            Anybody who discounts this does so at his peril. Within the European "elte" and bureaucratic circles it is intense. Ever time they turn on a computer, that Windows splash is a reminder of their own industrial weakness - try to name any major Europoean computer manufacturer, or component maker. Even major software companies are few and far between.

            Within the new EU bureacracy in Brussels, that anti-Americanism is even stronger. They recently passed a trade rule that would completely ban the use of any mention of English metrics on any product or teh literature with the product. US companies generally provide measurmement in both metric and English. That would be illegal in teh new EU. There's no logical reason other than to force American companies to bend to their will.

            You've already seen numerous EU actions taken against MS, all in the hope of weakening MS. You've seen France try to cripple Apple's iTunes.

            Don't expect to see that go away anytime soon.
          • Jealoucy will always be a factor.

            Not one to lose sleep over though.
          • It isn't Jealousy, No-Facts-To-Grind

            It's that the rest of the world do not want to be owned by any foreign country.
            Among the selection of foreign countries, America seems well at the undesirable end
            We want standards that are open International Standards and not in the sole possession of a corporation.
            Of the corporations that might assume such control, Microsoft is one of the least desirable.

            If you think that we're jealous of you, then you are borderline delusional and should get help. :-|