The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop.

The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop.

Summary: The traditional Linux desktop is going no-where fast, but it's mobile and Web-based brothers, Android and Chrome OS, are kicking rump and taking names.

SHARE:

I've been running Linux on my desktop for about 18 of its 20 years; I used to be the editor-in-chief of DesktopLinux; and today I use Mint 11 Linux as my main desktop. In short, I know a thing or two about the Linux desktop. Today, though, I declare traditional Linux desktop to be dead.

It's never going to catch up with Windows or Mac OS X in user popularity. It's never going to show up as a common option from mainstream vendors. And, you'll never be able to buy it at your local Best Buy or other big box store.

Why? Well there are a lot of reasons; but none of them have anything to do with its quality. I use desktop Linux distributions not because of some romantic attachment to free software or because I hate Windows, but because they work better and they're far more secure than Windows or Mac OS X.

Historically, desktop Linux never got a fair shot because of Microsoft's Windows monopoly and strong-arm tactics. For example, when Linux-powered netbook started eating Microsoft's lunch on low-end laptops, Microsoft brought XP Home back from the dead and almost gave it away to vendors to stop the Linux bleeding.

It also didn't help any that Microsoft finally realized what a total flop Vista was and brought back XP for all users. Indeed, Vista's failure hurt Linux. If Microsoft had actually stuck with that dog of an operating system, desktop Linux would have gained more fans.

That was then. This is now. Those factors have always been around. They still are today. Several other things have arisen that makes me doubt that the traditional Linux is going to go anywhere.

Gallery: My top five Linux desktop distributions

First, the main Linux desktop interfaces are at best, OK, and one of them GNOME 3.0, is awful. I think Linus Torvalds had it right when he called for a GNOME fork. KDE 4.x is fine, but I've never found it that compelling and while I like Ubuntu's GNOME-based Unity desktop for beginners, it's not for me or, I suspect, other expert users.

On top of that, Red Hat, the leading Linux company, has made it clear that it has no real interest in a fat-client desktop. Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst sees the traditional desktop becoming a legacy application. That leaves the leadership of the Linux desktop to Canonical, Ubuntu's parent company, and SUSE.

Sure, Ubuntu is the most popular Linux desktop, but to paraphrase Robin Williams, that's like being the best-dressed woman on radio. As for SUSE, we know they're going to keep supporting SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) and that openSUSE is likely to remain an outstanding desktop, but its long-term plans for the desktop? I don't know, and I rather doubt that they know either based on my conversations with their people.

So, while the fat-client Linux desktop isn't going to go away, and I'm certainly going to keep use it, I don't see it growing out of its niche. Even if Windows 8 craters and makes a Metro-sized hole on the desktop, Linux won't have a chance to grow at its expense because Microsoft will just keep pushing Windows 7 instead.

Where the Linux "desktop" is growing is on tablets and smartphones. As Jason Perlow pointed out, we're already living in a post-PC world. Android keeps growing like a weed on smartphones, and would Apple be flailing about with its idiotic tablet iPad design lawsuits if it wasn't frightened of Android tablets eating into its market share? I think not.

In addition to Android, Google's Chrome operating system, which relies on a local Linux kernel and the Web and the cloud for applications, continues to look promising.

I've also noticed that Google is making both Chrome OS and the Chrome Web browser ever more independent of being online. Besides local storage for applications, Google has just added local C and C++ applications--you know, conventional desktop programs--with Native Client to Chrome 14. I think a lot of users would be happy with an operating system with a Web-browser interface that would work just fine off or online, and wouldn't require them to learn a new interface, ala Metro.

So it is that while I no longer hope for the old-style Linux desktop to gain popularity, I have no doubt at all that the new, light-weight, Internet-oriented Linux desktops are going to do just fine. After all, they already are, and here it's Windows, not Linux, that's been the non-starter.

Related Stories:

The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

What's coming in Ubuntu's new Unity Linux desktop

Ubuntu Linux makes musical friends with the Apple iPhone

The top five Linux desktop vendors

Mint 11: The "Un-Unity" Ubuntu desktop Linux

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

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

Talkback

208 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop.

    KDE, GNONE, UBUNBUT... There's too many of them! stick to 1 and it might succeed...
    Hasam1991
    • RE: The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop.

      @Hasam1991
      You don't appreciate freedom!
      The Linux Geek
      • RE: The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop.

        @The Linux Geek

        I prefer Windows for most of my actual work, but I am using Mint (Katya 64 bit) right now and have been for a couple of weeks. This has been my first real attempt to use Linux.

        I thorough enjoy using this OS, it has been fantastic for what I use it for. But sadly, and I do mean that, Linux in my view is absolutely, definitely, and without doubt not ready for prime time.

        Just a few examples that I have observed.
        <ul>
        <li>Open Libre Office 3.x (latest), create a simple document with a paragraph and then some bullet points. SAVE AS a DOCX file, close Libre Office Writer and then open the newly created DOCX file. This simple example demonstrates why this software is garbage compared to Word and Word Perfect. OO and LIbre Office simply do not hold a candle to either of the top two commercial choices.</li>
        <li>Try installing Citrix Receiver - what a freaking nightmare. For me Citrix is a big deal and I have still not gotten it working in Linux.</li>
        <li>I have had to ALT+CTRL+Backspace numerous times because it becomes unresponsive. Perhaps there is a better way but I just don't know what it is.</li>
        <li>Software choices besides Office productivity applications are simply not up to par with most offerings on Windows. I know many try to argue otherwise, but I am correct, period.</li>
        <li>Performance of the newest versions of IE and FF are both far better on Windows than any browser for Linux. I refer to the fact that they leverage the GPU for rendering. In Linux this is not the case.</li>
        </ul>
        This is just a few things that come to mind readily. But it is very important to note that I am using Linux as I write this, I think that the Gnome desktop may be a bit plain jane, it works well. There are many things that I truly LOVE about Linux Mint with Gnome.

        I think that there are some well thought out and well implemented features.

        Simple apps like Remmina Remote Desktop while very lean and simple (lacking great features like BitVise Tunnelier for Windows) is an outstanding program - great performance and easy to tunnel RDP and VNC through SSH. I run SSH servers on my WAMP boxes.

        I actually think that the fonts, the colors, the desktop presentation with Katya is just great.

        But when I need to open up my graphics apps, do some serious web and graphics development, do some really basic stuff like mail merge, as examples the software available in Linux is sub-par, that is just a fact.

        I cannot use my MFC Scanner, the printer works just fine though.

        Bottom line is Linux truly has such promise, it boots so quickly, is secure, is beautiful (at least Katya is), is fast, but there are too many shortcomings that make it impossible to make it my primary OS.

        For the Web, Facebook, eBay, email, managing my remote servers, I use Linux almost exclusively now.
        Raid6
      • RE: The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop.

        @The Linux Geek
        I dont care about freedom on a operating system. Are you kidding, its software!! I love my iPod with iTunes, I enjoy working with OS X and Windows. I would pay almost the same for a linux Laptop. I could care less about Google's Chromebooks, and I don't think open source is that great or it would be the number one OS used today as long as it has been around. For the most part I have the majority view and Linux users are the minoity. Maybe istead of touting all the time how great Linux is. Maybe you should find a way to prove it to potential users. For all the positives I read about Linux. I can show you 10 users that tried it and found fault with it!
        jscott418-22447200638980614791982928182376
      • RE: The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop.

        @The Linux Geek Yes, I do appreciate, "freedom", but NOT anarchy (which is what we have now)!
        mdturner@...
      • RE: The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop.

        @JS Scott
        Your comment makes much sense except "I don't think open source is that great or it would be the number one OS used today as long as it has been around". Apple has been around longer yet does not have much more market share on the desktop. You probably recognize this and did not mean to imply otherwise, except perhaps your comment was made in connection with the price point indicating a higher share in market as possible due to accessibility (which if so, I whole heartedly agree). I like Linux but from what I hear from others, most that do not like it is that it does not have the expected quality/ features of Apps across their required scope. Though I do agree with many linux advocates the Apps do exist, I disagree with many that these Apps are always good enough for the general users. If Linux does succeed (in market share) on the desktop, it will be a long road in my opinion.
        Viva la crank dodo
        • RE: The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop.

          Correction:"I like Linux but from what I hear from others, most that do not like it is that it does not have the expected quality/ features of Apps across their required scope. "
          It should have read along the lines that those that complain of linux generally do not have a problem with the OS itself, only the lack of Apps that meet their needs in features/quality or usability. This is a reasonable justification for many such people not to use it, though some may feel otherwise (but those that feel otherwise frequently do not have the same needs so it does not matter what they feel)
          Viva la crank dodo
      • @Raid6. Explore, Change your mindset, think outside the box.

        There is alot of 'em (Linux makes) If you want an easy choice, of the most supported distro, where you are most likely to have something "just work"- Try Ubuntu
        Linux Mint is a nice OS. If you are new to linux however, and want things to "just work" and have the most support found in any linux distribution, You should really check out Ubuntu. Try Mint when your feet are a little more wet. Mint is debain based and so is Ubuntu, so much of the underlying OS works the same. Ubuntu uses .deb files just the same.

        Libre office and open office. It is preferred to use Open document file types, not proprietary microsoft file types! These programs can open, and save as DOC files, but they are not really meant for that purpose. The proper solution is to use open/libre office for all of your needs, and always save the files in open data formats. You can transfer one to a .doc if you must for use in office, or if your just trying to share a document for someone to view, and you've created it in an open data format, it can be exported as a .pdf, which everyone has a reader to view. I switched to open office a couple years ago, I've never found a need to save a document file in a microsoft format, and I use windows on half of my upfront everyday machines (laptop, desktop), (I also use ubuntu, and using open data file types I can take a file from libre office on ubuntu, and open/edit/save it on a windows machine with libre or open office.)

        Installing software. I agree with you on this front. It can be a nightmare. Compiling your own installs is a way to install *anything* you have source code for. It's a pain and you need to be damn near a programmer to do it. I stick with ubuntu or debian linux and stick with .deb installers, it saves me time and headaches. I often am surprised to find software I want or need doesn't have a .deb file available from the makers. (this really needs to change, *buntu is the biggest user base in linux). Often if you scour the web, you can find someone who has made a script for installing a specific program on your specific flavor of linux.

        Browser performance. On my linux boxes, firefox takes a second longer to open, but does not perform any slower than on my windows machines. I cannot attest to IE in windows, I stopped using it years ago because of how much faster and more stable firefox was, even in windows. Also I hear alot of talk about CHROME. try it out in linux, I hear it's now a good performer on most platforms.

        One of the things that made my transformation to Linux easier, was the fact that I already used open-source and other free software in windows. Before I got into linux, I was already using (in windows) by default: Firefox, Gimp, OpenOffice(-not supported by GPL anymore. Now you should be using LibreOffice!), Pidgin, VLC media player, and others. I'd recommend anyone who wants to try linux, learn to love these programs (in windows) first, as they are readily available for popular linux distros, and these are POWERFUL programs!

        You are lucky your printer works. I have a pile of crap made by someone who was in microsoft's pocket, it doesn't support CUPS.

        I understand the shortcomings you may see. But just simply put, the way everything is designed in linux means it can be used in a much more dynamic fashion (you can tailor it to your needs). The drawback is there's more work involved and more expertise needed.
        It tends to either become an addiction in which you will become master of your domain, or you will get frustrated and go crying back to mommy microsoft, thus limiting your computing and personal potential.

        (on another note, really knowing linux means you can do some *really cool* stuff with Android OS)
        asomad
        • @asomad

          I'm a new linux user, tried Mint at first, seeing that it is recommended everywhere. Sadly I had some issues with screen resolution which I couldn't fix, got frustrated so I went back to... Ubuntu! The transition from Win7 wasn't as hard as expected and it seems I was lucky too to have been using OpenOffice, VLC and Firefox before switching operating systems.
          For an average hom user who doesn't have to do anything "fancy", I think that there are several great linux OSs. I'm trying to get my half-computer-illiterate parents to switch to Ubuntu and I actually think I might succeed! As for people who are new to computers (not raised on Windows like most of us), linux distros like Ubuntu might seem much more intuitive and easy to use.
          The only thing I miss is gaming. It's a hassle for a newbie to get WINE to properly run large, complex software like games. It's the only sacrifice I had to make personally though, other than that I have no reason to look back to Win7 and I'll definitely stay away from Win8 :)
          Naloxon
    • And who picks the one?

      @Hasam1991 <br>It's not like there's a centralized vendor controlling everything. Linus Torvalds only does kernels.<br><br>I actually like the variety.<br><br>It's also the case that a properly programmed X-client will run on any of them.<br><br>Reply to Cynical99:<br><br>Vendors are free to pick whatever desktop they like and support that one only. There are even a number of Linux distributors that do exactly that. ...and this doesn't really affect developers at all, since a properly written X-client will run on any of them.

      Actually, most Linux apps will run on any distro and with any window manager, but there's no convincing someone with a thesis to defend.
      John L. Ries
      • You may like variety but . . .

        @John L. Ries
        Vendors hate it. Too expensive to support, too confusing to sell. They love MS because, well, there's no freedom and it's less expensive to support a dictator.

        Vendors are key to success and the Linux freedom model just didn't work in the commercial world
        Cynical99
      • You live in a simplistic world

        @John L. Ries
        When a vendor sells a product using Linux, they are married to the ecosystem. If an application runs in one distro, but not another, the vendor gets hate calls because the apps aren't universal and the customer looks for the universal support.

        Windows won hands down.

        By the way, most weren't written properly to run universally, so that Linux freedom you speak of killed it.

        'Nice try though, I still find it amazing how people defend the failed destop and still blame everyone except the Linux community. Excuses, excuses, excuses. Keep it up, Microsoft loves it.
        Cynical99
      • RE: The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop

        @Cynical99 wrote:
        "Vendors hate it. Too expensive to support

        Microsoft hates Linux because it is, according to Steve Ballmer, a cancer. They have, however, supported Microsoft Office on Macs since the '80s.

        Apple doesn't support iTunes (think Music sales) on desktop Linux because its market share is too low. iTunes, however, is a hit with many Windows users. Ka-ching!

        But, if little 'ol Opera can do it ...

        http://www.opera.com/browser/download/?os=linux-x86-64&ver=11.51&local=y

        http://www.opera.com/browser/download/?os=linux-i386&ver=11.51&local=y

        That's quite the list of distros that Opera supports: Arch, CentOS, Debian, Fedora, Gentoo, MEPIS, Mandriva, Mint, Red Hat, Sabayon, Slackware and Ubuntu. Plus, *.tar files.

        P.S. The Opera browser is commercial, not open-source.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
    • RE: The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop.

      @Hasam1991

      For a platform to succeed, it needs to be profitable. Open Sourced linux is Open Source, meaning it's free and has a lot of free opensource community created software. No profit. No Profit means no commercial support. No commercial apps, no average users.

      end result is Geek Toy or Server platform.

      Android is *inux based i0S is also *inux based. So in the post PC world two *nux based OSs will dominate the world. It's just that to the average user Linux is transparent. The OS and device just works.
      Bakabaka
      • Has to be profitable for somebody

        @Bakabaka
        Actually, has to be profitable for all concerned, but not all profits are monetary.

        There are lots of community bands and orchestras composed of musicians who don't make a dime from their musical activities (they're just happy to play), yet people pay to see them perform. Go figure!
        John L. Ries
      • RE: The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop.

        @Bakabaka isn't it more a question of supply and demand? if there is a demand for something then it will survive so long as the supply is sufficient. the supply is provided by the open source community who generally use linux if it fits 90% with their requirements and they need to fill in the extra 10% by extending the code base. this then becomes the next person's 90%, etc...
        petermiller1986
      • RE: The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop.

        @Bakabaka Red Hat is going to break US$1 billion this year being a Linux services company. IBM broke that same mark its first year pushing the platform, IIRC, also in consulting and services.

        iOS is based on Darwin (Mach and BSD), not *inux (Linux and .. what ... Splendinux?)
        daengbo
      • chose

        @Bakabaka <br>All it needs is free consumer chose.<br>Give people the possibility to test different systems with their new PC, using evaluation copy's like they do for Office, and let users only pay the real price for Windows it they chose to use it.<br>If only 5% chose not to pay and use a Linux distribution, it will create a large enough commercial base for different forms of user oriented support. And that alone will blow away 90% of the objections non technical users now have.<br>That is why Microsoft will continue to do everything to avoid such a consumer chose, press politics, tell political fairytales in bilateral meetings with government officials, press OEM's, use negative PR, emit FUD and let you pay considerably more if you want to buy Windows without the hardware...
        somereader
      • RE: The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop.

        @Bakabaka
        right on the dot. and in addition "Microsoft brought XP Home back from the dead and almost GAVE IT AWAY TO VENDORS to stop the Linux bleeding." in short M$ knows how to market their product....
        kc63092@...
    • RE: The Linux desktop is dead. Long live the Linux desktop.

      @Hasam1991: Exactly! This is THE reason why Linux never took off and a crucial reason why Android isn't beating iPhone.

      Too much choice can be a bad thing if you want mass market appeal.
      bradavon