Five things Desktop Linux has to do to beat Windows 8

Five things Desktop Linux has to do to beat Windows 8

Summary: Microsoft, as it did with Vista, is giving Linux another chance to make the gains in the PC market with Windows 8, but can Linux take advantage of this opportunity?

For Linux to win on the desktop, it needs more than Windows 8 to fail.

In 2007, thanks to netbooks and Vista, Linux briefly exploded onto the desktop.  Microsoft soon realized they were losing the low-end laptop market and they brought XP back from the dead and practically gave it away to original equipment manufacturers (OEM)s. It worked. Linux's popularity receded.  In 2012, Microsoft is once more bringing out a dog of a desktop operating system, Windows 8, so desktop Linux will once more get a chance to shine... if it can.

Linux is more than good enough on the desktop. Just ask Google, which used its own Ubuntu-spin, Goobuntu, not just for its engineering desktops but for everyone's PCs.

While much of the reason why Linux hasn't gone much of anywhere on the desktop has been because of Microsoft's iron-grip on OEMs and anti-Linux FUD, Linux hasn't helped itself much either. So what can Linux do to be as competitive as the Mac with Windows?

5) Give independent software vendors (ISV)s more support.

I, and a lot more important Linux figures than I am, such as Linus Torvalds, think Miguel de Icaza, one of the GNOME's Linux desktop creators in his article What Killed The Linux Desktop was often off-base. But, de Icaza did make some good points. One of the most important of these was that “no two Linux distributions agreed on which core components the system should use. Either they did not agree, the schedule of the transitions were out of sync or there were competing implementations for the same functionality.”

Sure, fundamental programs work on all versions of Linux, but say you're an ISV, what desktop should you build for? KDE? The slumping GNOME? Ubuntu's Unity? My own favorite Linux Mint Cinnamon?

A first look at Ubuntu Linux 12.04's Unity desktop (Gallery)

If I'm an ISV the last thing I want to do is throw money and time into crafting half-a-dozen versions of my user-interface for each significant Linux desktop. On the other hand, some ISVs, such as game maker Valve, has looked at Windows 8, turned its back on it, and are now moving to Linux. That's great but Linux needs to do more to encourage ISVs. 

De Icaza thinks the only way Linux on the mainstream desktop will ever take off is “to take one distro, one set of components as a baseline, abandon everything else and everyone should just contribute to this single Linux. Whether this is Canonical's Ubuntu, or Red Hat's Fedora or Debian's system or a new joint effort.”

He's right. I think that's been Canonical plan for Ubuntu all along. Linux pros may not care much for Unity, but even the most un-techie people on the planet can use Ubuntu Linux with Unity. While lots of great distributions, such as Mint, are meant for desktop users, only Ubuntu really targets the mass-market. If I were an ISV, Ubuntu would be my Linux of choice. After all, it's already Valve's pick.

4) Slow down the pace of change.

I like playing with the newest toys more than most people. Most hardcore Linux users do. Josephine User doesn't want to deal with a major update of her desktop every six months. That's why the successful Linux vendors—Canonical, Red Hat, and SUSE—release long term support versions of their operating systems.

Three years, not six months, is an update cadence that works for most people. Yes, that may mean your desktop release is running the Linux 3.5 kernel. Do you really think most people care about that? They don't. There's a reason why Windows XP, after 11-years in the top desktop spot—has only now been overtaken by Windows 7. People prefer King Log over King Stork. They may say they want the shiniest gizmos but at the end of the day they want their desktop to look and work the same as they did the day before.

That's a lesson that both Microsoft, with Windows 8 Metro, and Linux distributions that default to GNOME 3.x should learn.

3) Work even harder to get  low-level hardware vendor support.

Sure, you really can run Linux on pretty much any PC today—goodness knows I do—but if you want to make the most of your hardware, the vendors, like NVIDIA, still don't deliver the driver goods.

There's not a lot the Linux distributions can do about this. I mean if Red Hat wants a server equipment OEM to listen, they'll pay attention. Red Hat is a major server player. But, no one in the desktop space has that kind of clout. The only thing Linux can do is to offer to build Linux drivers for the OEMs. And, indeed, under Greg Kroah-Hartman's guidance Linux developers have been building free Linux hardware drivers for years. Even now, though, too many OEMs won't accept this free offer.

2) Pound on PC vendors' doors.

Over the years, Dell, HP, and Lenovo has all fooled around with pre-installed desktop Linux. Even now if you're Joe Consumer you can't just go to their Web sites or a store and be sure you can buy a Linux PC or laptop. Outside of the US and Western Europe, it's actually easier to get Linux PCs.

Yes, it's actually easy to install Linux on a PC—I do it at least every other week—but most people won't go to the trouble.

We must have more vendors supporting pre-installed Linux desktops. It's great that we have System76 and ZaReason, but we need the big vendors to fully commit to the Linux desktop as well. I mean it's nice that Dell is well on its way to producing a high-end laptop, the Sputnik, for Linux developers, but it would be better still if you could currently order a run-of-the-mill Dell with Ubuntu as well.

At the same time, Linux computers should cost less than their Windows relations. After all, Linux doesn't cost an OEM anything like as much as Windows does. Nevertheless, the first Linux Ultrabook laptop costs as much as its Windows brother.

What the Linux distributors can do here is simply promote Linux on the desktop more to the OEMs. As far as I can tell only Canonical, once again, is really making a determined effort to promote the traditional Linux desktop. If you really want to see Fedora, openSUSE, whatever, Linux desktops in the market their distributors need to get on the stick and start pushing and working with OEMs.

1) Linux distributors need to take the traditional desktop seriously.

You know, I think it's wonderful that Linux, thanks to Android, is ruling smartphones and the new generation of Android tablets, such as the Nexus 7 and the Amazon Kindle Fire HD are finally giving the iPad competition. But, the desktop is not going away anytime soon.

I like my fancy tablets as much as anyone does but when it comes to punching in words or keying in data give me a real computer with a real keyboard any day of the week. That's not going to change.

Only two Linux companies seem to get this. One, of course, is Canonical. The other is Google with its Chrome OS and Chromebooks. Google is trying its best to get you to buy, and now rent, Chromebooks. Google gets it. Google may be the king of the Internet, and Chrome OS may be just the Chrome Web browser on top of a thin layer of Linux, but they know the CPU on the desk with a keyboard in front of it is far from dead.

If we really want to see Linux desktops compete, you have a couple of choices. One, you can start supporting Ubuntu or Chrome OS, since they're only Linux distributions that seem to take the business of the Linux desktop seriously. If not them, then the Linux community must back another distribution to the hilt

You see, de Icaza was right on one fundamental point. For the Linux desktop to really take off, we must “take one distro, one set of components as a baseline, abandon everything else and everyone should just contribute to this single Linux.” Then, and only then, will we have a desktop Linux that will be able to really take advantage of the opportunity that Microsoft is handing us with Windows 8.

Related Stories:

Linus Torvalds on the Linux desktop's popularity problems

The truth about Goobuntu: Google's in-house desktop Ubuntu Linux

Has Microsoft opened the door to the Linux desktop?

The 5 most popular Linux distributions

20-million new Ubuntu Linux PCs in 2012?

Topics: Linux, Google, PCs, Ubuntu, Software Development, Software, Operating Systems, Open Source, Laptops, Windows

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  • Get that little green robot over here

    Except in passing, you haven't mentioned the one linux distribution that actually has a chance of making an impact on the desktop. It's called Android.

    How is Microsoft trying stimulate trial of their so-far-failing phone OS? By putting the same GUI on the desktop, where they have a near monopoly. Most observers think that GUI has no business on a desktop, but Microsoft doesn't care. They figure if they stick it in front of people, it will become familiar and people will eventually warm to their phone OS.

    That works both ways. Google has a GUI that's on 70% (and rising) of the world's smartphones. People are familiar with it. They know how to use it. That's the 'chasm' linux by itself was never able to cross. Android has already crossed it. Failure to take advantage of that would be a sin.
    Robert Hahn
    • the article talks a lot about chromeOS

      but frankly I think most people would agree that android has better potential on desktops than chrome does
      • the article talks a lot about chromeOS

        coming sometime this spring Android is being re-merged into the linux kernel.
        with that I am assuming many/most android apps should start to be runable on Linux.

        also... goto youtube and search for "ubuntu on android" video FROM canonical.. using a motorola Atrix 2 android phone, its phone dock, keyboard, mouse and LCD ... gives you ubuntu desktop with full access to the android phone's apps, contacts, wifi, LTE etc.
        • yeah I've seen the video

          looks very cool indeed, I'm looking forward to it. I just hope it will be easy to load on any phone when it's done. that kind of thing is REALLY the kind of thing that can help bring Linux to the masses.

          my next phone is either going to be a galaxy note 2 or a xiaomi M2. both are quad core and have 2GB RAM, so they should run UfA fine.
    • I think

      I think Android would have to implement a windowing GUI/Desktop to stand any real chance. Not sure how likely that is to happen.
      • why?

        I use android tablet and tvbox for most of my personal internet use. The only real thing I could imagine you'd get from windows would be the ability to compare two sets of data. Maybe two tiled windows could be used for that as some addition to the task list - hold the first window until a menu with the option 'compare with' came up. Full windowing though is probably pointless in reality. Why do you neèd it?
        • AAAANNNNDDDDD.....

          There in lies the problem. YOU believe since YOU use it that way everyone does. Are you a developer by any chance? A programmer maybe? That would explain the mentality.
          Make something that is as user fiendly as windows and does not lose the functionality that 90% of people who use windows come to rely on and THEN, you can start thinking that something will take over the desktop. Okay, start your flammers, flammers.
          • Someone already made that

            "Make something that is as user fiendly as windows and does not lose the functionality that 90% of people who use windows come to rely on"

            I think Clement Lefebvre has made a distro that does just that. :)
            Bamm Gabriana
          • windows user friendly?

            windows is not "user friendly"...

            take someone that has never seen it before and sit them down and see how "user friendly" it is. can they learn it... sure... not without help for most things like uninstalling sw, adding a new user ID/account, fixing a network problem, and I won't even mention virus/malware issues.

            also... try windows 8 and give us a review of how user friendly that seems to someone that uses win7 or winxp... see if they figure everything out?
          • User Friendly = What You're Use To

            "User friendly" actually means "what you are use to". If you have never used a toaster before, you'd need to learn how (which is why toasters still come with instructions in the box).
          • No, user-friendly = works by intuition

            Same applies to blenders, stoves, and cheese graters.. as well as cars.

            Most people who encounter entirely new versions of all of these usually have no difficulty in using them without ever looking at the manual. They all work by intuition - you press the "On" button, or you put bread in the bread-sized slot and push the lever down.
          • It's intuitive if we can give it to an ape and they can use it

            I recently read an article that as part of an enrichment program, the Metro Toronto Zoo was giving donated iPdas to its orangutans. The article mentioned that the apes needed to learn to use their finger tips instead of their nails, but otherwise, were able to figure out how to use the tablets on their own.

            I've also read in the past about an iPod that became the possession of a gorilla. The gorilla did not need instructions on how to use it. He figured it out on his own. He figured out how to switch from song to song to get what he liked. He eventually even figured out how to stick the ear buds in his ears.

            The one thing Steve Jobs excelled at beyond anyone else was his ability to design an intuitive UI, so intuitive, you don't need to be human to use it.

            So I propose a simple test for to see if a UI is truly intuitive. Hand it to an ape. If a chimp can figure it out, a chump should be able to as well.
          • only if ape's were the typical user of a compuer

            they are not.

            I would expect that something that is user friendly to an ape, would not be user friendly to a human..
          • Nope

            You are now mistaking "Intuitive" to "Familiar".
            Driving a car or using blender etc, isn't intuitive but familiar.

            It is said among usability experts: "The only intuitive interface is the nipple; everything else is learned."

            You learn to walk because you see others do so, so it is familiar. You learn to talk because you hear others to do so, so it is familiar.

            You find familiar places safe, but new non-explorer places scary or interesting.

            Using a blender isn't intuitive, it is familiar because you have seen how the machine works and what you should get done with it.

            If you place blender to user hands who has never used such or never ever seen any electronic device etc, she/he can not use such device without first learning trough findings and errors and then probably get idea to use such to blend food for smaller pieces.

            Have you ever seen what all kind things developing country kids does from modern western world junk? They do things what people who are familiar with them would never do.

            It is as well said that kids are best innovators because they don't have knowledge what can not be done.
            Same thing is with usability studies, if testing isn't done right from the start when even discussing about new product (user interfaces are everywhere, from door knot to elevator button panel to ink pen design etc) and test it continually with new test users and old test users and trying all kind changes.

            Because just going "intuitive interface is best" path, leads to situation where you have only familiar interface, not the best one what easily gets discarded.

            Like at the era of floppy disks, it was familiar that icon for action to store file to floppy disk was actually icon of floppy disk, because you placed to floppy disk to floppy drive and then you clicked "disk" and stored it.

            Since when floppy disks has gone, it is not familiar at all to have a floppy disk as icon for storing data, as we don't have floppy disks and floppy icon isn't intuitive at all either.

            We can not use hard drive (HDD) or SSD icons for storing data, because most people are not familiar what devices are and they are not intuitive either.
            A arrow down to line is somehow more logical as it informs something gets to down. But still best one would be word "store", what is better than word "save". But icon for that is better than word, because it is faster to find and you can link it with other functions like "Download" and "Upload" than local data storing.

            What would be familiar icon for modern time for action where data (text, photo, video etc what is presented to user) is stored to for later use?
            And what kind icon it should be for a user who has never, ever used computer or even heard about digital information so it would be intuitive?

            Think about it, and same time think about what that blue button under Comment box what reas "Submit" does. What kind icon you would do for that if you would not use word "Submit" in it? As button look is already a icon that something happens when you press it. It is already familiar because most are familiar to buttons (Have you ever seen a baby to be inspirited by button what turns light On/Off? The button isn't intuitive, they learn it when someone use it and then it gets familiar and so on familiar to try buttons in other places.).

            Example of common icon for specific action in the world are "Play", "Pause", "Stop" and "Rewind", "Forward wind". They are learned and soon very familiar in other places. But they are not intuitive at all by icons. After few tryouts and errors, they come familiar what they do and so on it is one biggest symbolic learn what kids does.
          • playback is intuitive

            I'd have to disagree somewhat on the audio playback icons. While not perfectly intuitive (which basically nothing with options is), the arrows for direction, the doubling on FF to indicate the same direction as play, but with greater magnitude, the pause/stop mirroring the same basic square shape, with pause cut down the middle, just as the FF/RW are, all lead to a fairly intuitive system.
          • user friendly

            means just that, how or why try to make it any simpler, user-friendly means friendly to the user.. it's not 'user's'.. It has nothing to do with intuition.. it means it functions in a way that is friendly to the user. ie, it runs the programs that the user want to run, and does so in a friendly manner.
          • what intuition?

            I'm a 99% Ubuntu user (started with version 5). But no, I don't see how when we have multiple applications open on Unity, we have to move the mouse pointer to the top of the screen to access the menu. Well, one may argue again that it's what I'm used to. But talking about intuitive interfaces, I don't agree that Unitu has it.

            And to add to that (and not connected to intuition), I still can't find a descent driver for my two canon printers (E500 and LBP800). As for the old laser, yes there used to be a reverse-engineered driver done about 4 years ago but that's no more.

            Nevertheless, I still like my Linux installation for the top three reasons of speed, security and cost.
          • typo

            I've mispelled Unity on line 4 and I meant DECENT on the second para...

            But I guess that's clear :)
          • Nope

            User friendly doesn't mean same thing as "Easy to use" what doesn't mean same thing as "Easy to learn".

            User friendly means both of those as it is the goal of usability, that you can easily learn it and then easily use it. That using X is intuitable. Making a user friendly is difficult, as easily you end up more to either than other. So you get very easily learned but hard to use, or then hard to learn, but very easy to use.
          • nope

            99.99% of cases when peoole say "Intuitive" they actually should use word "familiar" and user friendly means that a normal user doesn't find itself searching a solution for problem or reading a manual to resolve own problem (like how to cut a video file to multiple parts where every part is own scene, and later mix them and get a one video fileas output in globally accessible format).

            That means, software needs to have features to solve user problems and it needs to be easily accessible (easy to use isn't same thing as easy to learn) so user can do its task with a computer.