Linus Torvalds still wants the Linux desktop

Linus Torvalds still wants the Linux desktop

Summary: Linux runs everything, everywhere, but Linus Torvalds still wants it to rule on one place it doesn't: The desktop.


CHICAGO — In the LinuxCon keynote, Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, said that Linux now runs everything, everywhere. He's right. From supercomputers to stock markets to smartphones, Linux dominates most computing markets the way Germany did Brazil in the 2014 World Cup. But, during the Linux kernel panel, Linux's founder, Linus Torvalds, admitted that he still regrets that Linux doesn't rule the desktop.

LinuxCon 2014 Linux Kernel Panel
LinuxCon 2014 Linux Kernel Panel

Make no mistake about it. If you include smartphones and tablets, you can argue Linux is already the top end-user operating system. In addition, there are many excellent Linux desktops, such as Mint 17 and Ubuntu 14.04, that people use every day.

But — darn it! — Linux still doesn't rule the PC desktop. Linux kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman asked Torvalds where he thinks Linux should go next. Torvalds replied "I still want the desktop." The sympathetic audience applauded him.

Six Clicks

 2014's top Linux desktops

2014's top Linux desktops

After years of talk about the Linux desktop becoming important, it finally is. But thanks to Chromebooks and Android PCs, it's not the Linux desktop we expected.

Torvalds continued:  "The challenge on the desktop is not a kernel problem. It's a whole infrastructure problem. I think we'll get there one day." So, "Year of the Linux desktop?" asked Kroah-Hartman. "I'm not going there," replied Torvalds with a smile.

The Linux kernel panel also discussed how — with the rise of smaller hardware devices such as the Raspberry Pi — there's now something of a pull toward smaller Linux kernels. Torvalds said, "I'd love to make the kernel smaller and faster." But, he continued, "Right now there's very little push from the market." In the embedded business market, "Companies that do these embedded system end up using old versions of Linux or reusing their older, pitiful software platform."  

Torvalds added that "a lot of us [older developers] don't have time to play with hardware anymore." Still, Torvalds observed that "Raspberry Pi has seeded the world" with people who want to use Linux and program on small devices. Afterall, encouraging would-be engineers and developers is Raspberry Pi's goal.

The panel also talked about how difficult it can be to both shrink the size of the Linux kernel down and to make it simpler. At the same time, there are rewards for cleaning up complicated code.

As an example, Andrew Morton, one of the lead Linux kernel developers, pointed to the work of Andy Lutomirski. Lutomirski, who was also on the panel, had gotten 32-bit software to run better on 64-bit Linux distributions.  There was some question about whether these patches would matter to anyone. But, Morton continued, "It turned out it did matter to Valve [makers of the Steam gaming environment]. So, if you like playing games, you owe Andy because his work made games run faster."

The group also talked about how the Linux kernel could use more code maintainers. Torvalds said it doesn't matter when there are no maintainers for "odd architectures that no one really uses. The bigger problem is areas that have one maintainer. If that guy gets sick, goes on vacation, or gets really busy, [the bottleneck] that can be frustrating for developers [who want to get their patches approved]." Still, "Linux has had huge success with x86 maintainers."

"ARM cleanup is getting much better," Torvalds continued. "When I used to do ARM merges, I wanted to shoot myself and take a few ARM developers with me. It's now much less painful and ARM developers are picking up the multiple maintainer approach. ARM developers are now working together on a common tree and working on code unification." Still, he added, it's "an ongoing process."

Shuah Khan, a senior Linux Kernel Developer at Samsung, said that power management of media devices is still a problem because it involves different drivers from different groups and some "maintainers don't understand media use-cases." Still, echoing Torvalds, Kahn concluded, "It's not a problem, it's a process."

Morton added that he too would often "work with drivers that touch multiple architectures and designs." His solution when a problem crops up? "I'm too old to fix bugs now. Instead, I think, 'Who can I can con into fixing this for me?' "

All in all, as the panel looked at the state of Linux, while they think some old code could still stand some cleaning up and there are still issues that need better solutions, they could all agree with Torvalds that overall Linux is in great shape.

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Topics: Enterprise Software, Linux, Open Source, Software Development

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  • Just take credit

    He could just take credit for Windows and MacOS like all the other software called Linux he didn't develop.
    Buster Friendly
    • Oh, you mean like...

    • Such as?

      What software has Linus personally taken credit for that he did not develop?
      I'm bracing for a "Stallman-esque" rant..
    • You realize

      You do realize that it doesn't even matter right?

      Basically, this guy is saying what was obvious from the start.

      Volunteer developers will almost always choose paying jobs over volunteer jobs and it is funny how quickly volunteer work gets swept aside when you find something you would rather be doing.
  • You Know What?

    Quixotic quests can have positive side effects. So, right on with the goal.
  • "overall Linux is in great shape"

    And it is, but only if you look at the big users, like Android. To be still saying "I still want the desktop" when Linux - after 20 years of trying - has never topped 1% suggests that either he has a great sense of humour. Or he's living on a different planet!

    But whatever the desktop did, Linux won mobile - and looks set to win the Internet of Things, too.
    • Not necessarily big

      Where Linux really is king is servers on top of VMware as the kernel has been developed over the years specifically for that purpose. While we can use other kernels and run the same software on top of them, we don't get the same performance. You can be a VMware shop with only three systems and a NAS so it's good for small to medium too.
      Buster Friendly
      • did you mean...

        on top of KVM and Xen?
        • Right!

          He likely has no idea what those are.
          • The year of Linux for me was 2007

            and i haven't missed Windows since that day.
    • Except

      Don't call it Linux or mention Linux at all when promoting your product.

      Ignore the fact that it isn't really open--Google holds the good stuff close.

      Ignore the fact that carriers decide what gets updated and when.

      So yeah, linux (which copied unix) runs the mobile world, but this linux is nothing like desktop linux as envisioned by Torvalds and Stallman.
      • PS: Notice that desktop linux usage has been flat

        So Android has not been able to inspire users to try desktop Linux, in fact, most Android users don't know or care about Linux.

        With iOS, Apple has been able to get people motivated to use it's other products. OSX is not iOS, but yet people connect the two and are motivated to buy a Mac.

        I use Android for work (LG G2) and I like it very much, but it's more like a Java VM than anything else.
        • Are you forgetting Richard Stallman

          He's right, most of the good stuff in Android is closed source. That means that a bunch of us have got to reinvent the wheel and do what has already been done. What Google is doing only helps Google. Android is free as in free beer but not free in the sense of you are free to go.
          Tim Jordan
          • the limits of open source

            You cannot really develop anything meaningful if it is not within your control.

            That doesn't immediately require that you close your sources. But it does mean you don't expose yourself to harsh attacks or criticisms as long as your product is not ready to be revealed to a wider audience.

            As your product reaches higher levels of maturity, the level of exposure you can allow yourself will also grow. After all, a product that is more firmly 'founded' runs less risk of being prematurely shut down or - very likely - to have negative publicity around it because the people do not yet understand what it is supposed to become.
          • Security or vision?

            I would question whether the need to be somewhat closed is because of security or vision of the platform. The overall OS is open, and I have a hard time believing that the closed parts (google services) are so bug riddled as to be a security issue.

            I think it's far more likely that Google maintains a firm grip on the OS so it can ensure it furthers its vision, and that's done by ensuring it serves its user's needs.

            All 20+ years of fully open Linux development on the desktop have given us is probably 200 some odd distributions, almost all of which are pet projects of, and only serve the desires of their developers and small numbers of users.

            Until a few years ago, I continually tried to use and get people to use Linux, but when I look back, the end user discernable progress has been exceedingly minimal. All it's usability issues and flaws remain. But hey, we now have 12 different UI shells to choose from!!

            For all its flaws, I can sit anyone in front of a Windows system and they can be productive and virtually self sufficient. Even the dreaded Windows 8 need little more than 5 minutes of configuring and maybe 10 minute walkthrough and it's off to the races.

            Putting an end user on a Linux desktop virtually guarantees the need for continual support. THAT is what's standing in the way of desktop Linux, and its a direct result of the very aimless nature of its fully open development.
          • "What Google is doing only helps Google" ??

            No, it helps millions of Android users.

            get over it.
          • Talking about developers not users

            Old man. I'm not talking about users. Taking a crap helps a user. I'm talking about us computer programmers.
            Tim Jordan
          • okay, but..

            But it is better to write your own code, isn't it? And why should you need to do the same thing Google is doing? If you are talking about common (or ought-to-be-common) libraries, sure. But much business in this world revolves around imitating others.

            "They have flashy icons, we should have flashy icons." That sort of thing.

            I think that if you will focus on the creating outpouring of your very own ideals, you will not be hindered as much by not having access to stuff some other company is doing or has done, because it will over time grow to be less relevant to you (what the others are doing).
          • It depends...

            "I'm talking about us computer programmers"

            That depends on who's using the programs you are writing. If it's someone other than yourself, the users needs are very important.

            Your position is exactly the problem with Linux on the desktop - it's developers expect, if not demand, that end users adapt to the logic of a developer. If given a choice, an end user will choose useability over obscure and not readily apparent OS flaws and vulnerabilities every time.

            Continuing to ignore the needs of users will guarantee the market share of desktop Linux continues to hover around 1%.

            The truly amazing thing is that this one simple lesson remains unlearned after all this time. Then again, blindly refusing to acknowledge an obvious truth goes hand in hand with fanaticism.
          • "most of the good stuff in Android is closed source"

            Some might take that as a condemnation of open source :) Or are you just mad that Google isn't giving you all of their IP for free? If you're dev, why not just pull an AOSP tree and do better?