Five things Desktop Linux has to do to beat Windows 8

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?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
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.

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