Over the past decade Linux has made little progress in terms of becoming a credible threat to the dominance of Microsoft in the desktop space. After years of prediction that the 'Year of the Linux desktop' was coming, market share still lingers at around the 1% mark. In fact, even Mac OS X, with all of Apple's resources at its disposal, is barely making a dent in the Windows market share. But could the shift away from the PC towards a more 'Post-PC era give the OS the much-needed boost it is looking for?
Things are changing. The widespread acceptance of tablets and smartphones has encouraged users to stop thinking of computing as something done in front of a desktop or notebook, and instead as something they do while on the move on a myriad of different devices, from smartphones to tablets to web tops. While the era of the x86 PC might be coming to a close (and to be fair, it's had a good run, with over 30 years as the primary computing platform), computing is more personal than ever.
So why might this be good for Linux? Well, Linux never really had a chance on the desktop. There's no way that Microsoft would have allowed the platform to gain traction with OEMs or consumers. The PC ecosystem is far too symbiotic, with Microsoft relying on OEMs for sales, and OEMs relaying on Microsoft for innovation to sell new products. No one was willing to upset that particular apple cart because everyone had a vested interest in keeping the status quo.
Well, everyone except Apple that is. First came the iPhone, a mobile computing platform that turned the smartphone industry on its head overnight. Then came the iPad. While the iPad wasn't the first tablet by any stretch of the imagination, it was the first tablet that people felt they wanted in any significant numbers. This caused a massive industry scrabble as PC OEMs suddenly tried to reposition themselves multi-platform OEMs, not only selling PCs but also devices smartphones and tablet
Tablets became the new gold rush, although for most it wasn't a particularly lucrative gold rush. While Apple made more money than it knew what to do with from smartphones and tablets, companies such as RIM and Motorola and HP have found that there were no guarantees. They discovered that it was quite possible to release a good tablet with a respectable hardware and software specification that's priced decently, and still lose money.
So where does Linux come into play? Well, if you go back a couple of years most OEMs were Windows-only businesses. Sure, they dabbled in the likes of Linux, but it never seemed serious. When the likes of Dell offer Linux-powered system, it feels cursory, almost a throwaway gesture to appease the geeks (and maybe a way to capture some headlines). But now OEMs are up to their elbows in new platforms. Android is by far the most popular, but when the likes of HP released a webOS-powered TouchPad tablet, it made it clear that as an OEM it was thinking beyond Windows and beyond the PC as we know it.
Microsoft is gambling with Windows 8. It's gambling that because there's a market for iPads that there's a market for touch-based Windows devices, and it's working to turn the desktop operating system that people currently drive with a keyboard and mouse into one that people will drive with their fingers. This is hugely risk, especially given that Microsoft has tried to break into the touch market for over a decade now with no success. At this point it's hard to tell if Windows 8 will be a success like Windows 7 was, or a flop like Windows Vista. At this stage I'm inclined to feel like it will flop because there's no proven market for the primary feature that it offers - touch.
Which is where Linux comes in. Now I'm not suggesting for one moment here that Linux is going to dethrone Windows. It's not. It doesn't even have the power to push past Mac OS X to take second place. But Linux has an opportunity nonetheless. It has the potential to be there so that OEMs could offer PC buyers a bridge between the PC and the 'Post-PC' era. Consumers are already used to choice in the OS marketspace - Windows Mac, Android, iOS, Windows Phone - so it isn't much of a stretch to see another option on offer - Linux. People don't seem as scared of operating systems as they were five years ago, they seem willing to give things a try, so there's no reason to think that they might not give Linux a go on their PC in much the same way they were willing to give Android a chance on their smartphone.
Linux offers a choice, and as people do more on the web through the browser, what operating system they use matters less and less.
Choice is no longer a dirty word when it comes to operating systems. People are used to making choice as their computing needs move beyond desktops and notebooks and towards more diverse devices, and there's no reason think that they might not be willing to give Linux a chance on their desktop or notebook much in the same way they gave Android or iOS or Windows Phone a chance on their smartphone.