Linus Torvalds still wants the Linux desktop

Linux runs everything, everywhere, but Linus Torvalds still wants it to rule on one place it doesn't: The desktop.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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.

Related Stories:

Editorial standards