The Linux desktop is in trouble

Linus Torvalds looks to Chromebooks and Android for the future of the Linux desktop, while Linux Mint developers aren't happy with each other.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

I'm a big believer in the Linux desktop. Heck, I used to run a site called Desktop Linux. And I believe that, as Microsoft keeps moving Windows to a Desktop-as-a-Service model, Linux will be the last traditional PC desktop operating system standing. But that doesn't mean I'm blind to its problems.

First, even Linus Torvalds is tired of the fragmentation in the Linux desktop. In a recent TFiR interview with Swapnil Bhartiya, Torvalds said, "Chromebooks and Android are the path toward the desktop."

Why? Because we don't have a standardized Linux desktop. 

For example, better Linux desktops, such as Linux Mint, provide an easy way to install applications, but under the surface, there are half-a-dozen different ways to install programs. That makes life harder for developers. Torvalds wishes "we were better at having a standardized desktop that goes across the distributions."

Torvalds thinks there's been some progress. For software installation, he likes Flatpak. This software program, like its rival Snap, lets you install and maintain programs across different Linux distros. At the same time, this rivalry between Red Hat (which supports Flatpak) and Canonical (which backs Snap) bugs Torvalds. He's annoyed at how the "fragmentation of the different vendors have held the desktop back."

None of the major Linux distributors -- Canonical, Red Hat, SUSE -- are really all that interested in supporting the Linux desktop. They all have them, but they're focused on servers, containers, the cloud, and the Internet of Things (IoT). That's, after all, is where the money is.

True, the broad strokes of the Linux desktop are painted primarily by Canonical and Red Hat, but the desktop is far from their top priority. Instead, much of the nuts and bolts of the current generation of the Linux desktop is set by vendor-related communities: Red Hat, Fedora, SUSE's openSUSE, and Canonical's Ubuntu.

Another major player in setting the tone of the Linux desktop are the smaller Linux communities. These include Linux Mint, Manjaro Linux, MX Linux, elementary OS, and Solus. They're all doing good work, but they're also running on a shoestring basis.

Take Mint, my own personal favorite desktop. Its lead developer, Clement "Clem" Lefebvre, recently wrote:

"It's not always easy to achieve what we want, sometimes it's not even easy to define what we want to achieve. We can have doubts, we can work really hard on something for a while and then question it so much, we're not even sure we'll ship it. We can get demotivated, uncertain, depressed even by negative reactions or interactions, and it can lead to developers stepping away from the project, taking a break or even leaving for good."

These are not the words of a happy man.

Lefebvre continued:

"It's all about Muffin [Linux Mint's default windows manager] at the moment. We're trying to make it smoother, to make the windows feel lighter… radical changes and refactoring occurred, it's eating a lot of time and we're chasing regressions left, right and center. This is documented at https://github.com/linuxmint/cinnamon/issues/8454. It's a really tough exercise, it creates tensions within the team but the potential is there, if we can make our WM snappier it's worth the hassle."

It has indeed created tensions. Jason Hicks, Muffin maintainer and member of the Linux Mint team, observed on Reddit, as reported by Brian Fagioli:

"I also have a life outside open-source work, too. It's not mentally sound to put the hours I've put into the compositor. I was only able to do what I could because I was unemployed in January. Now I'm working a job full time, and trying to keep up with bug fixes. I've been spending every night and weekend, basically every spare moment of my free time trying to fix things.

There's also been tension because we're 1-2 months from a release. We've had contentious debate about input latency, effects of certain patches, and ways to measure all of this. Other team members are going through their own equally hard circumstances, and it's an unfortunate amount of stress to occur all at once at the wrong times. We're human at the end of the day. I wish these aspects didn't leak into the blog post so much, so just wanted to vent and provide some context. If you take away anything from it, please try the PPA and report bugs. We need people looking for things that might get stuck in cinnamon 4.2."

I've heard this before. There have been a lot of Linux desktop distros over the years. They tend to last for five or six years and then real life gets in the way of what's almost always a volunteer effort. The programmers walk away, and the distro then all too often declines to be replaced by another.

It is not easy building and supporting a Linux desktop. It comes with a lot of wear and tear on its developers with far too little reward. Mint is really a winner and I hope to see it around for many more years to come. But I worry over it. 

Looking ahead, I'd love to see a foundation bring together the Linux desktop community and have them hammer out out a common desktop for everyone. Yes, I know, I know. Many hardcore Linux users love have a variety of choices. The world is not made up of desktop Linux users. For the million or so of us, there are hundreds of millions who want an easy-to-use desktop that's not Windows, doesn't require buying a Mac, and comes with broad software and hardware support. Are you listening Linux Foundation?

Such a desktop, in turn, would be more commercially successful than our current hodgepodge of desktops. This would mean that many more Linux desktop developers could make a living from their work. That would improve the Linux desktop overall quality. It's a virtuous cycle, which would help everyone.

Let's try to make this happen shall we? Otherwise, the traditional Linux desktop, in all its variations, will remain a niche operating system for power users.

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