Why didn't Linux win on the desktop?

Heady forecasts showing Linux would become a major player on the desktop, on the server, and in embedded systems were published back in 1994. While the prognostications proved correct for server and embedded operating systems, what happened on the desktop?
Written by Dan Kusnetzky, Contributor on

While waiting for the snow plows to clear the streets, I spent some time thinking about all of the heady forecasts we in the industry research community made back in 1994 about how Linux would grow and take a large share of the shipments of operating systems.

Although the forecasts were based upon the observed very rapid growth that the operating system experienced in the server, client, and embedded operating system markets, things didn't turn out as projected.

Those early forecasts

Based upon the rapid growth seen back in 1994 (Linux server operating system shipments grew almost 200 percent and Linux client operating system shipments grew almost 100 percent), research firms published forecasts that in five years — that is, by 1999 — Linux would hold a major share of all three markets (server, client, and embedded). Usually, the forecast methodology took into account the following points:

  • The architecture of Linux was very similar to the well-established Unix operating system

  • The cost — as an open-source software project, Linux was available at no cost if someone was willing to download a community-supported version of the software

  • How many Linux distributions (over 400) and OEM partners (over 20) were available at the time.

Industry researchers felt that it was very supportable to declare that Linux was on the path to be an industry winner.

What actually happened?

As projected, Linux went on to take a large share of the server and embedded operating environments. I won't steal the thunder of the industry research firms by publishing their forecasts. Let's just say that in those two markets, Linux more than established itself as a leading player.

Although much ballyhoo was made about Linux becoming a major player on the desktop, that prognostication didn't prove true.

While there are quite a number of developers, academicians, researchers and content creators doing their work on Linux desktops every day, the overall share of the market never matched the early forecasts.

Let's examine the desktop Linux inhibitors

Desktop systems are deployed as application or workload delivery tools. For the most part, they aren't purchased merely to run an operating system. This means that a customer first seeks out the applications and tools needed and the selects a system that supports them.

For example, if a customer wants to use Microsoft Office, the selection of operating systems would be limited to either Microsoft's Windows or Apple's OSX. Microsoft never made a version of Office available for Linux. If specific features of Excel are needed, say a robust implementation of pivot tables, then the choice degrades to Microsoft Windows or Microsoft Windows.

Even though there were credible alternatives to software products such as Microsoft Office, there are enough issues to deter any but the most enterprising customers. (Remind me to tell you about an obscure presentation formatting issue that drove me to abandon OpenOffice.Org and come back to Office some time.)

Furthermore, enterprises have a strong tendency to pick a path and stay on that path unless there is a very strong reason to change. They consider the costs of replacing systems, software, established procedures and training their staff and usually decide to continue to do what they were already doing.

The fact that companies are still holding on to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 is evidence that supports that view.

Another point is that there isn't a single version of Linux for the desktop nor is there a single competitor. Desktop Linux is like a smorgasbord not a product. There are many different user interfaces, file systems, and ways to install and update a system. While proponents would say that this is a strength of the operating system, enterprises and many individuals saw this as a confusing mess.

Furthermore, there isn't a single proponent of Linux or a single set of messages. This makes it difficult for decision-makers to get a single, simple view of what's happening in the world of Linux.

In the end, Windows was and is still the leading operating system for desktop and laptop computers.

Is that the end of the story?

Even though there was a point back in 1994 in which Linux passed Mac OS to take the number two spot in the client operating system market, Linux didn't hold onto that spot for long. In the long view, Linux didn't win on the desktop; but is that really the end of the story? Other forces came into play that have reduced the influence Microsoft's Windows has in the lives of end users.

As we know, the world has been changing rapidly and this certainly is an important factor to consider.  Desktop and laptop systems are no longer considered the only way to use applications. Smartphones and tablets are increasingly seen as the platforms for applications customers are using.

If we stop and look at the winners in those categories we see that Linux (in the form of Android) and Unix (in the form of IOS) are leading in market share.

Desktop hosted applications are no longer the only choice. Customers increasingly were happy with the applications and network access available from handheld devices and didn't feel the need to also use a Windows-powered device.  After all, Web-based tools, such as Web applications, email, collaborative software, and search, can be easily done from a lower cost device. An expensive laptop or desktop may not be needed at all.

Is this how Linux and Unix will win over the mighty Windows? If the current trends are considered, the answer appears to be yes.

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