Windows wins the desktop, but Linux takes the world

The city with the highest-profile Linux desktop projects is turning back to Windows, but the fate of Linux isn't tied to the PC anymore.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

The fate of Munich's Linux project is only part of the story of open source software.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

After a nearly decade-long project to move away from Windows onto Linux, Munich has all but decided on a dramatic u-turn. It's likely that, by 2021, the city council will start to replace PCs running LiMux (its custom version of Ubuntu) with Windows 10.

Going back maybe 15 or 20 years, it was seriously debated as to when Linux would overtake Windows on the desktop. When Ubuntu was created in 2004, for example, it was with the specific intention of replacing Windows as the standard desktop operating system.

Spoiler: it didn't happen.

Linux on the desktop has about a two percent market share today and is viewed by many as complicated and obscure. Meanwhile, Windows sails on serenely, currently running on 90 percent of PCs in use. There will likely always be a few Linux desktops around in business -- particularly for developers or data scientists.

But it's never going to be mainstream.

There has been lots of interest in Munich's Linux project because it's one of the biggest around. Few large organizations have switched from Windows to Linux, although there are some others, like the French Gendarmerie and the city of Turin. But Munich was the poster child: losing it as a case study will undoubtedly be a blow to those still championing Linux on the desktop.

But the reality is that most companies are happy to go with the dominant desktop OS, given all of the advantages around integration and familiarity that come with it.

It's not entirely clear how much of the problems that some staff have complained about are down to the LiMux software and how much the operating system is being blamed for unrelated issues. But whatever Munich finally decides to do, Linux's fate is not going to be decided on the desktop -- Linux lost the desktop war years ago.

That's probably OK because Linux won the smartphone war and is doing pretty well on the cloud and Internet of Things battlefields too.

There's a four-in-five chance that there's a Linux-powered smartphone in your pocket (Android is based on the Linux kernel) and plenty of IoT devices are Linux-powered too, even if you don't necessarily notice it.

Devices like the Raspberry Pi, running a vast array of different flavours of Linux, are creating an enthusiastic community of makers and giving startups a low-cost way to power new types of devices.

Much of the public cloud is running on Linux in one form or another, too; even Microsoft has warmed up to open-source software. Regardless of your views about one software platform or another, having a rich set of options for developers and users is good for choice and good for innovation.

The dominance of the desktop is not what it once was: it's now just one computing platform among many. Indeed, the software on the PC becomes less and less relevant as more apps become device- and OS-independent, residing in the cloud instead.

The twists and turns of the Munich saga and the adventures of Linux on the desktop are fascinating, but they don't tell the full story.

Agree? Disagree? Join the debate by posting a comment below.

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The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

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