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The Linux desktop’s last, best shot

What’s holding the Linux desktop back?
Linus Torvalds looks to Chromebooks and Android for the future of the Linux desktop, while Linux Mint developers aren’t happy with each other.

Windows 7’s clock is ticking. It has six month left before Microsoft ends free support for it. That’s not news. We’ve known that for ages. But, by the federal government’s Digital Analytics Program (DAP) count, 11.5% of web browser users are still running Windows 7. NetMarketShare’s statistics for the desktop operating system market are even more alarming. In May 2019, they show Windows 10 barely ahead of Windows 7 adoption: 39.87 to 38.52%.  So, where will people go if not to Windows 10? For some, desktop Linux is the top choice.

This rather surprises me. I’ve been using the Linux desktop for decades — I writing this on Linux Mint 19.1 — and while it’s great, the traditional, fat-client desktop has never gained much market share. The future of the Linux end-user experience, I would argue, belonged to Android and Chrome OS. But a combination of factors appears to be giving desktop Linux new life.

First, governments are turning up their noses at Windows 10. South Korea is thinking of moving to Linux because it wants to cut costs and reduce its dependence on Microsoft software. Russia wants to move to Linux for security. China has announced they’ll be giving up on Windows as well because they fear being hacked.

China is saying they will come up with their own operating system. I don’t believe that. Building a new desktop OS from scratch is hard work. It would be much easier to build on top of Linux. Besides, China already has popular Linux distros of its own such as Deepin and Ubuntu Kylin.

Closer to home in the West, companies are turning to Linux for their engineering and developer desktops. Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu Linux and its corporate parent Canonical, recently told me: “We have seen companies signing up for Linux desktop support because they want to have fleets of Ubuntu desktop for their artificial intelligence engineers.”

Even Microsoft has figured out that advanced development work requires Linux. That’s why Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) has become a default part of Windows 10.  

So, the opportunity is there for Linux to grab some significant market share. My question is: “Is anyone ready to take advantage of this opportunity?”

All the major Linux companies — Canonical, Red Hat and SUSE — support Linux desktops, though it’s not a big part of their businesses. The groups which do focus on the desktop, such as Mint, MX Linux, Manjaro Linux, and elementary OS, are small and under-financed. So I can’t see them delivering the support most users — nevermind governments and companies — need.

The Linux desktop is also filled with fragmentation. There is no one Linux desktop; there are dozens, and they are not at all alike. There’s the Debian Linux family, which includes Ubuntu and Mint; the Red Hat crew, with Fedora and CentOS; and numerous others.

Linus Torvalds agrees. In a recent interview, Torvalds said, “I still wish we were better at having a standardized desktop that goes across all the distribution.  It’s … a personal annoyance how the fragmentation of the different vendors have, I think, held the desktop back a bit.”

VMware Chief Open Source Officer Dirk Hohndel, agrees: 

The current situation with dozens of distributions, each with different rules, each with different versions of different libraries, some with certain libraries missing, each with different packaging tools and packaging formats … that basically tells app developers “go away, focus on platforms that care about applications.”

So, while I think it’s great that the end of Windows 7, along with other factors, is encouraging people to turn to Linux for their desktops, I’m not sure that it will happen. We need more companies backing the Linux desktop before I can see many corporate users turning to it.

Sure, Linux will continue to dominate the end-user experience, thanks largely to Android and Chrome OS, but the traditional desktop? I fear only Linux power users, developers, and engineers will continue to be its users.

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