Desktop Linux: The Dream Is Dead

It kills me to say this: The dream of Linux as a major desktop OS is now pretty much dead.

Sad penguin
Despite phenomenal security and stability--and amazing strides in usability, performance, and compatibility--Linux simply isn’t catching on with desktop users. And if there ever was a chance for desktop Linux to succeed, that ship has long since sunk.

Over the past few years, modern Linux distributions such as Ubuntu have utterly transformed the open-source desktop user experience into something sleek and simple, while arguably surpassing Windows and Mac OS in both security and stability. Meanwhile, the public failure of Windows Vista and the rise of the netbook gave Linux some openings to capture a meaningful slice of the market. But those opportunities have been squandered and lost, and Linux desktop market share remains stagnant at around 1 percent.

I should emphasize that I'm not by any means talking about the demise of Linux itself. New projections from the Linux Foundation credibly show that demand for Linux on servers will outstrip demand for all other options over the next few years. And, as I'll discuss at length in this article, Linux has already established itself as a dominant operating system on mobile and embedded devices ranging from tablets and phones to TVs and printers.

But for anyone who has longed for a future in which free, open-source Linux distributions would rival premium commercial operating systems from Microsoft and Apple on desktop PCs, now might be a good time to set more-realistic expectations. Though I personally wish that the opposite were true, the year of the Linux desktop will never come.

Missed Opportunities

A few years ago, I infamously went on record with the belief that the stage had been set for a significant breakthrough in Linux adoption rates. After all, Ubuntu had created a virtually idiot-proof distribution that was as easy to install as Windows or Mac OS X. Hardware driver support had reached critical mass. Even major PC makers such as Dell had stepped up to offer Linux as a preinstalled option on laptops and desktops.

Windows vs. Linux
At the same time, consumer sentiment toward Windows Vista had reached such abysmal depths that users were clamoring for other options. And to sweeten the prospects just a bit more, the emergence of netbooks gave Linux a nearly unchallenged new platform to dominate for months on end. If there was ever a time for Linux to rise up, 2008 was that time. But it wasn't meant to be.

Although Asus managed to spark a massive trend with cheap, simple netbook PCs, it opted to ship systems preinstalled with a Xandros distribution that left a lot to be desired. Other vendors moved just as clumsily with a host of bad options that gave Microsoft room to sweep the market by extending the life of Windows XP. In that one gesture, all hope was lost for Linux's netbook revolution. Meanwhile, desktop users who fled Windows Vista mostly just switched to Macs or reverted to Windows XP.

By the time Microsoft released the Windows 7 beta in January 2009, Linux had clearly lost its chance at desktop glory.

Why Linux Failed on the Desktop

The failure of Linux to catch on with mainstream PC users will come as no great surprise to most observers, but the reasons for its failure are often misunderstood or, at the very least, grossly misstated. Linux didn't fail on the desktop because it's "too geeky," "too hard to use," or "too obscure," as casual detractors so often claim in online forums. On the contrary, the best-known distribution--Ubuntu--has received high marks for usability from every major player in the technology press, and it features a menu layout nearly identical to that of Mac OS X.

DVD playback on Linux
Want to unwind with a movie on your Linux PC? Good luck.
Ultimately, Linux is doomed on the desktop because of a critical lack of content. And that lack of content owes its existence to two key factors: the fragmentation of the Linux platform, and the fierce ideology of the open-source community at large.

User expectations have shifted dramatically in the past few years, and it's no longer acceptable for any PC to fail at basic media viewing. DVD playback and video streaming from premium sites such as Netflix are now fundamental capabilities that any computer should have. But the politics of the open-source world make that a nearly hopeless dream for Linux.

"I share the hope with everyone that free and open-source software will rise to meet the requirements of content delivery," says longtime Linux developer Jeff Whatcott, senior vice president of marketing for Brightcove, a company that specializes in online video streaming. "But that's not happening."

"DRM is not popular with the open-source crowd," says Whatcott, lamenting that the open-source community at large remains so steadfastly opposed to digital rights management technologies. Without those systems, commercial content providers have no incentive to embrace Linux. And Whatcott points out that even if the open-source community were willing to go along, the DRM arena is dominated by "deep, deep patent pools," making a free, open-source alternative unlikely anyway.

Meanwhile, even common streaming technologies such as Flash--which Whatcott helped bring to Linux in his previous role as a Macromedia (and later Adobe) product manager--deliver poor results on Linux.

"It wasn't for lack of trying," Whatcott says. "At the time, Macromedia put extensive resources into figuring that out." But despite the hard work of a team of engineers "that loved Linux," the fragmentation of the Linux platform and the hurdles presented by what Whatcott describes as "alpha-quality" drivers for audio and video hardware made success elusive for the Flash development team.

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