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Linux and the Mysterious Netbook-to-Desktop Gap

Linux and the Mysterious Netbook-to-Desktop Gap

Linux netbooks are blazing along, but the Linux desktop languishes. What's up with that? The biggest problem for Linux on the desktop, Slashdot blogger David Masover opined, "is getting manufacturers to support it properly, which includes both shipping everything put together, and dealing with complete newbies looking to migrate from Windows."

By Katherine Noyes
12/17/09 4:00 AM PT

'Tis the season to be jolly, and recent statistics make that especially true for Linux users.

Exhibit A: Linux netbooks now account for almost a third of the 35 million or so netbooks to ship globally this year, according to Jeff Orr, an analyst at ABI Research.

Specifically, the exact breakdown is 32 percent Linux versus 68 percent Windows machines, Orr said -- a far cry from the measly figures paraded around by Redmond earlier this year!

A Shot in the ARM

Then came Exhibit B -- specifically, predictions out of the recent Netbook World Summit in Paris that Linux will dominate in ARM-powered laptops next year. Furthermore, such machines are expected to take over a significant share of the overall laptop market.

Not even the strongest eggnog can beat declarations like that for lifting a Linux geek's spirits!

Slashdot bloggers were all over the news in no time, chiming in with their two cents.

'Nobody Would Use It'

To wit: "Linux is expected to dominate ARM-based netbooks because Windows doesn't run on ARM, full stop," wrote PCM2 in one of the Slashdot discussions. "That math's not hard."

The question, however, "is whether ARM-based netbooks will sell at all," PCM2 added. "It doesn't really matter what OS a netbook is running. Nobody buys any kind of computer to run an OS. They buy computers to run apps.

"You can argue all you want that Mac OS X is more elegant than Windows, or whatever -- but if you couldn't get a word processor for it, nobody would use it," PCM2 concluded.

On the other hand: "This is even better than the market share numbers suggest because Microsoft will need to lower their prices to keep Linux from growing faster, and that means they have less money to buy their way into other markets," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider.

'Something Ominous'

So that was the jolly part. A somewhat less cheerful discussion, however, took place over at Datamation.

Desktops were the focus there -- specifically, what blogger Matt Hartley sees as impediments to mainstream acceptance of the Linux desktop: issues with wireless, video cards and handling of restricted codecs, for example.

"Even after considering the success seen with Linux on netbooks," Hartley wrote, "there is really no question that it feels like something ominous is holding back desktop Linux from the masses."

Bloggers at Linux Today and beyond jumped on the topic in short order, leaving Linux Girl with a mission on her hands: Explain the netbook-to-desktop gap.

'Absolutely No Bearing'

"Market share is one of those things that means something different than what many people assume," Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, told LinuxInsider. "Really what it means is that a specific share of the market at a certain point in time was filled by sales of a specific product."

That, however, "has absolutely no bearing on what is actually used," Travers added. "Some of the Windows systems will end up running Linux; some of the Linux systems will end up running Windows or Mac OSX."

Similarly: "There are a lot of people who won't pay for any operating system, and they don't drive the market, yet are a gigantic potential user base for Ubuntu," Slashdot blogger drinkypoo pointed out. "I know that I've certainly never purchased a Windows license separately, and have probably been out of compliance in the past (if you accept their stance that OEM licenses are not transferable, anyway), but have settled down to just running Linux, without multibooting."

'There *Is* Demand'

What the netbook market share figures do show, however, "is that there IS demand for one reason or another for Linux-installed computers," Travers added.

As for desktops, "I have been using Linux on the desktop for over 10 years," he noted. "I have watched a LOT of problems be resolved in that time."

Many Winmodems now work, for example, and many wireless cards now work "without an insane amount of work," he asserted.

To properly support consumers, though, Linux needs "perpetual bugfix support," since most people "NEVER update their OSes," Travers maintained.

'Works With Linux'

It would also be "very helpful for some company to certify hardware as working with Linux," added Travers. "Maybe two tiers of certification could be made: 'Works with Linux' and 'Fully Supported by Linux.'

"This is a major opportunity, but it is one that is currently hard to take advantage of," he noted. "I don't think we will see it happen in the near future."

Along similar lines: "The biggest problem is getting manufacturers to support it properly, which includes both shipping everything put together, and dealing with complete newbies looking to migrate from Windows," Slashdot blogger David Masover opined.

'The Wal-Mart Problem'

Indeed, "on the desktop you will HAVE to solve the 'Wal-Mart' problem, which I believe is doable but it will take compromises which I am not certain the Linux developers are willing to take," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet told LinuxInsider.

Specifically, "there HAS to be an easy way to tell just by looking at a device if it is supported," he asserted.

There also needs to be "a universally agreed upon standard ABI that allows binary drivers that can be 'written once, supported for years' so that manufacturers can place Linux drivers on CDs and ship them with their product," he added.

'Maybe Never'

"Unfortunately, I just don't see it happening for at least 10 years -- maybe never," asserted Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site.

"Retailers don't want it because it would cut down on their profit centers -- their software sales and service departments," Hudson told LinuxInsider. "They don't make all that much on hardware sales, so if they can't sell an antivirus or get you back in to reformat your computer, they are leaving money on the table."

Business suppliers also don't want Linux desktops -- "they're all dependent on the 'gravy' from supporting what's 'broken by design,'" she explained. "They might argue lower TCO, but they only do this by including one-time switch-over costs, which should properly be amortized over a long term.

"Plus, they'd actually have to hire competent people instead of, 'well, we have to reimage it,'" she added.

'Death of the Desktop'

On desktops, "people still feel they need lots of local power and storage, even though their CPUs idle and they never back up their stuff," blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider.

However, "experience with netbooks will kill off the desktop within a few years," Pogson predicted. "It makes little sense unless you need all those drives, noise, heat, space and burning money. Those who really need power will use a thin client connected to a server cluster."

Looking ahead, "expect GNU/Linux to do just as well on notebooks as it did on netbooks," he added. "2009 was the year of GNU/Linux on the desktop as far as I am concerned. 2010 could well mark the death of the desktop and overweight notebooks."

Indeed, Linux Girl couldn't have said it better. Why sweat the desktop when it's already in its declining years? A third of the netbook market, on the other hand, is a joyful way to begin 2010!


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