Linux on the Desktop – Dead Again?

Well it’s been a tempestuous week here in the Linux blogosphere, thanks largely to a violent brawl that broke out unexpectedly down at the Broken Windows Lounge.

It all started with a blog post over at PCWorld last weekend on a topic that might sound familiar.

Any guesses? Yes, that’s right: “Why Linux Is Dead on the Desktop” was its name, and a collective groan could be heard in blogobars across the land as soon as it appeared on the horizon.

It’s baaa-aack! Linux fans everywhere were forced to put down their beers and take up arms once again.

Shots Were Exchanged

Indeed, a return salvo was fired on Monday morning, followed by yet another shot back soon afterward.

The Slashdot crowds, meanwhile, were embroiled in a related skirmish of their own.

Bottom line? Dark and stormy days in Linux land. Linux Girl hunkered down on her favorite barstool and tried to record some of what was being said.

‘It’s Like Grandma’s Cookies’

“Of course Linux in the COMMERCIAL DESKTOP is a failure, because Linux is not commercial,” opined Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol, for example. “It’s like grandma’s cookies — they can’t compete with, say, Nabisco. It’s a totally wrong assumption, and he could not be wronger.”

Ebersol was also intrigued by the timing of the attacks.

“Those articles proclaiming Linux dead always surface near to a winblow$ launch,” he pointed out. “Funny, eh?”

‘Enough With the Nonsense!’

Indeed, “enough with the ‘1 percent’ nonsense!” exclaimed blogger Robert Pogson, pointing to Net Applications’ statistics for California, for San Francisco “Designated Market Area,” and for Sunnyvale, California.

“They show huge percentages in a region of 37 million people, and it’s a lie because the source of that ‘share’ is Google, using GNU/Linux desktops as a business,” he explained. “That’s right, those high share numbers for that other OS result from business usage of that other OS.

“Net Applications must be sampling during office hours or from company domains,” he added. “Business is locked in by M$’s office suite, and other business-centric software made only for that other OS.”

In actual usage, “you will find lots of users in government, education and in the home in Brazil, Russia, India and China, where governments actually use GNU/Linux, promote usage, and are not ‘partners’ of Net Applications,” Pogson pointed out. “You can find GNU/Linux is popular in Malaysia and Europe as well.”

Linux shouldn’t be pronounced dead “until the final battle for retail space is lost,” Pogson concluded. “Only a few years ago it was rare to find an OEM selling GNU/Linux and even more rare to find a retailer selling GNU/Linux. That has changed. GNU/Linux is alive and well on the desktop.”

‘A Worldwide Phenomenon’

Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien took a similar view.

“I think I have personally resigned from the club of people whose self-worth depends on their OS being dominant,” O’Brien told Linux Girl. “Linux will be there for everyone who wants it, and that is fine for me, since I want it.”

As for the market share statistics, “my impression is that they solely measure OS market share in the U.S., where no one ever got fired for buying Microsoft,” he added. “Linux is a worldwide phenomenon, and I think usage is much higher outside the U.S. than it is here.”

‘Still Growing’

Consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack suggested some alternate wording.

“I wouldn’t say ‘dead’ so much as ‘a growing niche,'” Mack told Linux Girl.

“Right now the apps are just not there yet for some tasks, so for many (most?) people, there are no good reasons to switch,” Mack mused. “On the other hand, when all of the tools are there, Linux is a good option — it is easy to set up, secure by design and very flexible.”

In fact, “some governments have just implemented plans to switch their desktops over, such as Iceland and the Spanish state of Extremadora, so not only is it still growing, it will grow in the future as well,” he added.

‘Not Dead’

“Given the recent rash of stories about corporate desktop Linux, I just don’t see it myself,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza opined.

“I just installed Android (-x86 4.0rc1) on my laptop,” he noted. “I hope that one day enough of its kernel gets merged with the mainline that I can reasonably run it on my desktop. So far it seems fairly usable with mouse and keyboard.”

As long as Windows “effectively comes with your PC for free, there’s no particular reason why Linux should ever conquer Windows on the desktop at this rate, which is presumably why OEM copies of Windows are still extremely inexpensive,” Espinoza added. “Clearly, Linux on the desktop is not dead, but it is primarily in business.”

‘Two Huge Issues’

Slashdot blogger yagu had some thoughts about that.

“There are two huge issues holding Desktop Linux back: corporate profitability and killer apps,” yagu asserted.

“Companies make a fortune off of Linux in the back rooms, where servers are doing all the heavy lifting and the user demographic is highly technical,” yagu explained. “Companies rely on Linux for heavy processing because, in the vernacular of Apple, ‘it just works!’ There are no prohibitive learning curves for this user base — there’s a line of geeks just waiting to get their hands on Linux servers.”

Desktop Linux, however, “offers no such benefit,” he opined. “Yes, it’s free, but companies face the re-training costs and rollout issues and see no return on investment. And there’s always at least one killer app that absolutely must be available but is not available for Linux.

“I can make a case that the return on investment is worthwhile, but nudging an entire company off Windows is daunting at best,” he added. “Logic doesn’t apply.”

‘Every Year They’ve Been Wrong’

Nevertheless, “Desktop Linux thrives in spite of its disadvantaged position,” yagu pointed out. “It’s good enough to maintain and grow a loyal base.”

That’s not likely to change, “but until Microsoft is rendered completely irrelevant (think browser-based computing), Desktop Linux will stay a minor player,” he predicted.

In the meantime, “the naysayers have been claiming the death of Desktop Linux every year, and every year they’ve been wrong,” he concluded.

‘Things Don’t Get Any Better’

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet wasn’t so sure.

“Is Linux dead? Well, it’d have to have been alive at one point to be dead, and I’d argue that frankly it has never gotten above a niche hobbyist OS on the desktop, no different than BSD or Haiku,” hairyfeet asserted.

“I’d say the bigger question, the one nobody seems to be willing to really ask, is ‘Why? Why would they rather steal the competitor’s product than take Linux for free?'” he suggested. “I believe I can answer that: It’s because nobody listens to the users.”

After all, “if Apple or Microsoft don’t listen to users, their sales go down, they lose share and money, so they have an incentive to listen,” hairyfeet said. “The devs in Linux answer to NOBODY but their own itch-scratching, so things simply don’t get any better.”

‘There Is No Single Desktop Market’

That view was far from unanimous, however.

“Desktop Linux is not dead,” Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, told Linux Girl. “I have argued repeatedly that it is wrong to talk about desktop Linux because there is no single desktop market — instead, there is a series of desktop markets.”

As Linux “becomes more capable in those markets where it is currently entrenched, it will branch out into other markets,” he explained. “This process is likely to be slow, but it is happening now.

“I think the big concern right now is that the Linux desktop experience has gone from fractured to quickly changing,” Travers concluded. “I think this lack of stability is a problem for users, and so this is something that distro maintainers need to be especially sensitive about.”

‘Just Random Noise’

Last but not least, Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site, pointed to statistics on Wikipedia.

According to those, “in July of 2011, 1.51 percent of non-mobile users were using linux,” she noted. “That dropped to a low of 1.27 percent in September before climbing back to 1.52 percent in February.”

So, “an increase of 0.01 percent (one part in 10,000) over 7 months, given the wide swings month-to-month, is just random noise,” she asserted.

‘None Too Shabby’

It also “tends to over-estimate the percentage of linux desktop users, since the tens of millions of Windows gaming rigs outnumber linux desktops, and most of those gamers are not going to spend much time on Wikipedia,” she suggested. “The same is true for the hundreds of millions of Windows machines in offices around the world. Also not represented in the logs were computers in China.”

Looking at the big picture, “maybe it’s not time to put desktop Linux in a red shirt and have Dr. McCoy pronounce, ‘He’s dead, Jim,’ but he’s not going anywhere, either,” Hudson mused.

“Tux will have to be content with being No. 1 in supercomputers, being strong in servers and embedded systems, and being the underpinnings of the No. 2 phone OS,” she concluded. “Looked at that way, it’s none too shabby, and anything else is just gravy.”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


  • I would agree with hairyfeet that linux on the desktop has never really been alive. It’s a lot more useful then BSD and Hiaku, but still sucks in certain ways that makes it difficult to mainstream.

    I disagree with two points from the PCWorld article. Lets gather up the 100 most deployed desktop models (50 laptops, 50 towers) and install retail windows 7 and count the number of driver issues. Then repeat with some distro with a 3.2 or 3.3 version kernel. Linux just works on a large portion of hardware because most of the drivers are first-party. (Even halfway functional graphics drivers are on by default for the first boot) Sure you’d probably be able to bring up 90% of the computers to work with 7 and 80% with linux but it’s in no small part to a distribution dominance of 7.

    Also the rise of Mac has make Linux as a development platform more attractive. If you already are running a cross-platform library, it’s not a epic endeavor to add one more platform.

    Ferniez, the explosion of desktop environments is a good thing. It shows a lot of creativity, interest and completion in the desktop. Eventually the best ideas will filter though and we may even get something fantastic.

    Also in the ARM world, which may bleed into low end or cheap desktops, Microsoft doesn’t have an overwhelming user-base or legacy apps in the niche. Whereas Ubuntu has the source and porting while not painless is quite practicable.

    • Still got Voldemort syndrome i see pogson, you DO realize that makes you and the entire community look like nutters when you do that, right?

      And i love how you just ignore the elephant in the room trying to snatch "invisible" Linux users and that big fat elephant is…dum dum dum…PIRACY! that’s right, just as I said people would rather steal the other guy’s product than take yours for free, what does that tell you? Look up any list of PCs on Craigslist and you’ll see listing after listing of $100 PCs running Windows 7 ultimate, a $400 OS, think those are legit? give me a break!

      But yet again you are a perfect example with your Voldemort syndrome of why Linux is flatline (its even right there on the Wiki, look it up, use Google trends, nobody cares that one teeny tiny place in the valley uses Linux, if you want to pick nits THAT small by placing the area into only a single city block I can prove WinME is still popular…don’t make it so) and that is because it is NOT an OS but to you and too many of the devs it is a RELIGION and just like all religions any dissension shall be crushed for the "truth of the one true way’.

      ALL you bring is excuses. Pulseaudio don’t work? Excuse #156-Ur doin it wrong. Update/grade breaks drivers? #418 blame the user or/and the hardware. DEs are a mess? #754 Its "innovation". Nobody wants to deal with forum fixes? #872 They are ‘noobs" and "not worthy of the four freedoms!"

      But please, keep on ignoring the will of the masses, your type is the reason why MSFT doesn’t even pretend to care about linux anymore. you are making them and Apple boatloads o’ cash because you treat the OS as some idol to be worshipped and bugs are just ‘trials to prove your faith" instead of what they actually are, which is maladjusted devs scratching itches and not caring what they break. tell me pogson, where is even the most basic of features, like a "find drivers" or a "rollback drivers’ button, things the competition has had for TWELVE YEARS now? that’s right, they don’t exist. because that would make things actually pleasant for users, can’t have that.

      I used to root for Linux, for 3 years I even ran it 24/7 on my laptop but then I realized a great truth…its not getting better. its really not. things will ALMOST get stable and then the devs with get an itch and throw it all out and start again. Linux has been "80% there" for years now and never gets any better, if anything pukeaudio and the DE wars have made things worse. So like many I gave up. And THAT is reality pogson, the vast majority aren’t gonna care about your "free" OS if its like keeping a 75 pinto on the road, more trouble than it is worth.

      • A PC running that other OS is not worth $100. I count the value of that other OS as negative. The work required to patch and re-re-reboot the thing while fighting malware is worth more than the use one could get from the PC. Conversely, one could install Debian GNU/Linux and get value from the purchase but why not buy a no OS or GNU/Linux system to start? A couple of years ago I worked for a school that received 40 PCs with XP. I re-imaged them to GNU/Linux and they were wonderful, better than a dozen new PCs we bought with XP and "7".

        • "All hail the one true god!" that is EXACTLY what you sound like, you KNOW this right? I’m really starting to think you are a Microsoft shill because frankly you make the entire Linux community look like a bunch of crackpots and tinfoil hatters.

  • One of the more recent problems has been the confusion over desktop environments. I am a long time Linux user and only use Win when I absolutely have to. That said, it has been very confusing recently with all of the different desktops like Gnome, Unity, KDE and Cinnamon. Granted they are very pretty and strive to make the desktop easier to use but they have largely failed to provide anything really useful.

    Back in the days of Gnome 2 it was much easier to help friends and relations that wanted to make a change to Linux. Now I would rather not. There are so many varients floating around and with all of the changes it is hard to recommend any of them. The other problem is stablility, lots of these are still really beta, they feel really experimental. Monitors and graphic cards sometimes work and sometimes don’t. There are so many bells and whistles being added to these desktops that I can’t keep up. And, the don’t do a damn thing to improve my productivity or ease of use, in fact sometimes they hinder same.

    It might be too much to ask but maybe someone might convene a desktop summit and have all of the major desktop environment developers meet to agree on some common frameworks. Right now the Linux desktop is severely fragmented and going in many different directions. For the time being I will slog my way through Linux Mint hoping that at some point it will stablize. Right now I would only recommend Linux to someone who is fairly expert in desktop computing.

    As for me I am currently using Linux Mint 12 with Cinnamon. But I am still not as happy as when I was using just plain Gnome 2. Thinking seriously of regressing back to Gnome 2.

  • Wikipedia’s numbers show GNU/Linux has been flat the last few years is correct, but the numbers do show that other OS has declined from 89.5% in 2009-04 to 73.8% in 2012-2. Those changes/non-changes are in installed base, not shipments. That means GNU/Linux has increased shipments/installations in a period when that other OS has been flat in shipments or decreasing. M$ has been touting numbers of about 50 million sales per quarter ever since "7" came out. Meanwhile the Earth is shipping 90 million x86 PCs and tens of millions of ARMed devices. Wikipedia’s mobile share is about 18%. On the non-mobile part, GNU/Linux has increased 18% in 3 years to 1.8%. Not too shabby. That other OS has decreased to 85% of the non-mobile traffic from from 91% of the non-mobile traffic, a decline of 7%. Part of the "noise" is mobile traffic. Don’t let it fool you into thinking GNU/Linux is not doing well.

    Just as GNU/Linux is not usually counted from businesses, Wikipedia will not be counting it in many installations in schools and government offices where it may be blocked as a time-waster. I have worked in a place that blocked anything not on a white list.

  • Anyone who thinks the Linux desktop is dead has to be either smoking the wacky weed or has their head up their butt.All my computers,including my home machines,run Linux.I gave up on Micro$oft years ago.

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