Open Source

Linux on the desktop isn't dead

Jack Wallen doesn't think that the desktop is dead, nor is Linux on the desktop. Do you agree?

Linux on desktop

At LinuxCon this year, the creator of Linux, Linus Torvalds, was asked what he wanted for Linux. His response? "The desktop." For years, the call to Linux action was "World Domination." In certain markets, this has happened (think Linux helping to power Android and Chrome OS). On the desktop, however, Linux still has a long, long way to go.

Wait... that came out wrong. I don't mean "Linux has a long, long way to go before it's ready for the desktop." What I meant to say is something more akin to "Linux is, in fact, desktop ready... it just hasn't found an inroad to the average consumer desktop."

The reactions to Linus' proclamation have been very polar — from claims that the desktop is dead to a resounding "All hail the Linux desktop" and everything in between. My take is a bit of both... sort of... almost.

You'll see.

First and foremost, before we address Linux on the desktop, we must address the desktop as a whole. It is not, nor will it ever be dead. It can't die. There are far too many industries that depend on the desktop (and that simply can't do their thing on a tablet or smartphone), including:

  • Graphic artists
  • Sound engineers
  • Writers
  • Engineers
  • Architects

That's a very short list, but you get the idea. Anyone who works heavily with words, graphics, or sound would have a hard time should they be required to switch from the desktop to a mobile platform. This doesn't include the millions upon millions of everyday workers who depend on their desktops to get their job done. Not every piece of proprietary (and in-house) software has a mobile equivalent, so people depend on the desktop for work. Period.

It was also released that Q2 2014 saw its strongest PC sales in recent memory. Much of this is due to the death of Windows XP, but it proves that people are simply not ready to give up the age-old metaphor for getting work done. This doesn't mean PC sales will ever return to their glory days. Too many consumers have discovered the "cheaper" smartphones can do what they need to do (Facebook, email, online shopping, play multimedia) without having to buy a full-blown desktop PC.

That does not, in any way, equate to the death of the PC in business. That is just not going to happen. People still use QuickBooks 2009 running on Windows XP — both of which are no longer supported. Small businesses simply can't afford to keep up with blistering pace of change, nor is it a top priority. What is a top priority is getting their day-to-day work done.

Now, let's address Linux on the desktop.

When we think of Linux on the desktop, we tend to forget the world is a great big place (and the boundaries of said world do not end with the United States). Other countries have embraced Linux on the desktop to save money and deploy a platform they can rely on. The most recent convert was Munich (read Nick Heath's piece "How Munich rejected Steve Ballmer and kicked Microsoft out of the city" to get the full scoop on that transition and how much money was saved). Rumors have since popped up that Munich was going back to Microsoft, but they've proven to be false (read Nick's follow up article "Ditching Linux for Windows? The truth isn't that simple, says Munich").

For a full list of Linux adopters, check out this Wikipedia entry.

No one ever said taking over the desktop would be an easy feat for Linux. In fact, everyone involved knew it would be a major challenge. It has been and will continue to be. But considering the roadblocks in place and the nature of open-source development, what Linux has achieved thus far is an amazing feat in and of itself. In a world where the mighty dollar makes and breaks business, the idea that anything "free" would have even a marginal chance of making serious headway should be considered ludicrous. Right? The reality, however, is that Linux has managed to overcome hurdles most thought not possible. And although the rise of Linux on the desktop has been painfully slow, that crawling pace to success has not detracted it once. Had Linux been a piece of proprietary software, one that depended on the bottom line, it would have died. Thankfully, it didn't... and won't.

The idea that the desktop (and Linux on the desktop) is dead is shortsighted. This notion assumes:

  • Everyone is comfortable on a mobile platform
  • Everyone can get their jobs done on a mobile platform
  • The world holds the same opinion of technology as does the United States
  • The world places the same value on proprietary software as does the United States
  • Linux hasn't made enormous leaps in the desktop arena
  • Linux isn't a leader of innovation

Yes, the mobile platform has become an incredibly powerful tool for work and personal life. What would we do without our smartphones? But mobile platforms are not a drop-in replacement for the desktop. Smartphones and tablets are a great addition to the desktop — a tool to support and extend the desktop.

There is, however, one notion that a lot of pundits seem to be getting right. This is a thread of thought I've been weaving for a very long time. Namely, Linux developers need to stop developing for the average Linux user and start developing for the average user. I've also identified what the average user needs on the desktop:

  • A modern browser (no, Midori will not do)
  • A user-friendly UI with a modern look and feel
  • A standards-based office suite
  • Touch-screen capability

That's it.

Wait, how can I possibly have such a short list for the average user? Here's how: Over 90% of what the average user does on their desktop happens within a browser (hence the rise of Chromebooks). They use Facebook, Twitter, web-based email, Google Apps, online banking/shopping, etc. Everything else is done within an office suite. That's how. But where are the games???? Ah, there's the rub. The average user is not a gamer. The average user will be playing games on their smartphone or within Facebook.

Gamers are not average users. Period. End of story. Let's put that idea to bed now.

The idea that 90% of things that get done happen within a web browser has made it an ideal time for the rise of the Linux desktop. A solid, secure, reliable platform with which to get your work done — one that doesn't suffer from malware and viruses that are waiting to take down your machine.

I've used Linux (in one form or another) as my only desktop since the mid-nineties. It's only been a very rare occasion that I have had to reach out to an alternative. With Linux, I've always been able to get the job done (and done well). I've never felt I was working with a second-class platform. Ever. In fact, my thoughts have always held strong to the idea that I was working with a superior platform.

The desktop is not dead. We need to continue talking about the desktop and, even more so, Linux on the desktop. The time is right, the need is there, and Linux is ready to serve.

What do you think? Is the desktop dead? And is the notion of a Linux desktop one that more should consider? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website

Editor's Picks