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.

About

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

36 comments
SEwing0109
SEwing0109

I only partly agree about the desktop being alive and well.


The problem with modern mobile devices is that they are...


1.) Weak: They have very little RAM and very limited battery life and very slow processors. Each of these problems compound one another, ultimately creating a sysystem that can't perform high-end tasks. The solution is the next step in battery technology, most likely the supercapacitors, wireless charging, solar panels and/or fuel cells being developed as we speak. Once power is no longer a limiting factor, we'll very well have mobile devices that can compete with high-end desktops.


2.) Small: The displays on mobile devices are necessarily small, this isn't going to change. What will, and arguably already has, is the idea that we're stuck using the built-in screen. With technologies like Chromecast land miniHDMI, we can hook our mobile devices up to a monitor or TV as easily as a desktop, and styluses are at least as accurate as mice for cursor control. Furthermore, there are several portable displays like the Occulus Rift, Google Glass and Google Cardboard that can provide a similar experience, not to mention the scroll-like OLED displays that still haven't been utilized in the market. These technologies aren't up to par just yet, but again will be appearing sooner rather than later.


3.) New: Today's mobile devices have been in common use only for twenty years, tops. You're talking about how businessmen are used to doing everything on a desktop PC, but that's only true of the old vanguard. The next generation, and to a greater extent the generation after that, will have literally grown up using mobile devices. How many kids actually sit at a desktop to do schoolwork or crcrate/consume content? PC's are as alien to them as VHS or cassette tapes -- poorer kids or those who visit/live with their grandparents may be familiar with older tech, but it's hardly going to be their preferred medium to use.


As an aside, many artists and designers have absolutely switched to specially-designed drawing tablets to do their work, though for the reasons noted above (plus cost constraints) many haven't. It's expected by the industry professionals that you have one to use at least part of the time, if you're serious about your work.


It may take fifty or one hundred years, but desktops will be replaced by mobile devices and personal electronics. The only computers that will be larger than a cereal box in 2114 will be the enterprise and government-level supercomputers used to store and transmit unfathomable amounts of data across the planet.

marcushh777
marcushh777

Jack, your assessment that several jobs|functions require the desktop computer interface is correct. This machine has morphed. I define it today as a large (very large) screen, full keyboard, and pointing device. The whole setup might be (and probably is) wireless, and the processor is housed in a small footprint (mine is a mac mini, or notebook) with wifi, bluetooth, and other cable free solutions. Its a 'desktop' because it all sits on a desk surface of some type (sometimes the coffee shop for me) and because it does not get carried around in my pocket... that's for my other computer.  :)


As for gnu/linux on the desktop, my year of the gnu/linux desktop was 1998;  never going back, ever.


PS   I use my smart phone for everything (Android, Samsung) but it has not replaced my primary computers (notebooks, and desktop setup).  There is no way that a handheld device could ever (ever) replace what I do on my desk. In fact, my 'desk' is an integral part of what I 'do' on my handheld device. 


Cheers

smdias65
smdias65

I work for a health insurance company in the US; I can't imagine doing all the work that we do with a smartphone or tablet. At this point, though, most of us are using laptops. Much of what we do is web-based and we use Citrix, which has a Linux client. I've been a Linux user since 1999-ish and I've seen how much more user friendly it has become. I was hoping the company would switch to a Linux desktop once Windows XP reached its end of life. Sadly, that was not the case; we were all upgraded to Windows 7. I got the chance to ask our CIO if he had considered switching the company to a Linux desktop. He said he had, but thought that it would be too confusing for the average user. Of course, I didn't think to ask him when the last time he used a Linux desktop was.

narea92
narea92

Linux should belong to a non profit organization. This could allow for free use for individuals and, at the same time, provide some profit from enterprises. It also would give needed insurance to business that they are not left alone. All things needed to succeed but missing in the present system.

Gaetano Arena

ejespino1127
ejespino1127

I have been using Linux Fedora 19 (before of that it ran Fedora 17) in home for the last 18 months and I'm very happy, I even installed Ubuntu 14.04 on my old Macbook (thanks to Apple because no way to install any MacOSX newer than Lion) and It works like a charm. Even in my work I use LInux running on a VirtualBox VM. The only problem that I have confronted is what desktop manager to use Mate, Cinnamon, Xfce, Unity, Lxde, or Unity (it can be installed on Fedora with some work).

pfyearwood
pfyearwood

I am a Linux user. Have been since Ubuntu 6.10. Currently using Mint 17 and Point 2014. I learned this about connecting Android to most Linux distributions. You go to the"Settings" for Android and select hoe you want to connect with your computer. Best way is as an external drive. You then get both internal and external storage. Afterwards, your Android device becomes part of your Linux desktop. Windows Phone works the same way. Happy to help.

James Foley
James Foley

My Acer all in one mega tablet (21 inch 1080p touchscreen) works great on my desktop with Win8.1. Though I do have an older Dell E310 desktop with LXLE Linux installed. It is VERY windows-like.

Oliver Tagalog
Oliver Tagalog

practical wise desktop often use for testing server sometimes for cheaper option, before deploying those stuff in a production environment ;) hehe ...

gthurman1
gthurman1

A few years back I spent ~$1400 for a HP/Win TabletPC. The first month out of standard warranty, it fried. After a class action lawsuit, I took the ASUS tablet PC w Win7: great notebook w touch screen. But MSFT kept touting 'try Win 8 Preview'. It had a 'check your system for compatibility' runtime BUT only embedded in the downloader.


After declaring the hardware compatible, it ran 2.75 hours to install then died. The graphics chipset supports an external display that meet the minimum Win8 specs, but not the runtime with notebook screen. I tried buying Win8 hoping they would permit the 60 pixel vertical shortage to 'fly' but the software was smart enough it detected the inbuilt display shortage, now nothing but desktop mode works for 60 minutes only.


I can't give web based demonstrations because the 60 minute clock may expire. The required typing during a demo is not conducive to touch or Bluetooth keyboards using one of my slates.


Will a version of Linux completely replace the Windows OS on a touch TabletPC?


Or may I boot and run Linux from a SD chip?


Joshua Morden
Joshua Morden

People have been proclaiming the end of the desktop for over a decade now, and desktops still are alive and well in 2014. Businesses all rely on them for their lower price and powerful performance. And, consumers still use them for gaming purposes and the larger screens. Even companies that deploy laptops often still provide docking stations with a full-size monitor and keyboard/mouse which together provide a desktop-like experience. The desktop form factor is certainly never going away, and I believe that desktops themselves will continue to get cheaper and maintain a strong presence in the enterprise.

adornoe1
adornoe1

Linux: Forever trying to catch up to Windows and/or OSX, and never leading in any aspect.

Someday, Linux might get to 2% of OS share, and then, the Linux geeks will declare the death of Windows and maybe even OSX. 


nthnu
nthnu

I think desktops will be around. Desktops with Linux will need to pull in compatibility for the devices and software the average users use.

yawningdogge
yawningdogge

As long as Microsoft continues to treat my employer like something they just scraped off the bottom of their shoe, Linux will always have a chance at being the desktop solution.

discolust
discolust

You're kidding, right? You didn't even try to articulate anything meaningful. Blah blah-Blah blah blah....

daniel_chern
daniel_chern

I think the deal breaker with Linux is lack of plug n play. I finally gathered enough courage to re-install an older XP desktop with Lubuntu but for the heck of it can't get the wifi adaptor to work. Neither can I get the correct screen resolution to apply and it sure runs a lot slower than when the machine was running XP. My plans to switch my office machines to linux thus needs to be moved back due to this experiment failing quite badly.

opensas
opensas

Agree, I think the one that comes closer to that is elementary + firefox


On the other hand I think that convergence will eventually come to life and dominate (what's left of) the desktop. I hope ubuntu could became an option. I'm pretty sure chomebook will merge android in the near future

Alejandro Bermudez
Alejandro Bermudez

I agree tablets are for a different type of business while desktop is the tool you use more daily

Mehedi Hasan
Mehedi Hasan

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Clinton Cummings
Clinton Cummings

Because the desktop isn't dead nor will it ever be...people will continue to build them.

jqbecker
jqbecker

Jack, love your articles. Love your viewpoints, I even tried out Elements after your last article.  But until there is a Linux version of Quickbooks, (and I mean Quickbooks by Intuit, not some almost-there replacement )  Linux will never gain. Same for other verticals like dentist software (AltaPoint, Dentrix, Practiceworks, etc).. And people still love their genuine Microsoft Office - not sure why, most people don't use 5% of what it can do - but they love it.




adacosta38
adacosta38

one that doesn't suffer from malware and viruses that are waiting to take down your machine.


What's the point of posting this? This is the sad reality of pushing Linux, you have do it at the expense of another platform, insinuating its Windows. Just like how Linux has evolved from its 90s perception of having to compile the kernel to get it working and its incompatible with everything under the sun, Windows too has evolved from its 90s/early 2000s belief as a security plagued platform.

Why can't you promote Linux based on its merits, whether that's ease of use, killer apps or good enough philosophy? Why must it be that Windows be the target for Linux to look like the advantage? The last time I caught a virus on Windows was in 2001 running Windows 98 SE, this was a W32 virus. That's nearly 14 years ago. Even in the wake of malicious code like sasser, code red, my Windows systems were never compromised.


Mac users once like to call their platform easier than Windows, even when Windows actually caught with the Mac in the 90s and even surpassed with Windows 95. Even to this day, they claim its easier than Windows when in fact that is not true.

coupe68
coupe68

I've tried converting many people to Linux on the desktop however there are a few points your missing Jack, one is that most users of Apple devices still use ITunes and even if they don't still want to have a platform that they can install it on, unfortunately Linux is not that platform.


Secondly and an important point, when ever I plug my Android devices into an OOB Linux distro, the first thing I am greeted with is errors. Any OS that wants a share of the regular user desktop market needs to have these two bases covered at least. No excuse.


Don't get me wrong, I would love to see Linux grab lots of market share in the desktop arena, I love Linux. I use it myself, the first thing I do when I get a new PC or laptop is put Linux on it.


I have even tried converting my wife to using it and she did for many months after her Windows platform blue screened, however when it came to wanting to play an EA games game, she wanted to go back to Windows because she couldn't install it on Linux, this was a deal breaker. She is an average user and she games on the desktop. So there is some truth to what you are saying but you can't generalise. Unfortunately until the big desktop software companies support Linux and Linux developers start developing the OS to be used by everyone it wont be desktop ready. It's a shame because it is such an amazing OS and  Linus Torvalds should be and deserves to be a household name for what he has done. The true innovators are the ones who quietly plug away in the background changing lives without the fanfare and hype. Thanks Linus.

Pronounce
Pronounce

@gthurman1 I suspect your 60 minute limitation is because your copy of Windows 8 isn't validated, because rebooting every hour is Microsoft's answer to non-validated OS software. (See link: http://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/forum/windows_8-windows_install/not-enough-time-to-down-load-and-activate-new-copy/15e91d6a-f2f9-4e05-aa66-6ff8e4ccfd07)


If you don't want to restore Win 7, or fix Win 8.x, then I suggest Linux Mint 17 LTS with Cinnamon. (Link: http://blog.linuxmint.com/?p=2626) Burn the ISO to a DVD and try booting to it. If it works in that mode (and you like what it has to offer) you can then choose to install. I suggest going with an option that installs Linux alongside Windows. Just make sure to give yourself enough HD space, but not so much that you don't have enough for Windows.


If you start liking the Linux installation you can then install a copy of Windows in a virtual machine to use when you need Windows. (A handy method I prefer.)

RobinHahn
RobinHahn

@daniel_chern I recently re-installed Windows 7 Home Edition for one piece of 3D graphics software that doesn't play nice in a VM like VirtualBox. This is after upgrading at *least* 7 machines here at home from some flavour of Mint to Qiana (Mint 17). For none of those machines did I have to install any "networking drivers", i.e., NIC or WiFi drivers: they all connected right out of the box. Guess for which system I *did* have to download and install drivers... yep, Windows 7, because it couldn't work out my Asus MB-based NIC.

On the same machine (dual-boot), Linux Mint found and used the network components while I was running Mint install disc from DVD, and continued to use the same after the install completed.

orionds
orionds

@daniel_chern When did you try this and which version of Lubuntu did you try? The newest versions should have a better chance of compatibility. I admit that wi-fi does not always work using Linux but gradually, this is improving. For example, with 12.04, I could not get an old ethernet card to work out of the box. However, now with 14.04, it works without a hitch. With wi-fi built into a notebook, the success rate is about 90% to 95%. Lubuntu should run faster than XP. I have mostly old machines, single-core, and to date Lubuntu is the fastest and lightest. Next, in my experience, is Xubuntu. I have one dual-core and a quad-core machine at work and they run faster in Xubuntu too. Download and try a live CD or DVD version of Lubuntu / Xubuntu and boot from the DVD drive (internal or external) to test if everything runs fine (remember it runs slower from the DVD but will speed up when cached). If it does, then install alongside XP. I have Xubuntu alongside XP and occasionally boot back into XP when there is a special need (sometimes for weeks without the need). For most of my daily use (I believe 95% or more), it's Xubuntu. At work, we have "saved" old single-core PCs that would and have been in storage by using Lubuntu or Xubuntu and no users are complaining that they cannot get work done.

B.MACALISTER@IEEE.ORG
B.MACALISTER@IEEE.ORG

@daniel_chern I add to plug-and-play the complexity of installing, tracking and removing software.  Linux - including Ubuntu - is that only platform outside of embedded systems that still requires terminal commands to install and handle lots of its software.  In spite of the Software Centre in Ubuntu terminal sessions are required if you want the up-to-date version of an app.  The software inventory system is a mess.  It "knows" modules but not applications.  It means I can use, and like, Linux but I'll never be able to get my wife or kids to use it.  One desktop (mine) is Ubuntu, the other five are Windows or Mac and that's why.

kitekrazy
kitekrazy

@daniel_chern Also the lack of high end multimedia apps.  Getting certain hardware to work is a crapshoot. Searching for solutions are annoying. I could go on and on.  After giving Linux a try 5 or 6 times, a 7th is not worth it.

adornoe1
adornoe1

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radleym
radleym

@B.MACALISTER@IEEE.ORG @daniel_chern Right, and *nx is only good for scientists and engineers, and is much too complex for business or home use.


The. 70's called - they want their misinformation back.

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