Open Source

The Linux desktop battle (and why it matters)

Jack Wallen ponders the problem with the ever-lagging acceptance of the Linux desktop and poses a radical solution.

Linux desktop

I have been using Ubuntu Unity for a very long time. In fact, I would say that this is, by far, the longest I've stuck with a single desktop interface. Period. That doesn't mean I don't stop to smell the desktop roses along the Linux path. In fact, I've often considered other desktops as a drop-in replacement for Unity. GNOME and Budgie have vied for my attention of late. Both are solid takes on the desktop that offer a minimalistic, modern look and feel (something I prefer) and help me get my work done with an efficiency other desktops can't match.

What I see across the Linux landscape, however, often takes me by surprise. While Microsoft and Apple continue to push the idea of the user interface forward, a good amount of the Linux community seems bent on holding us in a perpetual state of "90s computing."

Consider Xfce, Mate, and Cinnamon — three very popular Linux desktop interfaces that work with one very common thread... not changing for the sake of change. Now, this can be considered a very admirable cause when it's put in place to ensure that user experience (UX) is as positive as possible. What this idea does, however, is deny the idea that change can affect an even more efficient and positive UX. When I spin up a distribution that makes use of Xfce, Mate, or Cinnamon, I find the environments work well and get the job done. At the same time, I feel as if the design of the desktops is trapped in the wrong era.

At this point, you're certainly questioning the validity and path of this post. If the desktops work well and help you get the job done, what's wrong?

It's all about perception. Let me offer you up a bit of perspective. The only reason Apple managed to rise from the ashes and become one of the single most powerful forces in technology is because they understood the concept of perception. They re-invented their own wheel into something the masses perceived they needed. And the consumers bought... en masse. Had Steve Jobs not had the foresight to completely reinvent his company, Apple wouldn't stand atop a number of markets. He did this by letting go of the aging computer interface and allowing it to evolve into something that better matched society's modern aesthetic taste.

Canonical would eventually do the same thing with Linux by introducing Unity. When this happened, a vast majority of the Linux community threw their arms in the air and cried "foul." How dare a collection of open-source developers and designers affect such change? Scandalous. But the truth of the matter is, Canonical was doing the very same thing with the Linux desktop that Jobs did with Apple — altering the perception to fall in line with an ever-changing aesthetic. On both accounts, it worked. What Canonical did was take an aging desktop metaphor and recreate it into something more inline with modern taste and needs. All the while, users declared Ubuntu "persona non grata." In the meantime, other Linux desktops retained a holdover design, simply because it was what worked.

What always strikes me about this is that Linux, as a whole, is one of the most innovative platforms on the planet. A lot of what's created by the open source community — for Linux — is copied by Apple and Microsoft. Yet when it comes to the interface we use, innovation should be limited to "under the hood."

To me, that goes against the very heart of innovation and evolution, which are two crucial pieces of a puzzle that Linux must piece together.

I'm talking about a puzzle called "relevance."

Linux has made massive strides in finding acceptance within the world of enterprise computing. What it hasn't managed (yet) is acceptance on the desktop. For the longest time the reasons for this were simple:

  • Available software
  • Hardware compatibility

Neither of these are nearly as relevant as they once were. Considering that 90% of users spend nearly 100% of their time within a web browser, and most modern hardware is compatible with Linux, the reason for Linux adoption on the desktop can only be pointed to one thing — the desktop itself.

The biggest difference between Windows, OS X, and Linux is simple — choice. With Linux, you can choose whatever you want to serve as your desktop interface. To that end, there are a number of options. Unity, GNOME, KDE, Xfce, Budgie, Mate, Cinnamon, GNOME Classic, Enlightenment... and that's just scratching the surface. Each of these desktops brings something different to the table, and each appeals to a completely different user group. This massive amount of choice does one thing to new users — it adds to the complexity.

I might have a solution for this.

Imagine this... one desktop to rule them all. I know this sounds like the ravings of a madman, but consider if the whole of Linux could agree on presenting one unified desktop to the masses. What if every major distribution defaulted to, say, GNOME while retaining the ability to install other desktops if a user so desired.

Although it seems preposterous (and probably impossible to apply), imagine the possibilities! By presenting a unified front on the Linux desktop (regardless of distribution), the masses would be far more willing to accept the idea that there's a computing platform that would be more reliable, efficient, and cost effective. They would no longer be overwhelmed by a dizzying array of choices.

Now that you've pondered the idea, imagine what it would be like if the whole of the Linux desktop developers put their minds together to work on this unified desktop. The possibilities are staggering. The Linux desktop would become the very puppeteers of innovation.

Unfortunately, the battle of the desktops seems like an impossible win for all. With a massive amount of users who refuse to adapt to change, a vast amount of choices to be had, and in-fighting raging within camps, the Linux desktop battle seems nothing but an uphill climb. Even so, if I had to place a bet on which desktop would be the best to use as a unified front for Linux, I'd have to say either Unity or GNOME. Both offer efficient desktops that work well with both standard and more modern, touch-ready hardware. Of course, the second either Unity or GNOME are brought up in this light, the arguments and haters will arise. However, when the masses finally migrate to touch-ready screens or shift to using tablets and smartphones as their primary tools, how will those old-school-ish desktops fare? Not well, I'm afraid.

If you had to select one Linux desktop to serve as a unified front for all distributions, which would it be and why?

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About Jack Wallen

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 jackwallen.com.

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