Why Linux Will Succeed On The Desktop

Former Linux Journal editor Nicholas Petreley argues that the open-source operating system will break through big time on the client side, especially if pre-installs increase and the KDE graphical environment is adopted.

InformationWeek - November 1, 2007
Nicholas Petreley

[Editor's Note: This article offers a counterpoint and rebuttal to our earlier article, 7 Reasons Why Linux Won't Succeed On The Desktop.]

From informationweek.com

I believe Linux will become the de-facto standard desktop operating system. Though it'll take a while for many users to break free from ties to Windows, there is good reason to believe that this day will come.

Consider that the global community is already beginning to rally behind standard document formats. In addition, as browsers like Firefox gain more market share, users are less tolerant of Internet Explorer-only web sites. However, the transition is slow and will continue to be a slow one. Most people will switch away from Windows only when dollars are on the line.

The Perfect Generic Client

A desktop supports multiple methods of work habits. For example, you can edit a document with a local word processor like Microsoft Word for Windows, or you can use Google Docs. You need Windows to run Word, but any operating system with a good browser will handle Google Docs well. Once you eliminate the problem of migrating to a new document format, the question becomes, "Why am I paying through the nose for a buggy, bloated, insecure and buggy Windows?" Put more simply, take away the force of legacy inertia, and the cheapest, least-problematic desktop becomes the most desirable.

In the long run, Linux makes the perfect generic client. It is the hub of free software development, which makes it the focal point for generic, open computing. As people continue to use Linux as the basis for cell phones, DVRs (such as TiVo and Dish Network), routers, and other dedicated systems, it is becoming ubiquitous on just about every platform but the PC. This only makes it more likely to dominate the PC in the future.

The more Linux becomes the de-facto standard platform for software development of any kind, the more appealing it becomes as the platform for personal computing. Any overlap between appliances and PCs saves duplication of effort. The vast repository of free software available for the asking makes Linux even more appealing as the basis for development.

Many of the duties Linux must perform on a PC it already performs on appliances like cell phones. We may never see the era of $100 network computers, but network computing is advancing, nevertheless, as is evidenced by the increasing reliance on web-based email and the appearance of network applications like Google Docs. We owe thanks to AJAX and Java for the rich client features now available through your PC and/or cell phone browser.

The more we depend on this type of computing, the more invisible operating systems will become. Most people don't know or care what OS runs their cell phone. We may always care more about what we run on our PC, but the distinction between the two will gradually blur. As it does, Linux should be the best choice, because it is already prevalent on so many devices.

Power Desktop

Linux can't succeed as a generic network computing client, only. People will continue to use their PC as a power workstation, even when it isn't appropriate. It's the nature of computer users to do so. For this reason, Linux needs a compelling desktop experience. It already has Compiz Fusion, but even though 3-D on Linux doesn't require nearly the hardware resources as Vista, many Linux users still refuse to install Compiz or turn it off.

The desktop needs a more substantial advance in thinking. The new KDE, KDE4, looks promising in this regard. The KDE developers seem intent upon bringing something new to the desktop experience that isn't just eye-candy. KDE4, or parts of it, will run on Windows and Mac OS-X, but it will be fully native on Linux, and should benefit Linux more than any other platform.

KDE4, the proliferation of Linux on appliances, the trend toward generic network computing, the fact that Linux is free (both as in freedom and as in "free beer"), and other factors contribute to the inevitable success of Linux on the desktop. But Linux still needs more. It needs windows of opportunity to supplant the legacy systems, and it needs to overcome some important obstacles.

Linux's 'Window' Of Opportunity

Both the successes and failures of Microsoft provide a substantial window of opportunity for Linux to seize a significant desktop market share. It is painful, especially at the enterprise level, to switch desktop operating systems, so any legacy system like Windows will always have a huge advantage. But Microsoft has made so many blunders in recent times that one must credit Microsoft itself for encouraging users to seek an alternative desktop operating system. Windows was already a notoriously insecure operating system, but Microsoft has compounded the problem with the expensive, buggy, incomplete, complex license-burdened, DRM-encumbered, hardware-challenged, frequently updated without your permission Vista.

As noted earlier, people are most likely to switch to a new operating system when dollars are on the line. Microsoft would be wise to continue supporting the "good enough" Windows XP, since any move to force people to upgrade to Vista could create the "dollars on the line" scenario. The risk of adjusting to a new operating system becomes much more palatable when it saves you the cost of upgrading to a desktop you know you won't like.

Perhaps the most significant Microsoft failure was its flubbed attempt to use SCO as a proxy to create fear, uncertainty and doubt about Linux. Those who backed SCO are now eating crow. This makes it far less likely for high-profile analysts to make the same mistake, now that Microsoft is attacking Linux directly by claiming Linux violates its software patents.

Microsoft began a catch-22 strategy when it released Windows 95. On the one hand, it successfully leveraged its unique advantage in building 32-bit Windows applications to eliminate virtually all competition in mainstream desktop applications. The catch is that Microsoft has left itself without friends. For example, if Lotus Smartsuite and WordPerfect Office were still thriving competition for Microsoft Office, it would be all but impossible for Linux to break into the desktop market. Companies would be content to collect their Windows applications revenue. There would be no incentive to support another desktop platform.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, this isn't a mistake it can undo easily. Microsoft can't afford to give away a significant portion of its Office market share just to try to regain some loyalty for the Windows platform. Now that the damage is done, companies are more inclined to support platforms where the playing field is level, hence this opportunity for Linux and other desktop operating systems.

But while Microsoft made it nearly impossible for competition to make money on mainstream desktop applications for Windows, Linux does not necessarily restore that opportunity. The best mainstream applications for Linux are free, open-source applications. While many companies are beginning to recognize the superiority of free software, most still haven't figure out how to make money on it - at least, they realize they can't make money the same way they did in the old market.

Another problem with these Microsoft-driven windows of opportunity is that they simply make it easier for any alternative operating system to gain desktop market share, not necessarily Linux. Mac OS-X, can reap the benefits from these opportunities, and probably already has. Linux may have the edge in the long-term, but in the short-term, it's going to take some additional changes for Linux to exploit these opportunities. Linux will have to overcome some significant obstacles.

Obstacle: More Preloaded Linux Systems Are Needed

It is the personal experience of many users of both Windows and Linux that Linux is far easier to install than Windows when Linux recognizes the hardware properly during installation. Obviously, Linux can be a bear to install when it has trouble recognizing hardware, but then so can Windows.

One could argue that Linux installers are doing a better job of recognizing hardware these days. It's irrelevant. The easiest installation is the one you don't have to perform. This is the reason why so many people believe, true or not, that Linux is harder to install than Windows. They have to install Linux. They don't have to install Windows. They get Windows on their PC when they buy it. Mac OS-X has the advantage here. Buy a Mac, and you've got your desktop operating system installed for you.

The way past this obstacle is obvious. Get Linux pre-loaded on PCs and Linux users won't have to deal with installation woes. Ubuntu and Dell partnered up to pre-load Linux. That's a great start, but it's only a start. Linux will need much broader support in pre-loads to be successful on the desktop.

Obstacle: KDE Must Replace GNOME As Linux's Preferred GUI

GNOME is the default graphical desktop environment for Red Hat Linux, Ubuntu, SUSE, and others. GNOME may not be keeping Linux off the desktop, but it is not selling desktop Linux, either. GNOME can't seem to make up its mind if it's for novice users or hard-core hackers. It would be different if GNOME, like KDE, attempted to serve both types of users. Instead, the GNOME approach to being user-friendly is to make it impossible (or all but impossible) to perform anything but the most basic operations. If you really want to do something GNOME doesn't want you to do, you have to get down and dirty and edit the GNOME registry or other configuration files.

GNOME developers reason that you can keep users out of trouble and avoid confusing them if you eliminate all but the most simple features. Even Linus Torvalds questioned the wisdom of this design strategy, writing in a mailing-list e-mail two years ago: "If you think your [GNOME] users are idiots, only idiots will use it."

One could argue that GNOME gets it right because the most popular Linux distributions use it by default. That might hold water if Linux desktop market share was growing rapidly thanks to these distributions. The pitiful desktop market share of Linux would argue otherwise. These distributions are popular, but they're popular among those who are already familiar with Linux, the segment to which GNOME is more likely to appeal. GNOME is attractive to some seasoned Linux users because it one of the few complete desktop environments that is more lightweight than KDE, which makes GNOME more appropriate for use on servers. The limitations in GNOME are also unobtrusive to someone who knows how to get around them; someone who is unafraid of the GNOME registry or the command-line.

What must be done to remove this obstacle? Red Hat endorsed GNOME due to licensing issues which arguably were resolved long ago. SUSE favors GNOME because one of the early GNOME developers practically runs the company. Heaven only knows why Ubuntu defaults to GNOME (though you can download and install Kubuntu, which defaults to KDE). But if these distributions want to contribute to the expansion of Linux on the desktop, they need to adopt and promote KDE as the default desktop and/or pressure the GNOME developers to abandon their brain-dead development philosophy. This is especially true of Ubuntu, which leads the way in getting Linux pre-installed on popular brands like Dell. Linux desktop market share will probably grow regardless, but it will grow faster with the more popular distributions backing a sane graphical desktop.

Open Document Formats Will Drive Adoption

Linux has a dual-legacy to unseat. Windows and Microsoft Office are practically synonymous, and there is no Microsoft Office or fully compatible suite for Linux. Either users must make the switch to open document formats, or Linux applications must support perfect imports of Microsoft Office files. The ideal solution would be to migrate to open formats, but the market will decide.

This obstacle isn't nearly as insurmountable as it seems. One should recall that WordPerfect once virtually owned the word processing market, yet people still found a way to migrate to Microsoft Office. Microsoft will make any transition from Microsoft Office a difficult one, but it is still possible. The appeal of open document formats is undeniable. It has to make more sense than the nearly one-way trip people took to Microsoft Office. A move to open document formats is a move toward guaranteed compatibility in the future.

The Bottom Line

Despite the obstacles involved, there is good reason to be optimistic about Linux on the desktop. This author has been using desktop Linux almost exclusively since the mid-90s, although it required a lot more computer savvy back then than it does now.

There is one additional factor that cannot be overstated. To anyone who truly knows what free software means, they know that "free" as in liberty is the greatest strength of Linux. However, one cannot deny the power of "free" as in "free beer." Microsoft applied this power to make Internet Explorer the most popular browser in the world. Netscape faded away because the company was unable to compete against free as in beer. Firefox has only been able to fight back because it, too, is free as in beer. Of the three top competitors on the desktop, Windows, Mac OS-X, and Linux, only one of them is free as in beer. That will go along way toward making it the de-facto standard on the desktop.