The Week of the Linux Desktop Debate

amcpherson's picture

It never seems to fail: this time of year brings out predictions, and with them debate about the future of Linux, especially on the desktop. It’s a good sign that we go through this back and forth: it shows the wide and diverse community of users, developers and pundits who feel they have a stake in Linux. (Either that or they just need something to write about this time of year.)

So this week, a dozen articles and posts appeared either stating or refuting that this year really will be the year of the Linux desktop.

It started with Fast Company:

The biggest catalyst for the Linux revolution will be netbooks: Gartner [IT] has predicted that about 8 million of the diminutive machines will be sold next year, with that number rising to 50 million (yes, 5-0 million) by 2012. Right now, many netbooks come pre-loaded with Windows XP, but Microsoft has set a deadline of June 2010 for XP installations. Since most of the machines in question feature low-power chips like Intel’s [INTC] Atom and inexpensive parts, and sell for less than $500, Windows Vista isn’t really an option; the per-machine licensing fee is too high, and the software itself is too bulky and power-hungry for low-end hardware.

While I agree that Netbooks are giving Linux on the desktop greater life than ever before, I wouldn’t go so far to say they are striking a deathblow to Microsoft. Monopoly advantage doesn’t disappear overnight, or without a fight. The question this article raises: Will Windows 7 solve the issues with Vista that prevent it from working well on these new architectures like Atom? Windows 7 is upgraded Vista — it is not a new operating system. And certainly the more people use Linux on Netbooks, the more they realize it would work perfectly fine in other applications. You have a network effect in progress.

Matt Asay on CNET then enters the fold with “Yet Again, Linux on the desktop won’t claim a year”:

As I wrote recently, we already have the Linux desktop: it runs in the cloud and is called Facebook, Google, etc. There is little need to have Linux running on my local laptop when the real game is in the cloud now.

It’s time to move on. Next year won’t be the year of the Linux desktop anymore than 2010 will be. Why? Because we don’t need a Linux desktop. We need to accelerate efforts toward the cloud, which is open source’s game to lose.

I have two problems with his argument:

  • That we don’t need a Linux desktop because Facebook et all is the new desktop. (You still need software to control your hardware and connect to the Cloud.)
  • That it’s an either or proposition: that the Linux community has to choose between accelerating efforts in the cloud or improving the desktop. Linux, unlike many other source projects controlled by one company, has a huge community that is motivated by their interests. If a need exists, a community pops up to satisfy it.

Matt may not need a Linux desktop because he’s willing to pay a premium for Apple products. He is obviously in a position to do so. But if he was a CIO rolling out workstations for 3,000, he may think differently about paying that premium. Linux on the desktop combined with products like IBM’s Collaboration Client are proving to be very attractive to certain enterprise computing segments.

Gordon Haff Michael Dolan (as quoted by Gordon Haff) says:

Here’s the thing, everyone who hears “Linux desktop” has a knee-jerk reaction and thinks of all the things they do on their own PC, laptop, Mac. The reality is you’re probably not the target market for virtual desktops. The market is large desktop environments that have thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of users and who are not doing consumer-oriented work (or shouldn’t be). The cost savings of moving from physical PCs in a 1 user to 1 PC model to a managed model with virtual terminals can be significant. We’ll see where the market goes for this model, but I know of a few very large companies that want to make this model very real. The economic situation and the impact on IT budgets may act as an accelerant..

Here’s another example: there are millions of Vista orphans out there. These are PCs who lack the computing power to run Vista (or Windows 7 I bet) but are well suited for Linux (or XP!). Thankfully we’re moving out of the age of hyper-consumption and throw-away culture. Having a choice for those machines — whether you’re a house wife in the US or a struggling business in the developing world — does matter. Pressure from Linux has resulted in Microsoft lowering their prices in the developing world and with college students. Without meaningful choice on the desktop, I doubt they would have done this.

When you have no choice, monopolies are created, and monopolies inflect their pricing on consumers. Choice matters.

I think Serdar Yegulalp of Infoweek says it best:

I don’t believe for a second that Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) or Windows will go completely off the map, whether due to their own incompetence or because of open source making something as good or better for less. I do believe that Windows will no longer be the de facto choice, that having competition from everything from Linux to the Mac to the Cloud will be and is exactly the kick in the rump it needs. And vice versa, too — that future editions of Windows ought to have the same effect on those concerned with desktop experiences.
Here’s another way to put it: 2009 will be the year of choice on the desktop. Better?