The challenges of Desktop Linux

So Miguael de Icaza posted a blog with his opinion about why Desktop Linux has not become a huge success. The core of his argument seems to be that the lack of ABI stability was the main reason we didn’t get a significant market share in the desktop market. Personally I think this argument doesn’t hold water at all and the comparison with MacOS X a bit random.

So I think there are a lot of contributing factors to our struggle in the desktop market like:

  • We are trying to compete with a near monopoly (Windows)
  • Companies tend to depend on a myriad of applications to run their business, and just a couple of them not running under Linux
    would be enough to derail a transition to Linux desktops
  • We were competing not only with other operating systems, but with a Office productivity application monopoly
  • We are trying to compete by supporting an unlimited range of hardware options
  • We divided our efforts into multiple competing APIs (GNOME vs KDE)
  • There was never a clear method of distributing software on Linux outside the distro specific package system.
  • Many of our underlaying systems were a bit immature
  • Software patents on multimedia codecs made it hard to create a good out of the box experience for multimedia
  • Competing with free applications is never a tempting proposition for 3rd party vendors
  • We never reached a critical mass where porting to desktop Linux tended to make sense
  • An impression was created that Linux users would not pay for any software
  • The different update cycles of the distributions made it hard to know when a new API would be available ‘everywhere’
  • Success in other areas drained resources away from the desktop

The Apple Myth
So how did Apple succeed? Well first of all the question needs to be asked if they have succeeded? When Steve Jobs came back to Apple I think their global market share for personal computers was down to just below 5% if my memory serves me correct. According to Wikipedia (not the best proof of anything, but lets assume they are in the ballpark) their marketshare is now about 7.5%. So in other words on the back of being the media darling and record breaking products such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad, they have managed to increase their market share with 2.5% in the PC market. I think that speaks volumes about the challenges posted by the first two items in my list above. Another thing that is both an advantage for Apple and a disadvantage at the same time is that they got their own hardware. In the advantage collumn that means that their developers had a very limited set of hardware configurations to support and they could ensure MacOS X ran well on that configuration. We on the other hand have been struggling with trying to support basically any random configuration out there, which means ensuring a problem free experience for everyone is next to impossible. Of course I think only supporting your own hardware also does sometimes makes things harder for Apple, because if a company was considering switching to MacOS X they would have to throw away all their existing hardware, which I am sure makes a lot of companies think twice if contemplating switching.

Apple were also able to build on their old market share when launching MacOS X, which means they have had a profitable ecosystem all the way. So for instance porting games has provided enough income to support companies in keep doing so. While for Linux it has often been a proposition of trying to build a market when considering porting to Linux.

So I could go intro great detail for each of my bullet points, but I think they are quite self explanatory. But my general point is that I when I ask myself if I think our market share would be significantly higher if our ABI stability had been even better, the answer is no. Not that I am saying I think it has had no impact at all, I am sure examples exist of ABI breakage or distro fragmentation having caused 3rd party software developers to shy away, but I don’t really believe Linux would have had for instance a 10% marketshare today if only our ABI stability had been better over the last 10 years. But maybe it would have added another 0.2% or something in that range.

But as I said in an earlier blog post, I am not negative about the future of Linux and open source on the desktop. I just think it is a lot slower slog to get there than we hoped for, and I do honestly feel that we have a much more compelling product to offer today than we did 10 years ago in comparison with Windows and MS Office. But the challenges in my bullet point list remain and overcoming them has been and will continue to be something we have to chip away at, one step at a time. And in the meantime linux and open source software is still doing extremely well in a lot of other end user facing market segments where the competition was not so strongly entrenched, like mobile phones, tablets, TVs, set top boxes, in-flight entertainment systems, in-vehicle entertainment systems, home applicances and so on.

82 thoughts on “The challenges of Desktop Linux”

  1. Senior Citizen, here.

    Challenge one. Tell me why I should NOT use Windows. If it’s on the computer I bought/was given make me see why I want a no-Windows (Linux) box.

    Challenge two. I can call the store I got my computer from, or my kids that gave it to me for technical help. Where do I go if Linux stops working or does something I don’t understand how to undo?

    M.I.S.S. Make it simple, stupid. Clearly define all the parameters, quirks and issues in your Linux so I’m not lost.

    If I can install a game or program onto Windows off a disc, why can’t I do that in Linux?

    Wanna make Linux more widely used? Make it more widely understandable.

    Go into amazing and tedious depths on what I will encounter when installing, adjusting and using Linux.

    Fix your distro’s home page so the first thing I see is a clear screenshot, download guide, software-adding guide, what your Linux will do and won’t do.

    Provide deeper resources via links on the homepage, to every thing I will worry and wonder about in using your Linux. Be painstakingly detailed about all the links I click. M.I.S.S. and K.I.S.S.

    Break me out of my comfort zone or apathy by making me feel cared-about for choosing to use your Linux. Remember, I will tell friends about my experiences with your Linux. It’ll be good if I like you. Bad if I don’t.

  2. My principal working environment since 1995 was Redhat/Fedora, but it seems Fedora 14 will be the last. This is mostly due to Gnome3, but there are also lots of other nasty things. For example, why one should search for mountable devices somewhere in /var/run/* instead of /media? Just in these minutes I will wipe out Fedora 14 from my HP TouchSmart TM2 120GB SSD and install Windows 7. Why? Because hybrid graphics (intel+radeon5000) handling in linux is ugly and moreover, laptop becomes too hot with free radeon driver. The proprietary fglrx case, being not so hot is supported only up to version 11.8, but it is quite unstable, leading to segfaults. During these 15+ years I have installed different linux distros more than 500 times, created different kernel configurations etc, that is quite good experience. But even with such an experience, if one runs to problems, there is no hope for massive Desktop Linux usage.

  3. @Jeff, Senior Citizen

    I too am a senior citizen and I can tell you why you should not use that other OS. The world can make its own software and does not need M$ to restrict our options. You can do more faster with any PC using GNU/Linux than that other OS. Where I last worked we switched to GNU/Linux and had less malware, no slowing down, no refusals to boot, and it was a lot faster. As well we did not have to worry about the EULA restricting our right to connect our PCs together in a network or permitting malware to be installed or phoning home.

    One can buy PCs today without M$’s stuff. Walmart in Brazil sells more GNU/Linux PCs than M$’s and Android/Linux is another popular option widely available. If your local retailer won’t sell you a PC without M$’s stuff, ask them why or shop elsewhere. You can find many suppliers online. If you want an ATX PC, you can even build your own and install GNU/Linux yourself. If you cannot do that, ask any teenager. You can save about half the price of a PC by building your own and you can split the savings with the teenager. Everyone wins.

    The big box retailers still mostly sell that other OS but many communities have smaller businesses that could use your custom and build what you want so you put your money into better hardware and local industry rather than sending it to M$.

  4. What the open source fans always miss is the sad fact of life that commercial product markets consist of a lot more than just tech elements. There are myriad business elements that the product provider, Microsoft in the case of Windows and ??? in the case of Linux, have to provide along with the bits and bytes of the program code. Jeff above touches on this and if you want to really understand why Linux is just a footnote, you should investigate what it really takes to be in business.

  5. If the base increases and the percentage stays the same, then what you have is growth. The number of computer users have really increased significantly the last few years. I also don’t believe in the general death of desktops that’s being touted.

    It is true that desktop sales are dropping dramatically, but that’s not because people no longer want desktops, but because they want to keep the ones they have. This is new. Yes, I know 4K is better than HDTV, but why should I care; what I have is good enough. Sure, when it becomes necessary to replace my TV, I’m sure I might buy a 4K one, or 8K or whatever is in the market by then. But until then, I’m doing nothing. That’s what is happening to desktops in general, and that’s bad news for Microsoft, because they sell nearly all licenses of Windows bundled with a new computer. If people don’t want a new computer, then they also don’t want to pay more to keep using Windows. They’ve gotten used Windows “being part of the computer” when they buy it.

    So let’s not create any drama over this. Things are looking very good. But if you want a big event, I’ll bet a beer on April 2014. But there are many things we can learn in order to accelerate the progress. For instance, when we ridicule Microsoft, then we’re insulting those who once chose it. This is not a good idea.

  6. Agree with your list of challenges, and I think you’re right that it’s the total list, not just ABI compatibility that has prohibited success.

    However to suggest that somehow Apple has not been successful with Macs is crazy – just look at any tech conference or university campus and you’ll see all the evidence you need that Apple have cracked open the desktop market. Overall market share number may still be small because of the traditionally slow moving Enterprise market, but in terms of new shipments Apple are the largest single distributor of laptops (joint with HP), or about 22% of all laptops shipped. 10 years ago it was equally likely that some random hardware would not work on a Mac as it would not on Linux – now Mac is significant enough slice of the market that nearly everything has both Windows and Mac drivers.

    Anyway, that slight issue aside, there is also another factor. I think we (like a lot of the industry) got caught in the shift from Enterprise driven IT, to consumer driven IT. A lot of our focus in the early days was to cater to business / government requirements, and a lot of the early success was a business or government switching to Linux. And at the time that made sense – most new technology was first adopted by business or government, the “best” computer someone was likely to use was at their work. Over the last 5 years the industry has shifted to become consumer driven – now the “best” computer you use is probably your own, not the one at work.

    Of course if I were smart I could provide some way forward to world domination, but sadly I’m just another dumb guy with perfect 20:20 hindsight. About the only advice I can give is don’t tolerate assholes, make something you like, and track the things you care about (e.g. bugs, # of developers, # of ISVs, % market share, stability of ABI, etc).

  7. Linux will remain in third place so long as it clings to the idea that it is reasonable to have 38 different distros and a dozen different desktops.

    The fact is, the programming skill and efforts required are just to fragmented. Some distro users/maintainers, like Arch, are even antagonistic and don’t WANT to be friendly toward hoppers from other distros, much less Linux newbies. I speak here not of technical ability, but of pure animosity toward anything NOT Arch. They are actually PROUD of the fact that they are hostile toward Arch newbies and will never do some things that other distros do (but not for technical reasons).

    I’m picking on Arch here, but so long as the Linux community values freedom over quality, that’s what we will get. Imagine how fast Linux could overtake MS in every way if all those programmers working at odds from eachother, finally came together and cooperatively punched out the few areas where we all agree Linux is lacking! Do we really NEED a dozen different desktops to choose from? Wouldn’t maybe three suffice? Are Linux distros soooo different that it’s just impossible to be happy with a choice of having just two: One for newbies and people who like things set up out of the box, and one for people who like to roll their own entirely?

    The fact is that MS & Apples biggest weapon is that it presents a united front. All the choices in Linux, which might be valued by me, can be overwhelming to one not used to having them. Why on Earth would someone want to research a distro and deal with the inevitable minor issues, when one can just buy a Mac or Windows machine a live with it being all set up to work?

    Unifying the Linux community will produce a better product. Producing a better product will create new interest in hardware vendors cooperating for the Linux community by releasing proper drivers, ensuring compatability, etc. So long as the hardware vendors won’t play along, Linux will be an also-ran used almost entirely by the geeks like us. To rework a famous statement, when you trade quality for complete freedom, you end up with neither. We need to stop having dozens of competing distros for the sake of freedom, and work on quality.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ’0 which is not a hashcash value.

    1. We don’t need to reduce the time and effort of setting up any Linux distro on a PC, we need to prove it. The more desktop environments and distros we have, the better, because chances are that any newbie looking into the platform can mix and match the best of both worlds. If stability is paramount, then go for a more upstream distro and desktops with a longer release cycle. Infact, it doesn’t even matter how many Windows users we can attract or not; by making Linux for smart guys, existing users won’t have to deal with the numpties when it comes to support on community forums. The percentage of people that are happy with Linux is more important than those that use it. Sometimes we try way to hard to be everything.

  8. My main computer is a homebrew hackintosh that also boots Windows 7 and Ubuntu. I boot to Windows just for games, and fire up Ubuntu only once in a blue moon.

    I still have a soft spot for linux on the desktop, but my enthusiasm has really cooled over the years. Here are some reasons:

    I do a lot of music stuff, i.e. I use the computer as a digital audio workstation (under OS X). I use Steinberg software and various outboard sound processing units. Linux device drivers have *never* been available for this audio hardware. Ardour (and similar) are just not in the same league as Steinberg stuff, IMHO.

    When I set up Ubuntu (about a year ago) I had all kinds of trouble getting my wifi card to work. This reminds me of the misery I had in the 1990s trying to get ANY ethernet card to work under linux. I am sick to death of screwing with that kind of stuff.

    Most of my hours in front of the computer are spent programming. I use Haskell, Scheme, and Emacs primarily. These work just fine under OS X.

    I also have a large number of *nix stuff installed through macports under OS X. I don’t give a damn about full posix compliance, micro- versus mono-kernels, etc.

    I am very unhappy about many of the practices of Microsoft and Apple in regard to intellectual property, closed environments, freedom, etc. So, I still poke my nose into the linux world occasionally, mostly in the forlorn hope that it will be better.

    However, despite the advances in linux on the desktop, I always feel like a guy who just bought a new car, only to discover that I have to whittle the wheels for it out of slabs of log that I cut myself.

    So, yeah, OS X has replaced linux for me.

  9. I like Jeff’s comment. And not because I am not a fan of Linux (I am).

    One of the first things I look for on the website of a software product is for screenshots. Every distro should have these, along with videos, both textual and graphical tutorials, and perhaps wikis (even a team of developers cannot create a truly thorough wiki on its own).

    Jeff, to answer you from my perspective (surely, you will hear different opinions, because Linux is used for different reasons):

    Challenge one:
    I am unsure of how much Windows Vista, or whatever version of Windows you are running, cost, but Windows 7 costs at least $120 and up to $220.


    On the left is a list of features each edition provides:
    —– This is where most consumers begin paying $120 more than necessary —–
    “Makes the things you do every day easier with improved desktop navigation”
    The first time I read that, I did not even know what it meant. I have Windows 7 on my computer, and it is fine, but I do not think that point is even worth mentioning when it comes to comparing editions of Windows 7. Linux has great desktop navigation. It is my favorite over Windows XP, Vista, 7, and Mac OS X. In fact, Windows is my least favorite. No point for Windows.

    “Start programs faster and more easily, and quickly find the documents you use most often”
    I will give Microsoft *some* credit on this one. Maybe they altered some of the code that managed the search in the Start Bar, *or* you are just running better hardware, eh? Linux does this on old hardware, and will continue to do this on old hardware. As for the search, that may vary on the distro used. Ubutnu 12.04 has a great search (lenses, etc: “Search”, “Search Applications”, “Search Files & Folders”, “Search Music Collection”, “Search Videos”). No point for Windows.

    “Make your web experience faster, easier and safer than ever with Internet Explorer 8″
    What. Ever. If you want fast you will use Firefox or Chromium/Chrome. No point for Windows.

    “Easy to create a home network and connect your PCs to a printer with HomeGroup”
    Networks are not my area of experise… and to be honest, I cannot quickly find a way to create an “network” on Linux. One point for Windows.

    “Watch, pause, rewind, and record TV on your PC”
    I earlier mentioned this would be from my perspective; I do not ‘watch, pause, rewind, [or] record TV’ on my computer. I will give them the benefit of the doubt. One point for Windows.

    —– This is where most consumers begin paying $200 more than necessary —–

    “Run many Windows XP productivity programs in Windows XP Mode”
    Backwards compatibility is nice, but should that not be expected? No point for Windows.

    “Connect to company networks easily and more securely with Domain Join”
    I am not and have never been part of a company network. I will give them the benefit of the doubt. One point for Windows.

    “In addition to full-system Backup and Restore found in all editions, you can back up to a home or business network”
    Who pays for backup? This one irks me. On Ubuntu 12.04, an intuitive backup utility is easily found. No point for Windows.

    —– This is where most consumers begin paying $220 more than necessary —–

    “Help protect your data on your PC and portable storage devices against loss or theft with BitLocker”
    So, does Windows just encrypt the data, or what? No point for Windows.

    “Work in the language of your choice or switch between any of 35 languages”
    My distro lets me switch between any of over 100 languages. No point for Windows.

    During that review of the features highlighted while comparing editions of Windows 7, Windows amassed a whopping three points. It is not a matter of why you *should not* use Windows, but rather a matter of *why would* you use Windows?

    Challenge two:
    There are many forums and tutortials on almost anything you would encounter while using Linux. The distro with the most forums and supportive community would probably be Ubuntu.

    Presumably the rest of your points were challenges…

    Challenge three:
    That would be nice, but if any operating system did that, it would be unattractive. Developers know that, so they do not flaunt them.

    Challenge four:
    Probably because most of your discs are for Windows. If you had a disc for Linux, it should work.

    Challenge five:
    I, personally, do not think that is the problem (being widely understandable). I had almost no learning curve when I first switched to Linux (Ubuntu 8). I was previously a Windows 7 user and a Windows XP user before that. For the record, I am a senior in high school. I was a sophomore or so when I first switched, maybe freshman. If you are curious about what I do think is the reason Linux is not widely used,
    (Watch until 27:08)

    I think the rest of the points you made can be answered with the answer to challenge two.

    I hope you give Linux a go, I hear Fedora is good, I know both Ubuntu and Linux Mint are good.

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