(This is rather long, non-technical and doesn’t have any bling, so feel free to skip it.)

This is my personal analysis of the desktop market and an approach to change it.

Successful Linux Stories

When looking into Linux success stories in the past years it is evident that those are mostly not happening on the Desktop but in other spaces:

  • Android
  • WebOS
  • Servers

Linux has been a successful server operating system with (depending on statistics) 40-80% market share or years now. This is were the good old Linux companies (Red Hat, Novell/SuSE) gain most of their profit. The other two Linux based operating systems are targeted on end-users instead and are shipped together with mobile devices. While Android is created by Google and used by a wide range of device manufacturers, WebOS is exclusively used by Palm. Both are for the most part not free software.

Success stories for Linux on the Desktop are rather rare with few companies and some governments actively pushing it sometimes. The market share is marginal and stagnated mostly over the past years.

Microsoft and Apple

The same theme as with Android and WebOS can actually be seen in the non-Linux world. On the one side there is Microsoft which is (mostly) a software company and sells its operating system to OEMs and on the other side Apple which is exclusively using their operating system(s) on their own hardware. Obviously both works for different companies in different market segments.

The key difference is that Microsoft profits from being the industry standard for desktop computer operating systems and it is very hard for a computer manufacturer to ignore that. This is not god-given of course, but Microsoft is very clever to lock people into their ecosystem with a very good (probably besides usual glitches the best) office suite and good software development tools, including Visual Studio and .NET). MS Office is probably even more important in a operating system decision than the operating system itself. Needless to say that a lot of specialed, in-house and other software is exclusively available on MS Windows.

Apple started from a rather small niche of creating computers for designers and media production to extend its market share to the market of lifestyle-oriented customers. It profited in some cases a lot from being able to design products from the ground with extraordinary hardware and user-friendly software. The in-house and specialized software market is still closed to Apple as the market share is too small but they more than compensated this with innovative devices that aren’t seen as traditional computers.

Are you going to buy a desktop?

The free software world offers solutions for most problems an average user might ever face. But it seems to fail to actually deliver their solution to the end-user. One of the reasons is rather simple: There is no product. Nobody want to buy a desktop, people want to buy a computer, actually they would even like to buy a solution to their problem. But apart from some alternative offers it is nearly impossible to buy a computer with GNOME preinstalled and if you can buy one it is normally not any cheaper than to buy the same hardware with a proprietary operating system and installing GNOME yourself. In addition it is mostly like buying a computer + GNOME but not like buying a carefully assembled product.

So, in conclusion, GNOME offers something that only geeks demand.

Of course GNOME isn’t actually a project aiming for end-users but something that should be integrated by distributions. But even if you replace all occurrences of GNOME in the previous paragraph with “Distribution XY” it remains mostly true.

GNOME OS and the Ubuntu Vision

The term GNOME OS was brought up by Jon McCann at GUADEC ’10 as an idea to bring the different components of a Linux system closer together and remove the barrier between “system” and “desktop” to create a seamless experience. This is certainly needed as a first step to create some kind of product that has unique point of sale but hardly enough to succeed.

In a similar fashion Ubuntu was the first distribution to actively target user-experience and simplicity. While I often disagree with their particular design decisions they still brought Linux on the Desktop to a different and better level. But overall they weren’t able to increase the whole market share of the Linux Desktop significantly.

One of the reasons (if not: the reason) for it is that there is still no way to reach out to the end-user. Even Ubuntu’s program with Dell is hardly visible if you not look for it closely and it is definitely not available at the electronic market round the corner.

Start creating a product: Control the hardware

A big part of the common complains about Linux are basically: “I doesn’t work on my hardware!” And this is actually something the end-user doesn’t need to care about at all for all other platforms, operating systems or products he uses. Ever found somebody complaining that Android is not working on this phone? Ever needed to switch your keyboard layout on a preinstalled Windows machine? No, the keys work as printed on the keyboard. I am sure everybody could add a hundred more examples.

Controlling the hardware has a lot of other advantages of course because you can build a complete user experience. Think of an “Overview”-Button for GNOME Shell or “Add workspace”-Button. Creativity is the key here but I am pretty sure there are enough smart people out there that can create a computer that is all but ordinary featuring free software.

Selling a product also has the advantage that you can make some unpopular but probably convenient decisions for the end-user. Nobody prevents you from shipping necessary codecs or proprietary browser plugins when you can pay license fees for an individually sold item for example. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t encourage you to use that technologies but I am not living in a perfect world and a user-friendly product might mean to allow the user to play DVDs for example. (Ubuntu gets some of this right, btw)

Nevertheless creating and marketing a product like this is definitely not an easy tasks. Still I wonder why it hasn’t been done before. Companies like litl got some things started and I am pretty sure that it is possible to go further. With all the discussions about privacy and security there more reasons for bringing Linux to the Desktop than ever before.

$1.000.000 for the startup, anyone 😉

11 Responses to “Products, Marketshare and the Linux Desktop”

  1. Bokal Says:

    I couldn’t agree more!

    I would buy the GNOME laptop in the blink of an eye.
    Something like google’s CR-48 would be perfect.

    I could preorder mine if it helps you bringing the startup to life 😉

  2. Nick G Says:

    Have you pitched it to ycombinator/kickstarter?

    I’d go for a UK based company btw – no software patents to ruin things 😉

  3. Jörgen Says:

    Good points.

    But just adding a “overview”-button, etc. isn’t going to be enough. Competition on the hardware-market is extremely tough, so assuming that it’ll take you a couple of years till you sell millions, but you want to be profitable earlier than that, you need to differentiate from others. I.e. provide some extra value, so that users are willing to pay more for your device than for something comparable from the competition.
    What would that be? Sure the fact that there is no big, evil organization behind your operating system and all the software is open is going to be attractive to some people. Other will like GNOME, just because it is different than OSX or Windows. But for most users, that won’t out-weight the problems, like missing MS Office, Games, etc. Sure with GNOME, people can do everything they will do 90% of the time with their computer, like browse the web, listen to mp3s, use instant-messaging/voip, send emails, etc. But when people buy computers, they also take into account things they will probably never do, but they just like the idea that they could do it.
    So what’s the “killer use-case” of GNOME or the product/device you are talking about? Something that is so cool, that users would by the product, despite of some disadvantages it has when comparing it to the competition? That’s IMHO the missing piece in the puzzle.
    Then again, GNOME is a community project. It does not need to sell, and I think many of it’s developers are actually pretty happy with the system as it is now, even without that killer feature/use-case. And one never can tell what would happen if GNOME would actually come up with that super successful idea. Success usually involves money, and once (a lot of) money gets involved things usually start to get ugly.

    • jhs Says:

      @Jürgen: Sure on “overview” button is not a concept for a product. But outlining a complete concept is something that would need to be done in a business plan. It’s not easy, it would have been done before otherwise.

  4. Janne Says:

    Last time I looked Android was open-source. Some of the apps on top that most – but not all – vendors ship with their devices are not, but mail clients and stuff aren’t part of the core OS.

  5. Brian Fleeger Says:

    Hi Johannes, a strategic partnership with a firm like Archos may be Gnome’s best bet.

    I too have been thinking along the same lines lately about the Hardware/software connection. But there the hardware business is extremely cut throat, and margins are very slim without very large scale. Archos has a history of leveraging Linux platforms, has a strong local fan base in Europe, and is even gaining mindshare in the US and Asia. Meanwhile, they also have a history of selling extremely innovative hardware of decent quality for very reasonable prices.

    Here are two videos to show what I mean:

    At those price points, running Gnome, I would buy a tablet for everyone in my family.

    Hardware manufacturing, unlike software programming, is highly dependent on immediate profitability to keep going, so would be highly unlikely to succeed without as established producer who “knows the ropes.” And if Gnome did invest massive funds only to see little or no return, imagine the loss to the software community — it would be a tragedy. No, better to build the best possible environment (nobody likes No 2) and let the capitalists come running.

  6. robsta Says:

    “””With all the discussions about privacy and security there more reasons for bringing Linux to the Desktop than ever before.”””

    If that’s your main driver, you will end up creating something that only geeks demand.

  7. tomas Says:

    There is a company called System76 that sells only ubuntu computers. Have you heard about it?

    • Bokal Says:

      I don’t think it’s really what he’s asking for. System76 doesn’t build the hardware, they buy barebones from a builder and stick ubuntu compatible components in it.

      (and they don’t sell outside of the US)

      A great first step, but not quite as good as what he’s talking about.

  8. Sorry to correct you but Ubuntu was clearly not the first distribution to target user, experience and simplicity : other did before it was created like Mandrake or Lycoris our Lindows/Linspire

  9. Chaitanya Says:

    When I read this article I was surprised and went on to see the date if it was something written in 2004 or 2005. Because in current versions of Ubuntu Linux I have never faced any problems related to hardware compatibility or in that matter even switching the keyboard layout.

    Dont get me wrong, I appreciate your writing but I don’t think you have had a personal experience of using Ubuntu on any hardware.

    and believe me I am not a Linux geek am a Linux Desktop user and support provider for Linux Desktops.

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