Why hasn’t The Year of the Linux Desktop happened yet?

Having spent 20 years of my life on Desktop Linux I thought I should write up my thinking about why we so far hasn’t had the Linux on the Desktop breakthrough and maybe more importantly talk about the avenues I see for that breakthrough still happening. There has been a lot written of this over the years, with different people coming up with their explanations. My thesis is that there really isn’t one reason, but rather a range of issues that all have contributed to holding the Linux Desktop back from reaching a bigger market. Also to put this into context, success here in my mind would be having something like 10% market share of desktop systems, that to me means we reached critical mass. So let me start by listing some of the main reasons I see for why we are not at that 10% mark today before going onto talking about how I think that goal might possible to reach going forward.

Things that have held us back

  • Fragmented market
  • One of the most common explanations for why the Linux Desktop never caught on more is the fragmented state of the Linux Desktop space. We got a large host of desktop projects like GNOME, KDE, Enlightenment, Cinnamon etc. and a even larger host of distributions shipping these desktops. I used to think this state should get a lot of the blame, and I still believe it owns some of the blame, but I have also come to conclude in recent years that it is probably more of a symptom than a cause. If someone had come up with a model strong enough to let Desktop Linux break out of its current technical user niche then I am now convinced that model would easily have also been strong enough to leave the Linux desktop fragmentation behind for all practical purposes. Because at that point the alternative desktops for Linux would be as important as the alternative MS Windows shells are. So in summary, the fragmentation hasn’t helped for sure and is still not helpful, but it is probably a problem that has been overstated.

  • Lack of special applications
  • Another common item that has been pointed to is the lack of applications. We know that for sure in the early days of Desktop Linux the challenge you always had when trying to convince anyone of moving to Desktop Linux was that they almost invariably had one or more application they relied on that was only available on Windows. I remember in one of my first jobs after University when I worked as a sysadmin we had a long list of these applications that various parts of the organization relied on, be that special tools to interface with a supplier, with the bank, dealing with nutritional values of food in the company cafeteria etc. This is a problem that has been in rapid decline for the last 5-10 years due to the move to web applications, but I am sure that in a given major organization you can still probably find a few of them. But between the move to the web and Wine I don’t think this is a major issue anymore. So in summary this was a major roadblock in the early years, but is a lot less of an impediment these days.

  • Lack of big name applications
  • Adopting a new platform is always easier if you can take the applications you are familiar with you. So the lack of things like MS Office and Adobe Photoshop would always contribute to making a switch less likely. Just because in addition to switching OS you would also have to learn to use new tools. And of course along those lines there where always the challenge of file format compatibility, in the early days in a hard sense that you simply couldn’t reliably load documents coming from some of these applications, to more recently softer problems like lack of metrically identical fonts. The font for example issue has been mostly resolved due to Google releasing fonts metrically compatible with MS default fonts a few years ago, but it was definitely a hindrance for adoption for many years. The move to web for a lot of these things has greatly reduced this problem too, with organizations adopting things like Google Docs at rapid pace these days. So in summary, once again something that used to be a big problem, but which is at least a lot less of a problem these days, but of course there are still apps not available for Linux that does stop people from adopting desktop linux.

  • Lack of API and ABI stability
  • This is another item that many people have brought up over the years. I think I have personally vacillated over the importance of this one multiple times over the years. Changing APIs are definitely not a fun thing for developers to deal with, it adds extra work often without bringing direct benefit to their application. Linux packaging philosophy probably magnified this problem for developers with anything that could be split out and packaged separately was, meaning that every application was always living on top of a lot of moving parts. That said the reason I am sceptical to putting to much blame onto this is that you could always find stable subsets to rely on. So for instance if you targeted GTK2 or Qt back in the day and kept away from some of the more fast moving stuff offered by GNOME and KDE you would not be hit with this that often. And of course if the Linux Desktop market share had been higher then people would have been prepared to deal with these challenges regardless, just like they are on other platforms that keep changing and evolving quickly like the mobile operating systems.

  • Apple resurgence
  • This might of course be the result of subjective memory, but one of the times where it felt like there could have been a Linux desktop breakthrough was at the same time as Linux on the server started making serious inroads. The old Unix workstation market was coming apart and moving to Linux already, the worry of a Microsoft monopoly was at its peak and Apple was in what seemed like mortal decline. There was a lot of media buzz around the Linux desktop and VC funded companies was set up to try to build a business around it. Reaching some kind of critical mass seemed like it could be within striking distance. Of course what happened here was that Steve Jobs returned to Apple and we suddenly had MacOSX come onto the scene taking at least some air out of the Linux Desktop space. The importance of this one I do find exceptionally hard to quantify though, part of me feels it had a lot of impact, but on the other hand it isn’t 100% clear to me that the market and the players at the time would have been able to capitalize even if Apple had gone belly-up.

  • Microsoft aggressive response
  • In the first 10 years of Desktop linux there was no doubt that Microsoft was working hard to try to nip any sign of Desktop Linux gaining any kind of foothold or momentum. I do remember for instance that Novell for quite some time was trying to establish a serious Desktop Linux business after having bought Miguel de Icaza’s company Helix Code. However it seemed like a pattern quickly emerged that every time Novell or anyone else tried to announce a major Linux desktop deal, Microsoft came running in offering next to free Windows licensing to get people to stay put. Looking at Linux migrations even seemed like it became a goto policy for negotiating better prices from Microsoft. So anyone wanting to attack the desktop market with Linux would have to contend with not only market inertia, but a general depression of the price of a desktop operating systems, and knowing that Microsoft would respond to any attempt to build momentum around Linux desktop deals with very aggressive sales efforts. So in summary, this probably played an important part as it meant that the pay per copy/subscription business model that for instance Red Hat built their server business around became really though to make work in the desktop space. Because the price point ended up so low it required gigantic volumes to become profitable, which of course is a hard thing to quickly achieve when fighting against an entrenched market leader. So in summary Microsoft in some sense successfully fended of Linux breaking through as a competitor although it could be said they did so at the cost of fatally wounding the per copy fee business model they built their company around and ensured that the next wave of competitors Microsoft had to deal with like iOS and Android based themselves on business models where the cost of the OS was assumed to be zero, thus contributing to the Windows Phone efforts being doomed.

  • Piracy
  • One of the big aspirations of the Linux community from the early days was the idea that a open source operating system would enable more people to be able to afford running a computer and thus take part in the economic opportunities that the digital era would provide. For the desktop space there was always this idea that while Microsoft was entrenched in North America and Europe there was this ocean of people in the rest of the world that had never used a computer before and thus would be more open to adopting a desktop linux system. I think this so far panned out only in a limited degree, where running a Linux distribution has surely opened job and financial opportunities for a lot of people, yet when you look at things from a volume perspective most of these potential Linux users found that a pirated Windows copy suited their needs just as much or more. As an anecdote here, there was recently a bit of noise and writing around the sudden influx of people on Steam playing Player Unknown: Battlegrounds, as it caused the relatively Linux marketshare to decline. So most of these people turned out to be running Windows in Mandarin language. Studies have found that about 70% of all software in China is unlicensed so I don’t think I am going to far out on a limb here assuming that most of these gamers are not providing Microsoft with Windows licensing revenue, but it does illustrate the challenge of getting these people onto Linux as they already are getting an operating system for free. So in summary, in addition to facing cut throat pricing from Microsoft in the business sector one had to overcome the basically free price of pirated software in the consumer sector.

  • Red Hat mostly stayed away
  • So few people probably don’t remember or know this, but Red Hat was actually founded as a desktop Linux company. The first major investment in software development that Red Hat ever did was setting up the Red Hat Advanced Development Labs, hiring a bunch of core GNOME developers to move that effort forward. But when Red Hat pivoted to the server with the introduction of Red Hat Enterprise Linux the desktop quickly started playing second fiddle. And before I proceed, all these events where many years before I joined the company, so just as with my other points here, read this as an analysis of someone without first hand knowledge. So while Red Hat has always offered a desktop product and have always been a major contributor to keeping the Linux desktop ecosystem viable, Red Hat was focused on the server side solutions and the desktop offering was always aimed more narrowly things like technical workstation customers and people developing towards the RHEL server. It is hard to say how big an impact Red Hats decision to not go after this market has had, on one side it would probably have been beneficial to have the Linux company with the deepest pockets and the strongest brand be a more active participant, but on the other hand staying mostly out of the fight gave other companies a bigger room to give it a go.

  • Canonical business model not working out
  • This bullet point is probably going to be somewhat controversial considering I work for Red Hat (although this is my private blog my with own personal opinions), but on the other hand I feel one can not talk about the trajectory of the Linux Desktop over the last decade without mentioning Canonical and Ubuntu. So I have to assume that when Mark Shuttleworth was mulling over doing Ubuntu he probably saw a lot of the challenges that I mention above, especially the revenue generation challenges that the competition from Microsoft provided. So in the end he decided on the standard internet business model of the time, which was to try to quickly build up a huge userbase and then dealing with how to monetize it later on. So Ubuntu was launched with an effective price point of zero, in fact you could even get install media sent to you for free. The effort worked in the sense that Ubuntu quickly became the biggest player in the Linux desktop space and it certainly helped the Linux desktop marketshare grow in the early years. Unfortunately I think it still basically failed, and the reason I am saying that is that it didn’t manage to grow big enough to provide Ubuntu with enough revenue through their appstore or their partner agreements to allow them to seriously re-invest in the Linux Desktop and invest in the kind of marketing effort needed to take Linux to a less super technical audience. So once it plateaued what they had was enough revenue to keep what is a relatively barebones engineering effort going, but not the kind of income that would allow them to steadily build the Linux Desktop market further. Mark then tried to capitalize on the mindshare and market share he had managed to build, by branching out into efforts like their TV and Phone efforts, but all those efforts eventually failed.
    It would probably be an article in itself to deeply discuss why the grow userbase strategy failed here vs why for instance Android succeeded with this model, but I think the short version goes back to the fact that you had an entrenched market leader and the Linux Desktop isn’t different enough from a Mac or Windows desktops to drive the type of market change the transition from feature phones to smartphones was.
    And to be clear I am not criticizing Mark here for the strategy he choose, if I where in his shoes back when he started Ubuntu I am not sure I would have been able to come up a different strategy that would have been plausible to succeed from his starting point. That said it did contribute to even further push the expected price of desktop Linux down and thus making it even harder for people to generate significant revenue from desktop linux. On the other hand one can argue that this would likely have happened anyway due to competitive pressure and Windows piracy. Canonicals recent focus pivot away from the desktop towards trying to build a business in the server and IoT space is in some sense a natural consequence of hitting the desktop growth plateau and not having enough revenue to invest in further growth.
    So in summary, what was once seen as the most likely contender to take the Linux Desktop to critical mass turned out to have taken off with to little rocket fuel and eventually gravity caught up with them. And what we can never know for sure is if they during this run sucked so much air out of the market that it kept someone who could have taken us further with a different business model from jumping in.

  • Original device manufacturer support
  • THis one is a bit of a chicken and egg issue. Yes, lack of (perfect) hardware support has for sure kept Linux back on the Desktop, but lack of marketshare has also kept hardware support back. As with any system this is a question of reaching critical mass despite your challenges and thus eventually being so big that nobody can afford ignoring you. This is an area where we even today are still not fully there yet, but which I do feel we are getting closer all the time. When I installed Linux for the very first time, which I think was Red Hat Linux 3.1 (pre RHEL days) I spent about a weekend fiddling just to get my sound card working. I think I had to grab a experimental driver from somewhere and compile it myself. These days I mostly expect everything to work out of the box except more unique hardware like ambient light sensors or fingerprint readers, but even such devices are starting to land, and thanks to efforts from vendors such as Dell things are looking pretty good here. But the memory of these issues is long so a lot of people, especially those not using Linux themselves, but have heard about Linux, still assume hardware support is a very much hit or miss issue still.

What does the future hold?

So any who has read my blog posts probably know I am an optimist by nature. This isn’t just some kind of genetic disposition towards optimism, but also a philosophical belief that optimism breeds opportunity while pessimism breeds failure. So just because we haven’t gotten the Linux Desktop to 10% marketshare so far doesn’t mean it will not happen going forward. It just means we haven’t achieved it so far. One of the key identifies of open source is that it is incredibly hard to kill, because unlike proprietary software, just because a company goes out of business or decides to shut down a part of its business, the software doesn’t go away or stop getting developed. As long as there is a strong community interested in pushing it forward it remains and evolves and thus when opportunity comes knocking again it is ready to try again. And that is definitely true of Desktop Linux which from a technical perspective is better than it has ever been, the level of polish is higher than ever before, the level of hardware support is better than ever before and the range of software available is better than ever before.

And the important thing to remember here is that we don’t exist in a vacuum, the world around us constantly change too, which means that the things that blocked us in the past or the companies that blocked us in the past might no be around or able to block us tomorrow. Apple and Microsoft are very different companies today than they where 10 or 20 years ago and their focus and who they compete with are very different. The dynamics of the desktop software market is changing with new technologies and paradigms all the time. Like how online media consumption has moved from things like your laptop to phones and tablets for instance. 5 years ago I would have considered iTunes a big competitive problem, today the move to streaming services like Spotify, Hulu, Amazon or Netflix has made iTunes feel archaic and a symbol of bygone times.

And many of the problems we faced before, like weird Windows applications without a Linux counterpart has been washed away by the switch to browser based applications. And while Valve’s SteamOS effort didn’t taken off, it has provided Linux users with access to a huge catalog of games, removing a reason that I know caused a few of my friends to mostly abandon using Linux on their computers. And you can actually as a consumer buy linux from a range of vendors now, who try to properly support Linux on their hardware. And this includes a major player like Dell and smaller outfits like System76 and Purism.

And since I do work for Red Hat managing our Desktop Engineering team I should address the question of if Red Hat will be a major driver in taking Desktop linux to that 10%? Well Red Hat will continue to support end evolve our current RHEL Workstation product, and we are seeing a steady growth of new customers for it. So if you are looking for a solid developer workstation for your company you should absolutely talk to Red Hat sales about RHEL Workstation, but Red Hat is not looking at aggressively targeting general consumer computers anytime soon. Caveat here, I am not a C-level executive at Red Hat, so I guess there is always a chance Jim Whitehurst or someone else in the top brass is mulling over a gigantic new desktop effort and I simply don’t know about it, but I don’t think it is likely and thus would not advice anyone to hold their breath waiting for such a thing to be announced :). That said Red Hat like any company out there do react to market opportunities as they arise, so who knows what will happen down the road. And we will definitely keep pushing Fedora Workstation forward as the place to experience the leading edge of the Desktop Linux experience and a great portal into the world of Linux on servers and in the cloud.

So to summarize; there are a lot of things happening in the market that could provide the right set of people the opportunity they need to finally take Linux to critical mass. Whether there is anyone who has the timing and skills to pull it off is of course always an open question and it is a question which will only be answered the day someone does it. The only thing I am sure of is that Linux community are providing a stronger technical foundation for someone to succeed with than ever before, so the question is just if someone can come up with the business model and the market skills to take it to the next level. There is also the chance that it will come in a shape we don’t appreciate today, for instance maybe ChromeOS evolves into a more full fledged operating system as it grows in popularity and thus ends up being the Linux on the Desktop end game? Or maybe Valve decides to relaunch their SteamOS effort and it provides the foundation for a major general desktop growth? Or maybe market opportunities arise that will cause us at Red Hat to decide to go after the desktop market in a wider sense than we do today? Or maybe Endless succeeds with their vision for a Linux desktop operating system? Or maybe the idea of a desktop operating system gets supplanted to the degree that we in the end just sit there saying ‘Alexa, please open the IDE and take dictation of this new graphics driver I am writing’ (ok, probably not that last one ;)

And to be fair there are a lot of people saying that Linux already made it on the desktop in the form of things like Android tablets. Which is technically correct as Android does run on the Linux kernel, but I think for many of us it feels a bit more like a distant cousin as opposed to a close family member both in terms of use cases it targets and in terms of technological pedigree.

As a sidenote, I am heading of on Yuletide vacation tomorrow evening, taking my wife and kids to Norway to spend time with our family there. So don’t expect a lot new blog posts from me until I am back from DevConf in early February. I hope to see many of you at DevConf though, it is a great conference and Brno is a great town even in freezing winter. As we say in Norway, there is no such thing as bad weather, it is only bad clothing.

61 thoughts on “Why hasn’t The Year of the Linux Desktop happened yet?

  1. Christian, first, have a great Christmas and a Happy Prosperous, Health New Year.

    Your post hit all the points correctly, as I saw them in my 55 years in IT, but I would have changed the order.
    What stopped Linux on the Desktop, more than anything was one software. Microsoft Office. It was not windows, or the Mac or gui interfaces, but what Excel and Word would offer. Later, when the other software “Powerpoint” became part of the package, it became a “no-brainer” for corporations.

    ERP systems (SAP, Baan, and others) built interfaces to MS Office. Todate, even LibreOffice is not polished enough to compete, or to offer an interface to ERP systems.

    Sigh… we, Linux Desktops, need a miracle package that is a superset of MS Office and Sharepoint and …..

  2. You might call this a symptom, but lack of pre-installed computers is the real killer IMHO. You really have to be an enthusiast to risk destroying a working computer you just paid for to install something else.

    Yes, that pre-installed hardware is showing up now, but it is still niche, not consumer-oriented.

    I hope you or someone else at Red Hat will end up championing a consumer-oriented effort – I think the Chromebooks are showing one way of doing it, letting big manufacturers do the hardware and sales and just supply care-free software.

    I’m thinking about buying Chromebooks for my children when they are older – but honestly giving them a crippled, walled garden where hacking on things is impossible or hard, is that really what I want to do? I think I want to buy them something where they eventually could install Emacs (or Vim, god forbid) and do whatever they want, as far as the hardware allows.

  3. The part you have missed is that the market has altered. The desktop market is saturated with many people still running desktops from 2001 (Windows XP still has a large usage amount. Windows 7 is the largest segment of desktop users.) This means a large segment of systems are not built to run desktops newer than a decade ago.

    The second problem is that when the desktop no longer works, the users aren’t buying a newer desktop as much as they used to. They either decide they don’t need one (the TV streams everything they used the computer for) or move to a tablet/phone. The convenience of having the hardware pre-installed and as simple as possible trumps dealing with hardware builds/selection/installation.

    The people who are still building their own hardware or buying desktops tend instead to be the more set-in-their-ways person who has strong opinions already set. If they were using X desktop, they stick with X desktop.. as there is little impetus to try a different one.

    This problem is something that computers, cars and similar technology have run into multiple times. The only way a different brand/way of doing things breaks into the market is by a complete change in formats. The year of the ‘Linux desktop’ was the year of the ‘Linux phone’.

    • I don’t think I missed any of that. Yes, the market has changed, but just because it has changed and some usecases are gone, doesn’t mean that there isn’t interesting and takeable parts of the market still and that those parts are not worth anything. I even mention the pure consumption usecases having gone to things like tablets in my original post.

  4. I liked your analysis of Linux on desktop machines, and I completely agree with you.

    Speaking about my desktop experience, I am currently really appreciating AMD efforts to develop serious FOSS GPU driver (AMDGPU), indeed I bought for the first time a Radeon card, after several years of using nVidia Geforce only.
    Concerning audio I do use a good high end audio card, the Asus Xonar Essence ST, which driver has been included into Linux kernel some months after the card release.
    Concerning software development, Linux environment has everything a developer needs.
    I do graphic stuff with Inkscape, Scribus, Gimp, darktable, and I write very nice documents with TeXStudio, using such softwares as a powerful way to enrich them with beautiful pictures.
    Video editing and audio workstation: Kdenlive and Ardour works great.

    There are many proprietary applications that are equivalent or more powerful than the applications I mentioned, but I feel lucky of not having the need to use them, and I do not feel limited in my daily working needs

    Germano, a Fedora contributor

  5. I do not think that any of the reasons you stated are as important as what KDE 4 and Gnome 3 did to the user base.

    Gnome 3 in particular send the desktop back 10 years.

    The damage they have caused is not over yet.

    • The growth curve flatened out long before GNOME 3 and KDE4 came around. Also remember that until very recently the vast majority of Linux users where using Unity, not GNOME 3 or KDE4.

  6. I’ve been using Linux since 2000, and those are the same arguments from 17 years ago.

    The real reason, for workstation/personal use, is that there’s no business case for Linux on the Desktop

    The only two semi-valid cases are avoiding the “Windows Tax”, which is pretty meaningless (30$ for oem Windows license for a 400$ machine, and most/all enterprise critical software is guaranteed to work, or your games, if you’re into that, so it’s pretty meaningless), and security, which has vastly improved since Windows Vista (yes – massive under-the-hood changes).

    On the technical front:
    The Linux kernel has been shaped by it’s two major use cases –
    1. Apache web server (cheap threads and processes, superseded by userspace threads used by, for example, nginx and Go)
    2. Database warehousing – very advanced and performant file-systems.

    For everything else, including networking and embedded systems, Linux is pretty mediocre (other than being cheap), hence, for example, the DPDK project that bypass the kernel networking stack entirely, or the Zircon kernel, that is going to replace the Linux kernel for android.
    ALL the end-user software is sub-par (actually, down right terrible) compared to the macOS and Windows alternatives, including open source projects, mainly because there’s no profit or audience to be gained.

    Linux on the desktop ain’t happening.

  7. Very good analysis. In my view API/ABI compatibility and GUI fragmentation is the biggest issue. I don’t think stand alone Linux desktop has much of a future and it is no surprise that Canonical gave up.

    My company runs XFCE desktop on top of Android on a ARM platform. With our approach we avoid the application bottleneck that has plagued Linux desktop.

  8. Hi
    Great blog.

    I think within 5 year maybe faster we will see linux as desktop.

    The reason for this is that microsoft have in pressrelease say windows 10 will start cost each month. You need have office365 licen to use windows 10. It did not specify time period when it will start cost.

    Second reason is that microsoft did say next big update of windows 10 they will remove explore and make the desktop to web gui, no more info about when it will happen.

    If that happen I will switch to 100% linux desktop

  9. As a nothing-but-linux user for almost 20 years, I sadly have to say that QA has consistently been an issue for all those years. E.g. hidpi support degraded with the latest Fedora upgrade; in the previous version of Fedora, Inkscape was “upgraded” to a pre-release that was rather unstable; etc.

    Don’t get me wrong: I love my Linux workstation and it keeps getting better all the time, but there are still quite a few “papercuts” that prevent many people from using Linux.

  10. First of all, sorry for my bad English.
    I’ve been using (in short) Linux since 18 years as main O.S.
    I don’t want to talk how bad Linux was 18 years ago, but how nice it was only a few years later. I want to talk about Mandrake/Mandriva.
    It was a beautiful distro, user oriented and friendly. I really thought that Linux was ready for a big step toward a large diffusion on the desktop PC. It had everything a user want: semplicity and great stability. At that time Linux was one of the bigger things happened in the computer world, and everybody talked about this phenomenon. I must remember also Suse, which was user oriented too. But year after year, something appened. Everybody started talking about the new phenomenon ‘Ubuntu’, and even nowadays people say to start using Linux with Ubuntu. My personal experience with the Ubuntu forum wasn’t enjoyable: the moderators were always aggressive if they read something bad about their distro. The second point is everybody think even today it is natural update the distro on the PC every 6 months as soon as a new version in out. This is wrong, in my opinion, this make Linux an ‘unstable’ product (not in the software side). Even the kernel, a lot of version that make confusion among all of us. Years ago, the distro on the market were a few, now they are countless, an abnorm fragmentation. From the software side, something changed too. In my opinion, many softwares have became too much elaborated, and buggy. In fact, I’ve been using Gnome Flashback, which is less stable then the old Gnome 2. The same about what is Linux now under the hood, I do not understand anymore what my distro (Debian) is doing in exactly this moment, during my typing!
    I could write much more, but English is not my language.
    In conclusion: LInux was almost ready for the desktop years ago, now not.

  11. I think, we have 10% market share, but is hard to prove/count.

    Also Linux keeps market share (officially) at 2% for decades, but computer installed base has grown enormously (also hard to measure), which means absolute Linux installations is a very large number compared to early days.

    Gnome should die and community should focus on other DEs – this is unusable DE.

  12. Nice post. Thank you.

    you might ask this german town what happened with the year of the desktop:


    Face it, it’s never going to happen. Servers will become obsolete since we’re going the no-ops route and we’ll just deploy your functions on the lambda or whatever, we won’t ssh into servers anymore and couldn’t care less what’s running the code.

    It’s not looking good for Redhat for the next 5 to 10 years.

  13. Great points Christian!

    You’ve covered it in pieces but I wanted to pull the threads together to highlight a large factor from my perspective that has held the desktop back.

    I think what desktop Linux has needed is much stronger pull from OEMs. In particular:

    – Once the price of an OS dropped to zero companies like RedHat and Canonical simply didn’t have the revenue to invest enough to make desktop Linux succeed on their own.

    – Alternative revenue was available from desktop services and Canonical had some success with UbuntuOne. But unless you seriously invest in those services you’re going to end up competing with specialised companies like Dropbox and AWS whose focus will outperform you.

    – The OEMs have always used desktop Linux as the alt-OS, mostly as leverage with Microsoft in licensing fees. I imagine a large number of the desktop Linux machines sold were just wiped with pirated copies of Windows.

    – OEMs have been squeezed out by the OS and service providers. In later years the OS became a means to deliver services (i.e. Android). Now service providers are more likely to make their own hardware completely taking the OEMs out of the loop.

    If OEMs had invested more in desktop Linux they might have had more control on the future of the ecosystem and thus a bigger share of the services revenue. RedHat or Canonical could have got into hardware, but they’d be unlikely to do as well as the existing OEMs would have.

    I think we’re seeing good success with Dell in Project Sputnik (the developer XPS) and System76 where OEMs have kept investment going. I wonder if they could have done the same with more mainstream desktops with enough investment.

  14. I think the biggest issues with Linux still is that people don’t know about it and that it don’t come preinstalled. Yes there are some few exceptions, but those exceptions are for people that actively seeks out Linux. We should also not forget the fact that humans are creatures of habit, a good example of this is when Firefox 57 (quantum) came out and my colleagues freaked out because “everything was different” while the UX really wasn’t much of a difference. I think short-term we should get Linux much more into schools so as many students as possible can have a first hand experience with Linux and not feel it’s something “mysterious” that requires much learning…

  15. Desktop Linux unfortunately still has lot of issues that are trivial for experienced users, but really bad for newbies. For example the package management using GUI. There are still many bugs in PackageKit and GNOME Software and some of them are making it really difficult for newbies to manage software in a friendly way. There is also lack of all the desktop-related QA. Not many people are reporting these newbie-related bugs and not many people are fixing them.

  16. additionally, when those people who want to ditch Windows, and switch to other OS, and then finally goto Apple; they do so because, Adobe Creative Suite(including Photoshop) and AAA Games etc are available natively in MacOS world. Even MSOffice is available natively in MacOS, no need to use wine.
    So even if you ditch MSWindows, you have still these many applications natively available in MacOSX, which are not in Linux. All the Linux apps are almost always always available for running in MacOSX.

  17. Hence, option is that in 2018 itself following goals should be achieved:
    (1) Linux foundation should give mega funding to gimp, krita. Make krita, gimp interface as possible as near to photoshop in the official project itself. For example, Libreoffice recently has officially (inside the official project) developed MsOffice like Ribbon look alike optional interface.

    (2) Linux foundation should give mega funding to libreoffice make Libreoffice even far more compatible to MsOffice as early as possible(like complex line diagrams, MsVisio like network diagramming features).

    Presentations made by Libreoffice impress are not as shiny/stunning as made by MSOffice Powerpoint 2013/2016, by default. Libreoffice impress default templates and its designs need to be made very easy to make stunning and appealing enough corporate

    (3) Linux foundation should fund wine/crossover development in a big way to mega speed up its development so as lots of heavily used commercial apps latest version Adobe suite, autocad, maya, microsoft visio, microsoft publisher should flawlessly run as it is.

    If Linux foundation can not use funds for linux desktop push, then exactly what its fund is for?????

  18. If gnome or kde were the only available options 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have started using Linux and if gnome or kde were the only options available today, or in the future, then I wouldn’t be using Linux.

  19. Lack of focus is a noticeable problem within Free and Open Sources which complements the fragmentation.
    One of major issues that plagued Linux kernel for so long as the lack of proper system management until the emergence of systemd.

    For the desktop environment, at least a guideline is set but not enough. For my view, Gnome Shell is one big efforts that properly sets the identity of Free and Open Source despite the fragment from the apparent dispute between developers and some power users for these reasons: sandboxing, crossplatform application management via Gnome Software which uses Packagekit (doing a big effort to blur the advanced function of traditional package manager) and appstream and wayland protocole to move away from the legacy X server.

    Apple OSX, often cited as one of the best experience as desktop environment, went to the painful transition from the old Mac OS9 with inspired Gnome designers and developers. In fact, some OSX features came from Gnome desktop environment.

    Having my experiences interacting with developers from both Gnome and Linux kernel upstream developers, power users need to understand how to properly communicate for better resolution. Let’s focus on building a better ecosystem in Free and Open Sources and set aside our differences.

  20. I don’t think API/ABI is as big a deal as people claim. We have a bunch of internal development tools at work, built with glib and gtk+ 1.x… they probably date to around 2002.

    And they’ve never been updated to use newer versions of libraries, because they still work fine after 15 years. Sure, we have to build our own RPMs since no modern distro still ships glib and gtk+ 1.x, but they still work as well as they ever did. So why are we worried about API/ABI compatibility, when 15-year-old binaries still work fine today?

  21. I think there are many issues that are not related with Linux or if related with Linux are related with other parts of it.

    In my view trying to put to various non-technical people Linux, I found the following issues as huge items:
    – Q: “I cannot load Office”? A: “Look to LibreOffice”, Q: “Why this document is loaded as crap? I need it for tomorrow at work!” A: “Sorry, restart on Windows to edit that document”.
    – Q: “Can I play Heroes 3? Or Civilization V?” (look any popular game which is typically casual) A: “Heroes 3 works, but Civilization 5 may work with Wine” Q: “What is Wine?” A: “A program to run your Windows game , let me install it to you”. Q: “Why does the water looks so broken?” A: “Sorry, restart on Windows to run that document”.

    So in short I have seen that casual programs are not found to run properly. LibreOffice did huge strides but games still did not.

    I found also divisive the policy against Mono (which could be a risk, like it would be probably Java in Android), but making it uncertain to target .Net for Linux would make a class of programs not to be targetted on Linux so a lot of talent was lost in my honest opinion.

  22. I have to agree with Leslie “Microsoft Office. It was not windows, or the Mac or gui interfaces, but what Excel and Word would offer.”

    There are many cases of users who asked me to help them switch but there’s really no seamless/support MS Office solution. Thats such a big killer for many with Google Docs as an alternative for Word is ‘OK’ but Google Sheets isn’t a fully functional Excel alternative.

  23. Very nice write-up.

    I agree with most of it. Except you claim that fragmentation is not the major issue if you want a bigger market share. IMO it is the base problem, that almost leads to anything else.

    Fragmentation could also be seen as lack of focus and that is the worst thing that a business or movement could have.

    Ironically the biggest strength of free software is also its biggest weakness. Nobody owns the software and forking is very easy. This leads to a lot of duplicate dev work, marketing, and customer service. All ressources no major player in Linux has a lot of.

    With the fragmentation, you don’t get critical mass for one fragment (e.g. Ubuntu) and thus no ODM is going to support it as a first-class citizen.

  24. Let’s split this into two parts, corporate world and home user world, but still talking about desktop:

    I’d rather not comment on corporate part since I’m not that knowledgeable about Linux offerings, but on home users I could say anything or two.

    Window desktop is consistent, works and is logical. Somebody thought about something and they did what made sense. Decisions on kde and gnome are bad in a manner that they want to differentiate so decisions are done like ‘lets do what windows doesn’t have’. Bad choices all over the place.

    Second thing is overmodularity. Everything needs to be an extension or plasmoids. Nonsense. It’s known what people use, make it a default offering. The UX evaluation is missing completely from kde, gnome for Manz people went the wrong way.

    Performance of desktop is also a mess. Gnome on new hardware and Wayland works like crap. Xorg doesn’t support hidpi. Basically it’s not ready to be used in all cases, but in some.

    And quality control is amazing… Never new that this could be called released software. Check kde’s mail app, indexing etc.

    I’ve been a user of Linux on servers for 10+years,, on desktop for 3. I’ll be going back to windows rather soon because all this is not worth 100eur how much retail license costs. Using Linux in VM for specific things makes sense, but it is not ready for desktop.

  25. There is something you forgot to mention: bad drivers and no support for hybrid graphics. That means that if the user wants to run Linux (whichever distribution), they have to read up on it in advance and be careful to choose hardware that can actually run it. That means they will have trouble with anything that has NVidia hardware (especially hybrid graphics laptops), or non-Intel wifi or some more esoteric sound card, etc.

    Most users are not ready to get into this kind of troubleshooting and spend several evenings on figuring out how to get their hardware work.

    Even if you do buy hardware that runs Linux well, you can bet it will be left behind in a few years. A lot of decisions with regards to hardware support assume “nobody uses 5+ years old hardware”. You have a buggy BIOS with bad ACPI implementation? Screw you. You have an old NVidia card? Not our problem. You want to play a game on your NVidia card? Oh, that’s non-free software, yuck. And the list goes on. The same issues happen if your hardware is too new: this and that isn’t yet supported by the kernel, that and that aren’t supported yet by Wayland, but we promise to get to it eventually. Sound familiar?

    I can remember that in the past ~5 years every year somebody promised that they will finally take care of that NVidia (especially Optimus) monstrosity. Now it still almost kind of doesn’t work if you want to actually use it for serious purpose.

    Sorry if this comment came out too harsh. No offence intended.

  26. Steam could have moved the Linux-Marketshare already, probably it has done already a little bit. But the release of Steam in China reverted that, the attracted more users of Windows (legal or illegal).

    Anyway. Valve has a tool to push Linux as howl, if they release an AAA-Title only for Linux with the announcment not to support Windows for six months things will move…fast. Which title? HALF-LIFE 3.

    Valve itself missed to released any plattform exclusive titel for Linux or is waiting with that until Microsoft starts a new attack with “Games for Windows” and their awful AppStore. Valve has good reasons to move to Linux, but the very one is, that Valve is depening on Windows and Microsoft can kill their business with an AppStore instantly.

    I’m playing CSGO on Linux and it so great to play it natively, a dream has become true after more than a decade. Thanks Valve and now – please – launch an AAA-Exclusive-Title :)

  27. @Venemo about hybrid graphics this is untrue. I’m writing this message right now from a laptop with 2 radeon cards. By default the more power-save card works. When I wanna run a game on more powerful one, I just use DRI_PRIME=1 variable.

    It just works, I’ve no idea how is that “not ready”, perhaps only if on-the-fly switch is missing; but I’m unsure it would be a good idea because I’m pretty sure it might lead to lags on switches back and forth.

  28. About users of pirate software — good point. It’s same here, in Russia. I never really thought about that part, but indeed: I like GNU/Linux from a hacking standpoint, but for a usual user it needs to have other offerings. I do know, out there many people who are not playing games, and not doing really anything except of basic office and browsing tasks. Such users also have a tendency of getting cryptolockers and then reinstalling the system.

    I think if Windows costed them real money, they could switch to GNU/Linux just fine.

  29. @Venemo about bad drivers — again examples are needed. And again, to give you my example: on my Radeon HD 6620G with wine-gallium-nine GTAⅣ works even faster than it did on Windows7.

  30. Linux needs a universal package and package manager. How many different packages is a manufacturer going to support?

    Linux need proprietary software installed by default. I often have to use different browsers to accomplish different tasks while on the web.

    Linux need to overcome FUD, that it is a OS for techies, nerds and eggheads.

  31. Another big issue is a psychological one. I like to call it “nobody gets fired for using windows of mac”. I saw this is my career multiple time at different companies. Windows and Mac isn’t perfect either, but people accept that stuff breaks or doesn’t work on this operating systems but not on Linux. If you decide to use Linux, as soon as something doesn’t work you get some direct or indirect pressure to switch to Windows or Mac. I experienced it multiple times that after the employee agreed to switch the problem still exists, e.g. because the real problem was a hardware issue. But only after they switched they looked closer, found the real issue and fixed it. But of course then they didn’t switched back to Linux because of both, the negative experience and because they where happy to be able to finally work on their real work.

  32. I just reread my post and man I needed to edit it in several ways. You are correct that you had put those points. I just differed on the order and the value of them towards the changing… but I also was rather rude in saying so.

    I also did not mean to make it sound all doom and gloom that there are not places for it.. I just think that like the change from mainframes -> miniframes -> personal computers..that the change to mobile has altered what people want/expect and that the Linux ‘desktop’ did take over there. I expect that we will still grow into the desktop space, but how we do so will need to be different as the customers in it will want something that isn’t Windows/Mac.

  33. Hi:
    May you and your family have a Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year and a Happy one.
    I concur 100% with you ,but I have come to the realization that Many people do not a clue about Linu/open source;they only “know” M$,nothing else.They might know about Apple products ,because Apple’s adverts are working concurrently with MS to convithe the poor should part with their hard-earned dollars.
    Nunc aut never,

  34. Almost everything has already been said, but I would bump up one of already mentioned factor, which is fragmentation and lack of standardization. Take a look on how much effort is spent on doing the same by different distros. No standardization on installing apps (snap and flatpak are trying) is one example. almost impossible to switch between desktop environments is the second one – once you decide to one of them you have much narrowed choice of apps dedicated to this particular DE. LibreOffice and Firefox are magnificent exceptions of it. How may teams are repacking the same? Of course, richness of choice is beautiful, but how many live distros we have listed at distrowatch.com, and how many flavors of windows we have at the same time? Sorry, I don’t see the 10 percent too soon, if ever. Linux on desktops will remain for geeks. We have forgotten the fundamental commandment “Do One Thing and Do It Well”, Linux world on desktops is doing “same things many times and fair to middling”.

  35. There are nearly more than 200 countries all over the world, do not use Linux desktop, so as long as Chinese people use Linux desktop, Linux desktop will rise. China is No.1. Am I right?

  36. I use Linux Mint often, but I still don’t think it’s as polished as Windows. I installed 18.1 and it worked like a charm, but when I upgraded to 18.3, I suddenly got a popup on shutdown complaining the Gnome-keyring-deamon wouldn’t respond to a command to shut down. It turns out the bug hasn’t been fixed in almost a year. Ordinary users simply can’t be bothered with this. Hell, I’m a computer engineer and even I can’t be bothered with this sort of stuff.

  37. For me (a non gamer) the desktop is really becoming irrelevant. How many desktop apps do you use vs. apps in a browser (see Chromebook). I’ve recently switched several people over to Linux when Windows 10 came out and simply showed them how to access Firefox and they have been happy as clams.

    For me – I’ve been using Linux for years. I recently tried my wife’s Windows 10 laptop and what a horrible mess Microsoft has turned Windows into. The 2-3 different interfaces (classic/Win7ish/Win10ish) is just crazy. I just laughed and went back to my ‘complicated’ Linux desktop… :)

  38. As somebody who directly reported to Mark Shuttleworth I can add that Canonical’s problem has and still is a lack of listening to customers and solving their short term problems. Technology vision was available plentiful but commercial vision and willingness to solve today’s technical or business issue was always brushed aside to solve tomorrow’s bigger problem nobody had yet.

    My suggestion for the Linux desktop community is to understand what failed in the past and look at the new reality and focus on solving the problems in this new reality:

    1) PC’s will continue to decline. Mobile and tablet are the future.
    2) Desktop software is being substituted by SaaS.
    3) most people don’t care about the operating system at all. They care about their favourite apps and as long as the operating system does not stand in the way they will tolerate a lot, e.g. Windows had some pretty bad versions in the last decade.

    What will the future bring?

    1) just enough operating system to run SaaS, Citrix, … – already covered by ChromeOS and could easily merge into Android
    2) mobile/voice/AR/IoT apps – no solution yet
    3) mobile convergence to PC – Android and Samsung are working hard on this. So is Windows. My money is on Google.

    Although it sounds hard, the Linux desktop is only going to become less important because of declining PC’s and mobile and SaaS already being covered.

    But what about becoming the desktop for smart machines/IoT, augmented reality, wearables, voice, … ? The Linux community can win this space…

  39. Having been a long-time Linux user (first install Slackware 2 in the nineties), all of your points really ring true for me.

    What strikes me is how close it feels like Canonical came in succeeding in their mission. The strategy of building up a huge userbase and then monetizing it before running out of money seemed to be working incredibly well until they failed in the latter part of the plan. The hype and interest Ubuntu was getting with another lacklustre Windows 8 release seemed to create a lot of opportunity.

    And as you mention regarding OS prices trending to zero, I agree monetizing the desktop might have been too difficult and so they were absolutely right to pivot and focus on something new like convergence.

    Finally, I can’t help but think it was Unity that killed the Linux desktop in the end. If they had spent the last 7 years contributing to Wayland, Gnome, and KDE and supporting the surrounding communities to innovate at a grassroots level, I suspect their monetization strategy would have showed itself organically, be it convergence or something else.

    However, they seemed to get stuck in this vision of a single UX across devices when what they really needed to be was a big player in an innovating and transformative ecosystem (also, shamelessly collecting user-data would have probably been useful too :) ).

  40. Reason #1: Amazon search for “Linux Laptop” a joke

    Reason #2: Walmart, IRL store search for “Linux laptop” a joke

    Reason #3: Canonical 90% effort on phones, 10% on actual Desktop Hardware until they basically gave up. They wanted to lead, they led… they squandered the opportunity on ARM-based small devices.

    Reason #4: Synaptic UI, searches and results are still a joke – producing a gazillion items except what you’re looking for.

    Reason #5: Alternative install methods (cli) are archaic

    Reason #6: The top (little-known) Linux Vendors sell heavy laptops, poor battery life and are dramatically expensive for what they are.

    Bottom line, you’re never going to get a rush of new users when they are forced to BIOS, UEFI, burn ISOs, run through installations, partitioning, etc… Seriously, stop that!

    Windows, Apple, Android, iOS, ChromeOS would never survive if they forced users to manually install their respective OSes. Worse yet… they would be run out of town if every *update* required users to reinstall the OSes (non-rolling).

    Basically Linux needs to do what everyone else has been doing since the start of the Personal Computing era. That is… availability of Linux Laptops (on some major stores like Amazon, Walmart), support channels and rolling releases.

    Despite these major obstacles, I’m impressed that Linux has done was well as it has. It shows that there’s a real need for a privacy-respecting OS and people are making tremendous efforts (despite themselves) to get the OS running.

  41. (to nobody in particular)

    It did. Where have you been?

    The problem with your headline and people who have said similar things is that you are really only looking at your own experience. I’m sure right here you will quote some statistics that really mean nothing. The fact is, if YOU don’t believe Linux is Desktop Ready, then YOU think “The year of the Linux Desktop has not yet arrived”.

    But it did. And most people missed it. And Linux is now ready to serve as a mainstream desktop. It’s actually EASIER to use than Windows, if you compare their various annoyances side by side and the trouble involved in solving them, Windows is a freaking nightmare. Linux people have worked so hard to combat the idea that Linux is “too hard” they’ve managed to make it way simpler than Windows.

    Whoever coined the phrase “The year of the Linux Desktop” is an idiot. Operating system success is not measured by a year of usage, and there isn’t some moment when suddenly the OS has “arrived” and can enjoy mainstream acknowledgement as a serious venture. People who think like that don’t know anything about computers or the evolution of technology.

    The Linux Desktop is here, it’s been here a few weeks, and you were all late to the party.

  42. I am going to go on a different direction than everyone else. For the most part, the desktop isn’t as big as it used to be due to the growth of smartphones and tablets. It is mostly a niche tool now. However, that doesn’t belie that there isn’t a large market. In my opinion, there is possibility for growth in the enterprise desktop and gaming enthusiasts.

    Right now, Linux for the enterprise desktop is getting a better story around it, especially with Fleet Commander. An area for opportunity is collaboration software (Skype for Business, etc) that Microsoft has weakness in due to stability issues. I think Red Hat can make inroads here with the right investments.

    The Linux gaming story is at the mercy of game developers. The smoothing out of the graphics infrastructure will help here. However, only Steam can make a big impact here.

  43. 4 years ago, we have deployed at least 180 Ubuntu workstation that will be used as production workstation for trading, our enterprise apps has been built in java so we are all most good to go, our major hurdles is basically the multimonitor support on a 6 heads NVIDIA quadro on a single GPU.

    We have to used xinerama because we want to control each monitor position and we can control where the application will launch.

    If you used xinerama a lot of software quirk plague the system from screen tearing down to some software will not run (xane scanner) because it’s has a bug if xinerama extension is present.

    (We even contact canonical and we are willing to pay for their development to fixed this, but no reply from them as soon as we told them that we used xinerama extensively)

    Anyway that’s only one of the major issues that we had on the setup, my boss want’s a hotdesk station just like a dumb terminal if the workstation crash he can logon in the other computer as if nothing is happen

    We were able to achieved this using LDAP+NFS+AutoFS combo so all user’s its home directory was mounted in the server.

    In my case I believed the real issue as to why the linux desktop won’t fly smoothly are as follows

    1.) There’s no active directory like central authentication that’s so intuitive to use. I know we can used LDAP + Kerberos + DNS to almost imitate active directory but it requires a great deal of knowledge on the subject matter, I’m just lucky that I’m just too old to know the tech.

    2.) Most of the application the way its written is just for standalone use no enterprise support or a half bake support if you are lucky (pidgin).

    3.) The browser support in linux platform is not comparable with windows or mac counterpart e.g you loose video acceleration if your environment is similar with us.

  44. And also, I agree also with Martin, there are a lot of killer application is only available in Windows and Mac, so what we did is basically we used Citrix XenApp and installed citrix receiver on each ubuntu station just to provide a decent spreadsheet and word processor (We don’t consider google docs because we don’t want google hold our data :) )

    Our company don’t mind spending but it was an extra learning curve for some users to bare, not to mentioned the linux desktop is so clunky if you are just been introduced in the linux environment, most of our employee is not really computer savvy and they don’t have to be in the first place just to do their respective Job.

    The real benefit we got for all of this trouble is basically we don’t have a single incident of computer viri outbreak and no reinstalling of OS and no downtime whatsoever for all these years but at the cost of sometimes user’s productivity.

    If only the software ecosystem is tightly integrated just with windows this will surely leave windows OS in the dust if it happen :)

  45. Another obstacle to the Linux desktop, was public awareness/ignorance.

    Most people know Windows or they know Mac, but likely have no idea what Linux is – or are even aware there is such a thing. If exposed to, say, Ubuntu, they’re scared and panicky because it nothing looks the same. The reaction is the same as when Microsoft came out with Windows 8 and tried to kill off the standard look and feel that their customers have come to know and “love” since Windows 95: “Click ‘Start, Programs, Notepad…’ etc.

    In my experience, those whom I have tried to convert ultimately beg me to “put it back the way it was before”.

  46. What if we apply a little Lean Startup to the problem?
    What is the Minimum Viable Product (MVP)?
    Who is the MVP for.

    My 90 year old Mom runs Lightweight Portable Secure(LPS) off of a live CD on her WindowsXP machine. All of here docs, text, spreadsheets … are in Google Docs. It’s easy for her since I support it. It’s easy for me because I can just log into here gmail account and fix things. All you need is a very low cost computer that is easy to use and support to get the low end. Once you have the low end then just keep iterating until you can move up. It’s the business model, not the tech stuff that needs fixing.

  47. Linux has a distinct (and very evident) lack of focus on the end-user experience (UI, QA, onboarding, consistency, functional coverage, etc.). It’s not surprising; that’s simply not a priority for [virtually] anyone doing open source software, and as a result it’s consistently bad.

    That’s not going to get any better any time soon, without some substantial change in the landscape in general. There just isn’t anyone doing meaningful work to make Linux for desktop a reasonable choice for consumers who don’t have a vested interest in Linux already (in my perception, anyway).

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