Ben Cotton: The Linux desktop is not in trouble

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Writing for ZDNet earlier this month, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols declared trouble for the Linux desktop. He’s wrong.

Or maybe not. Maybe we’re just looking at different parts of the elephant. sjvn’s core argument, if I may sum it up, is that fragmentation is holding back the Linux desktop. Linux can’t gain significant traction in the desktop market because there are just so many options. This appeals to computer nerds, but leads to confusion for general users who don’t want to care about whether they’re running GNOME or KDE Plasma or whatever.

Fragmentation

I’m sympathetic to that argument. When I was writing documentation for Fedora, we generally wrote instructions for GNOME, since that was the default desktop. Fedora users can also choose from spins of KDE Plasma, LXQt, Xfce, plus can install other desktop environments. If someone installs KDE Plasma because that’s what their friend gave them, will they be able to follow the documentation? If not, will they get frustrated and move back to Windows or MacOS?

Even if they stick it out, there are two large players in the GUI toolkit world: GTK and Qt. You can use an app written in one in a desktop environment written in the other, but it doesn’t always look very good. And the configuration settings may not be consistent between apps, which is also frustrating.

Corporate indifference

Apart from that, sjvn also laments the lack of desktop effort from major Linux vendors:

True, the broad strokes of the Linux desktop are painted primarily by Canonical and Red Hat, but the desktop is far from their top priority. Instead, much of the nuts and bolts of the current generation of the Linux desktop is set by vendor-related communities: Red Hat, Fedora, SUSE’s openSUSE, and Canonical’s Ubuntu.

I would argue that this is the way it should be. As he notes in the preceding paragraph, the focus of revenue generation is on enterprise servers and cloud. There are two reasons for that: that’s where the customer money is and enterprises don’t want to innovate on their desktops.

I’ll leave the first part to someone else, but I think the “enterprises don’t want to innovate on their desktops” part is important. I’ve worked at and in support of some large organizations and in all cases, they didn’t want anything more from their desktops than “it allows our users to run their business applications in a reliable manner”. Combine this with the tendency of the enterprise to keep their upgrade cycles long and it makes no sense to keep desktop innovation in the enterprise product.

Community distributions are generally more focused on individuals or small organizations who may be more willing to accept disruptive change as the paradigm is moved forward. This is true beyond the desktop, too. Consider changes like the adoption of systemd or replacing yum with dnf: these also appeared in the community distributions first, but I didn’t see that used as a case for “enterprise Linux distributions are in trouble.”

What’s the answer?

Looking ahead, I’d love to see a foundation bring together the Linux desktop community and have them hammer out out a common desktop for everyone. Yes, I know, I know. Many hardcore Linux users love have a variety of choices. The world is not made up of desktop Linux users. For the million or so of us, there are hundreds of millions who want an easy-to-use desktop that’s not Windows, doesn’t require buying a Mac, and comes with broad software and hardware support.

Setting aside the XKCD #927 argument, I don’t know that this is an answer. Even if the major distros agreed to standardize on the same desktop (and with Ubuntu returning to GNOME, that’s now the case), that won’t stop effort on other desktops. If the corporate sponsors don’t invest any effort, the communities still will. People will use whatever is provided to them in the workplace, so presenting a single standard desktop to consumers will rely on the folks who make the community distributions to agree to that. It won’t happen.

But here’s the crux of my disagreement with this article. The facts are all correct, even if I disagree with the interpretation of some of them. The issue is that we’re not looking at the success of the Linux desktop in the same way.

If you define “Linux desktop” as “a desktop environment that runs the Linux kernel”, then ChromeOS is doing quite well, and will probably continue to grow (unless Google gets bored with it). In that case, the Linux desktop is not in trouble, it’s enjoying unprecedented success.

But when most people say “Linux desktop”, they think of a traditional desktop model. In this case, the threat to Linux desktops is the same as the threat to Windows and MacOS: desktops matter less these days. So much computing, particularly for consumers, happens in the web browser when done on a PC at all.

Rethinking the goal

This brings me back to my regular refrain: using a computer is a means, not an end. People don’t run a desktop environment to run a desktop environment, they run a desktop environment because it enables them to do the things they want to do. As those things are increasingly done on mobile or in the web browser, achieving dominant market share for desktops is no longer a meaningful goal (if, indeed, it ever was).

Many current Linux desktop users are (I guess), motivated at least in part by free software ideals. This is not a mainstream position. Consumers will need more practical reasons to choose any Linux desktop over the proprietary OS that was shipped by the computer’s manufacturer.

With that in mind, the answer isn’t standardization, it’s making the experience better. Fedora Silverblue and OpenSUSE Kubic are efforts in that direction. Using those as a base, with Flatpaks to distribute applications, the need for standardization at the desktop environment level decreases because the users are mostly interacting with the application level, one step above.

The usual disclaimer applies: I am a Red Hat employee who works on Fedora. The views in this post are my own and not necessarily the views of Red Hat, the Fedora Council, or anyone else. They may not even be my views by the time you read this.

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