Linux on the Desktop

I'm a bit of a geek. Ha, maybe more than a bit. Anyway, I've been using Windows and Linux in parallel for quite a while. And neither has everything I want. Want to play the latest games? Boot up Windows XP (Vista for gaming is... difficult). Gotta find a specific app? The huge Linux distribution repositories will have something (for free! without wandering the web!).

Of course, Windows is the big one here. It's all over the place, especially businesses. It's very popular with consumers too. I've always thought that was odd. The average computer user doesn't do much:

  • browse the web
  • listen to music
  • organise photos
  • create and edit spreadsheets, presentations, word documents
All these things can be done with every general-purpose Linux distribution, for free, using well supported, widely used software. Yet even individuals continue paying for this functionality. Which bring me to this article by Neil McAllister: Computer World - Opinion: Why desktop Linux may have lost its chance.

I have to agree. Linux has been slowly but surely matching, and recently exceeding, Windows. Yet even when Linux starts out with 100% market share in a new market, it has quickly lost share to Windows XP. In fact, as Netbook sales took off, Linux market share declined. Why?

It might be due to the dominance Microsoft has had over the years through advertising and vendor deals, and people expecting things to just work, no matter the legal, technical, or monetary challenges. It could also be that Linux tends to remain an idea, rather than a concrete experience. Kristin Shoemaker points out that there are very few chances to look before you leap with Linux: it just isn't available to try in very many "standard" retail stores.

Thankfully, Microsoft can't just rest with Windows 7. Although it has seemed to manage to avoid being hit by the gap between Windows XP and Windows 7 without being dragged down by Vista (opportunity lost by Apple and Linux), it is now facing even tougher competition - although not directly. As the web becomes more central than the Operating System, the reasons to pay for Windows diminish. This gradual change of focus from client to server could hit Microsoft in other ways, too.

Cloud computing, a term I love to hate, is the trend of the moment. And with it comes a whole new set of opportunities. For Microsoft, who has lead the desktop software and Operating System market, the problems are growing. In the meantime, nimble companies will move ahead onto powerful, embedded devices. As the physical platform looses its relevance, and the service becomes the focus, as Neil describes, Linux is well-placed to be running the underlying system. But who cares about the client when the focus is on the 'cloud'? Even in an era of ubiquitous computing, Linux may well remain mostly unknown to the masses.