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The Linux Desktop Debate: Setting Things Straight

My article declaring Linux dead as a desktop OS has sparked some debate, but much of it misses the real point.

Over the weekend I wrote a post called “Why Linux on the Desktop Is Dead” which seems to have sparked some controversy among the Linux crowd. I feel compelled to set a few things straight. There are some issues I have with the arguments in favor of the vitality of Linux on the desktop, and a clarification that needs to be made related to my article.

You’re Making My Point

What Ms. Noyes, and many of the commenters seem to not understand is that their arguments make my case for me. Commenters who talk about how it can’t be dead because they use it, or Ms. Noyes arguing that its premature to call it dead because it’s in use by millions miss the point.

Just because you’re one of the one percent--the hackers and hobbyists who love the Linux OS--doesn’t mean that it has any realistic hope of ever seeing mainstream adoption. It won’t.

Most people would agree that the Commodore Amiga, or the Betamax video recorder, or the Sega Dreamcast gaming console are dead. Saying that Linux on the desktop can’t be dead because people still use it is like saying that these things aren’t dead because there are still hobbyists and user groups that hack, tweak, and find creative and innovative ways to use them still.

One Percent...Still

I had almost forgotten about the 2010 post by Robert Strohmeyer. Ms. Noyes pointed it out in an attempt to illustrate how he was wrong then, and reinforce that my declaration of Linux on the desktop must be wrong now. But, what it did for me was emphasize my point.

In October of 2010 when that article was written, Linux had 0.85 percent desktop OS market share according to Net Applications. 15 months later, Linux has 1.16 percent desktop OS market share.

Ms. Noyes puts forth a claim that the Linux stats aren’t accurate because its an open source operating system downloaded for free—so we have no sales figures to go by. I would counter that sales figures are utterly meaningless, and that the methodology used by Net Applications is what really counts--how many actual people are actually using the OS to actually do things?

She also cites a ridiculously high Linux share stat from “The H”. I had to click the link because I’ve never heard of “The H” and had no idea what it was about. When I did, I discovered why it’s reporting an astronomical 25.36 percent share for Linux--it’s a site dedicated to open source, and it’s reporting share based on the operating systems people use to visit the site.

Counting Linux market share on a website dedicated to open source software is like declaring that Ford has 99 percent market share of the automobile industry by counting the number of Ford vehicles at a Ford dealership.

Now, if we want to start dicing up stats we can argue that Linux desktop market share has leaped by 35 percent since Strohmeyer wrote his article in October of 2010. Of course, by that same math we would have to note that it also dropped precipitously by nearly 26 percent in one month just between January and February of this year.

But, all of that would be silly really because it’s still the same basic one percent it always has been.

I Wasn’t Talking To You

If you’re part of the one percent who uses and loves Linux as a desktop OS, I wasn’t really talking to you. Obviously, you’re using Linux just fine. I even went out of my way to preemptively single out and congratulate you.

The article was written with businesses and IT admins in mind. Linux may be a great desktop OS for you, but for the vast majority of businesses out there--virtually all of them--deploying Linux as the mainstream desktop OS would be a tragically horrible idea.

First, it takes a fair amount of reconditioning if you’re already used to Microsoft Windows--which almost everyone is. I’m not saying Windows is better or worse, but right, wrong, or indifferent there would be a learning curve during which productivity would decrease, and support calls would increase.

Second, Linux is a poor desktop OS choice for business for many of the same reasons that Mac OS X is a poor desktop OS choice for business--it lacks the tools that businesses and IT admins need. I’m sure there’s some duct tape and chewing gum solution out there, or someone can argue that you could just develop tools in-house, but all of that is like swimming upstream when you’re used to having endless options.

Why Linux on the Desktop Is Dead

In the discussion that ensued on my Google+ page as a result of my article, one commenter made the point that Linux must be simple because his grandfather uses Ubuntu Linux as a desktop OS just fine. If he can do it, anyone can.

When I dug a little deeper, though, I discovered it wasn’t quite that simple. I asked how his grandfather researched the diverse array of Linux distributions to choose the one that would best meet his needs, and whether it was truly easy enough for him to download, install, and configure the OS, and install the software he needed to make the system functional.

The answer was that the commenter--part of the one percent crowd of Linux hackers and hobbyists who love the OS and know their way around it--did all the dirty work and set up the system for him. In fairness, he pointed out that when you buy a Windows or Mac OS X system it comes with the OS pre-installed and probably some tools and apps ready to go out of the box.

I agree with that point. But, not everyone has a grandson who is part of the one percent to wade through the Linux distro chaos and choose one, then choose a specific release that’s deemed stable enough, then install it and configure it.

Even if they did, at that point it sort of becomes its own little “walled garden”. You can use the software and tools that have been provided for you, but to really use it as a PC, and make it do what you want you have to call your grandson back, or go through the learning curve to figure it out yourself.

If you try to seek out help on Linux forums, good luck. There are many Linux users who are patient with newer users, and generous with their time and knowledge. Unfortunately, they’re outnumbered five to one by indignant, self-righteous jerks who’d rather belittle you for not being a Linux guru.

Do you know what works? Buying a mainstream operating system that works with all of the mainstream hardware, and connects with all of the mainstream services, and uses all of the mainstream software.

I realize that is a bit circular—Linux can’t be a mainstream desktop operating system because its not a mainstream desktop operating system. But, that is the harsh reality.

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