Home | About Me | Photos | Writing | Research | Scratchpad | Projects

Is The GNU/Linux Desktop Dead? (and does it matter?)

For years now, the prospect of GNU/Linux and other Free Operating Systems making it in the desktop market has been a topic of much speculation. Some see it as the biggest test of the "bazaar" method best explained by Eric Raymond in his revolutionary book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Others see it as a nuisance getting in the way of the real applications for GNU/Linux and BSD, in the server and ambedded devices markets. Others don't seem to care, being quite content with using the OS themselves and enjoying the benefits.

In a recent poll on Slashdot, 24% of the voters thought it was dead, whilst 54% thought it was at least "decent", and maybe even "awesome and will dominate". Of course these statistics, as the site says, are wildly inaccurate, and there are more people using proprietary operating systems browsing Slashdot than Free ones. But the fact that the poll was held shows the communities uneasiness about the perceived dams holding back the river, and the comments reflect the fatalism and indifference spreading amongst the more technical crowd.

The big "problem" stems, funnily enough, from Microsoft Windows. It has always tried to offer the use power and flexibility, but what most users want, be they secretaries who spend most of their time in a word processor, e-mail client and scheduler, or home users browsing the web and running games, or programmers doing pretty much everything the OS has to offer, is a computer that addresses their needs, and no others. Both proprietary and Free OSs have been tailored to the needs of everybody, giving far more power than the average user would ever need.

This is where Free Software is both better and worse off, because it can be better customised for a need, but it is all too often shipped with a bewildering array of options, and very bad choices for defaults, putting the user through a lot of unwanted stress. Where the user will have an expert on hand to set the machine up, and then maintain it when something goes wrong or the user wants something new, a GNU/Linux desktop could excel. Suddenly its stability and flexibility would matter, and the difficulties in using GNU/Linux (initial installation, customisation, installation of more hardware and software, and fixing of problems) would disappear.

With KDE and GNOME now both providing mature desktop environments, most of their remaining flaws being addressed, and the option of a customised lightweight environment using something like fluxbox for those with slower machines, the desktop itself is almost there. Killer applications are also coming through too, with Mozilla and OpenOffice both reaching their crucial 1.0 landmarks, and the KDE suite becoming mature enough to replace them entirely (I feel people often overlook the quality of Konqueror, KOffice, KMail and the other apps). For those capable of setting up and maintaining a machine, it's all coming together nicely. For those who can have it set-up and tuned for them, it's becoming viable. For those who want to set it up themselves, it can still be a nightmare.

One simple option would be to introduce more tools like the KDE theme wizard. This helpful little application shows up the first time you boot into KDE, and allows you, in a few easy steps, to customise the theme (look and feel) of your KDE desktop without having to play around with the KDE Control Center. This could feasibly be extended to customise what applications you use most (placing shortcuts on the desktop, etc.), and perhaps a quick personal information form, which could then be used through the KDE application suite.

But consider other consumables we buy. When you buy a car, they don't just give you all the options at extra expense, and expect you to connect all the wiring, tune the engine, find and fit the correct tyres, and then learn to drive through experimentation. You expect to have a car set-up for your needs, you browse through a range of models, and then once chosen you pick the specific features you want, and voila, your (hopefully) perfect car is there waiting for you. You also then take driving lessons before you use your first car, and then slowly get used to the particular ways of your car once you've bought it.

I predict that computers will slowly become similar to this case. As governments and companies move away from solutions that lock them into a certain company's closed products and formats, which is increasingly happening in every continent except North America, consumers will incresingly come in contact with alternatives to Microsoft Windows. With MacOSX, a lot of users will get the opportunity to use a very powerful UNIX machine, with a beautiful and simple user interface (UI). As the OS market thus matures, there will be more scope for companies to customise machines to consumers needs, and even providing more custom hardware.

The only thing standing in the way of this dream at the moment is the law, and legislation currently being drafted.

So to ensure a bright future for the desktop of GNU/Linux and other Free operating systems, what we really need to worry about are political matters. There are technical problems, but so long as users keep providing feedback, and developers keep acting on this feedback, there aren't many major problems that won't go away within a few years. What really needs to happen is for the Free Software community, and those who use its software but don't seem to take the point of Free Software too seriously (read any Slashdot post on the subject of freedom, responsibility and politics), to all get involved in local and global political movements. Even just joining a mailing list is a major step forward.

Now the question that this all begs is: does it matter if GNU/Linux makes it in the desktop market? Well, one argument says that so long as consumers are provided with the choice of Free or proprietary, then the movement has suceeded in its goals. Promoting freedom isn't about forcing people to enjoy the freedom you offer, its about giving them the choice. So in a sense, no it doesn't matter if it doesn't dominate, or even get a large market share, though all those companies that have invested a lot of money in GNU/Linux "making it" would beg to differ!

But on the other hand, if my analysis of things is correct (there's a big assumption!) and if GNU/Linux doesn't ever make it onto the desktop market in any noticeable way, then it will show us that legislation has become anything but benign, and that the community failed to respond to problems with its software, and to the threats from governments and big companies. Now the future of GNU/Linux is not just in the hands of the programmers, but also in the hands of its users, and everybody who has an interest in keeping some essential freedoms.

This article is copyrighted by Tom Chance, 2002, under the GNU Free Documentation License. As such, the article may be reproduced free of charge so long as this notice is preserved and the author, Tom Chance, is notified.