This story was originally published on June 17, 2011, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.
In 2007, Linux was heralded as the desktop of the future. However, the history of Linux on the desktop has been a story of strong support from a relatively small group of diehards but little real impact on the market as a whole. And by last year, there was even talk that the dream of the Linux desktop had been shattered.
What happened, and where is Linux going? LinuxInsider sat down with Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin for an exclusive interview to get to the bottom of things.
LinuxInsider: Why is Linux not doing so well on front-end desktops and on laptops? Lack of content? Fragmentation of the Linux platform? The poor quality of drivers?
Or could it be the lack of a hub of some sort to coordinate Linux content development — perhaps a large company such as Microsoft or Apple, or an organization such as the Linux Foundation?
Let’s look at what we think of as the traditional desktop PC. Clearly Windows has a momentum that’s powerful, and platform confusion tends to happen in slow-moving albeit very powerful waves, but tsunamis are rare, although they do occur. So that momentum that Microsoft has had for years on the desktop continues to benefit them.
Having said that, what’s not benefiting Microsoft … is that desktop computing is starting to become less relevant, and the definition of such is changing more towards what’s probably better characterized or called “client computing.”
The thing people used to care about, and the reason they chose Windows, was because there was a huge number of applications available for the platform, so they had the inertia of having lots of installed users and that led to lots of applications users could use.
What users care about now from the applications perspective is the Internet. Their data, applications and services are meant to be utilized online, and that’s changed the nature of what we think of as desktop computing.
I suspect there’s an entire generation that will accept their smartphone, car, tablet, maybe a traditional PC that looks at all of these devices collective as client computing because all of those modalities get them to what they truly care about, which is the data they have online, the information they may want to share with others, the music they want to stream.
That was most recently validated by Apple’s iCloud product and companies like Google, which has a search product and online mail and other services.
We’ve moved towards a services industry where the client that’s used to access services can be any one of a number of things.
Linux has become used in automobiles, smart connections, and has become the underpinning of a new form of computing. But clearly in the desktop space, Microsoft has hung on to its inertia, albeit that has been significantly encroached upon by Apple. In some sectors of technology, and in business computing where thin clients or specific desktops are needed, Linux has made its mark.
LIN: But the consumer is the key, and in that respect, Microsoft has the ground troops.
Microsoft has made its money in two products, Windows and Microsoft Office. In terms of future operating systems, people aren’t betting on Windows. In fact, Microsoft stock hasn’t moved in over a decade, whereas competitors to Microsoft are moving up. I won’t dispute that Microsoft will continue making a massive amount of money off Windows and Office, but will it grow? The global community obviously doesn’t think so.
LIN: You can say that Microsoft has X share of the market and Apple has Y share, but when you say Linux has Z share of the market, you can’t point to any one company because there are so many. Linux is the underpinning of many desktop operating systems, and then there’s Android, but the market is very fragmented.
That, I think, is an argument that perhaps Microsoft would have made a decade ago to criticize Linux in their traditional desktop market, but the reality is that today, computing is leaning towards a services model. We see that [fragmentation of the Linux market] as a strength — that Linux has multiple contenders.
The first thing you should know about Linux is that, at the kernel level, the component that manages the interfaces on the upper level software and the hardware in the operating system is not fragmented.
All operating systems based in Linux pull their primary code from the project hosted at the kernel.org website. This is where Linus Torvalds maintains and develops collectively the Linux kernel.
What you call fragmentation is that core kernel, which is a multibillion-dollar investment, and what people are doing is taking that and building products in the marketplace based on it, whether it’s Google Search, Android, Samsung TV, Facebook ,a music service or the New York Stock Exchange.
You could characterize all these things as fragmentation, but I’d characterize that as an efficient market — in other words, the market is solving the problems today.
What’s important is that Linux as an underpinning can help all these different computing efforts get to market faster and cheaper and, most importantly, allow firms creating these products and services to own their own destiny because no one else controls that destiny.
Also, the price of building a phone is significantly dependent on software development, which is very expensive; and the timeline is short, so Linux is a great way to save money and to make money, because if you own your own platform, you can create your own services and charge for those services and not be dependent on a third party.
LIN: Are there any attempts to move Linux forward?
I’d like to consider a more subtle argument than “Linux is fragmented, Microsoft is not.” The reality is that most applications people care about are accessed today through Web browsers and/or are native apps that access service on the Internet, whether that’s streaming music or any other variety of service, so that makes the operating system less important.
As the operating system becomes less important, being the free alternative, in other words, the place where people can collectively develop to reduce cost and bring innovation to the market, is a much better place to be because people will launch their services on top of Linux, as it’s the quickest and most effective means to bring products to market.