The Neverending ‘Year of Linux on the Desktop’ Debate

Now that Memorial Day has come and gone, summer is unofficially here. What better way to celebrate than with another rousing “Year of Linux on the desktop” debate?!

Sure enough — it may be an oldie, but it’s clearly a goodie, and in recent days, bloggers far and wide have been ready and willing to entertain the question again.

In fact, two such topics have dominated the Linux blogs lately, and they’re inherently related. First came the well-worn question of whether Linux needs marketing, a topic that was kicked off when Danijel Orsolic noted that “Linux is not an OS.”

“Good luck with that,” quipped tuxchick on LXer, leading to more than 100 lively comments.

‘Marketing Fail’

Orsolic went on to argue that because Linux is not an OS, attempting to sell it as such causes “Marketing Fail.” That conversation, in turn, intensified when H. Kwint asserted that “Linux doesn’t need marketing,” spawning a fresh round of debate.

A few days later, that good ol’ “year of” debate surfaced apparently independently –almost like the Swine Flu, one might say — in multiple spots throughout the blogosphere, where many — and we mean *many* — bloggers succumbed to the urge to have their say on the matter yet another time.

Carla Schroder of Linux Today began by asking, “When will it really be the year of Linux?” Almost 40 comments followed on that site before it was picked up on LXer as well.

‘It Will Never Be the Year’

Meanwhile, Thomas King asserted on LXer that “It will never be the year of the Linux desktop,” sparking another joint round of spirited comments there.

Around the same time, however, Slashdot bloggers were pondering a published list of reasons “Why Linux is not (yet) ready for the desktop” — to the tune of more than 1,300 comments there.

Some questions just can’t be debated too much, especially if you’re a Linux geek! We here at LinuxInsider felt we had no choice but to take to the proverbial streets for more.

‘There Is a Disincentive’

“Of course GNU/Linux needs marketing as in advertising, publishing, spreading the good news,” blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider by email. “It does not necessarily need someone planning to make money from GNU/Linux to do that, but advertising is expensive so the two are usually connected.”

An ad “showing off some good features and advantages of GNU/Linux could indeed bring in customers, but the retailers/OEMs already get loot from M$ for pushing their stuff, so there is a disincentive for established merchants to push GNU/Linux,” Pogson noted. “It will have to be someone big enough to stand up to M$ — like IBM or Google –or it will have to be a smallish outfit with nothing much to lose in the way of business connected with M$.”

Only in the netbook realm has GNU/Linux been able to compete with Microsoft on price and quality, “and that is because there is not a big enough price to hide all the slush the suppliers and M$ have been dividing up all these years,” Pogson added. “Now consumers will be aware of the M$ tax. Before long, M$ will have to cut prices everywhere and they will no longer have the slush to bribe the market.”

‘It Does Need More Visibility’

On the other hand: “I don’t think Linux needs to be ‘marketed’ in the traditional sense of marketing,” tjonnyc999, an Internet marketing consultant and Slashdot blogger, told LinuxInsider via email. “It does need more visibility and to be ‘de-stigmatized,’ or cleared from the overtones of being the ‘weird’ system of choice for ‘geeks and hackers’ — not brought into the mainstream, but accepted as an equal.”

Then, once Linux’s virtues are exposed to a particular individual, “they do the marketing for themselves,” he explained.

Indeed, the “marketing Linux” posts “tend to miss the fact that there is actually a great deal of Linux marketing going on, either on the distro or service providerlevel,” Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, told LinuxInsider in another email message. “I don’t think that ‘Linux’ can be marketed in a central manner because the Linux community is not organized to do this, but there is a lot of decentralized marketing going on.”

More Harm Than Good?

Whether the net effect of that decentralization is good, however, may not be so clear.

“Linux has always been ‘viral,’ and while that’s probably great, hasn’t it hurt Linux more than it helped it so far?” wondered Slashdot blogger Badpazzword in an email to LinuxInsider. “A lot of the FUD I read so far about Linux are install nightmares from 2000ish; those stories are viral too.”

Either way, the statement that Linux ‘needs more or better marketing’ “implies that Linux is competing with Windows and MacOS for desktop dominance,” tjonnyc999 added. “This is both untrue and unfair. Linux is both ‘free as in beer’ and ‘free as in liberty,’ so it’s not competing with the mainstream OSs on either the price point or its core philosophy and intended purpose.”

We also “don’t know what distros will be around tomorrow, so it will help to keep everything as one family should a new distro manage to be better than the current lot,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack added. “Most marketing involves simplifying the message and not making it more complex.”

‘Not Ready for Prime Time’

But when will it be The Year??

“At the present time, it’s a bit silly to talk about the ‘Year of Linux on the desktop,’ because it’s not ready for prime time yet,” tjonnyc999 said. “Linux is ideal for power users, but until the majority of hardware vendors can be relied on to release stable Linux drivers, until the software publishers expand the selection of business-oriented software, and until the differences between the multiple distributions are resolved, it’s not going to be the first choice of the vast majority of casual users.”

That said, “Linux does not need to be ‘in prime time’,” he added. “Surely, it’s nice to think about the end of the Evil MicroApplesoft Empire and imagine the day when everyone will throw off the chains and dance happily under the bright sunshine of the One True Distro, complete with 100 percent hardware drivers and slick GUI… but the reality is that the vast bulk of users out there are not ready, not willing, and do not have the time to RTFM and configure kernel options from the command line.”

Trying to force the current realities of Linux onto “this un-ready user base is a recipe for trouble,” he warned. “Let the power users and developers continue to support and improve the system. Let the evangelists spread the word, and let early-adopter business users lead by example. Those who have the mental capacity, the need and the time to understand what Linux has to offer will convert.”

‘I Would Love to See a Giant Billboard’

Of course, once converted, “there is no going back to the expensive, unreliable, closed-in reality of the MicroAppleSoft Matrix,” tjonnyc999 added. “It will take time, but eventually Linux will crush the Windows/Apple duopoly just as surely as a glacier will move a mountain.”

One thing that would help hasten the process, in fact, would be for major industry players to start integrating Linux into their marketing, he pointed out.

“I would love to see a giant billboard in Times Square, advertising the latest (US)$600 cell phone, with a little slogan in the corner along the lines of, ‘Imagined by Samsung // Powered by Linux’. This would go a long way toward de-stigmatizing Linux in the eyes of the mainstream users.”

Indeed, “the melting point for Linux-based operating systems will happen once Wal-Mart and Best Buy start carrying PCs loaded with Ubuntu or Mandriva or Fedora, and not just low-cost subnotebooks or a token offering that they don’t promote,” Damian Yerrick, a Slashdot blogger based in Fort Wayne, Ind., told LinuxInsider. “Ubuntu on Dell N series PCs is a start, but it isn’t promoted either, and a lot of people are still afraid of mail order.”

‘I Think We Will See Slow Growth’

Whether there even is such a thing as ‘desktop Linux’ is far from clear, Travers noted: “There are many different desktop roles, and Linux is better at some of these than others.”

Overall, the problem with the idea that there will be a ‘year of Linux on the desktop’ is that “it supposes that suddenly Linux will break through and suddenly become a major player — I don’t think this is likely,” he opined. “Instead, agreeing with the LXer post, I think we will see slow growth into some areas of desktop use, and then gradual expansion. This will happen slowly over the course of years or decades.”

At the same time, there may be a time when we will see a “year of”in a more limited sense, Travers added. “I think that we will eventually see a consortium of computer hardware vendors come together to build a desktop Linux distro for their customers’ use. At that point we can consider Linux to have ‘broken through’ the main barriers, but that time is fairly far off for a number of reasons.”

‘Linux Is a Support Nightmare’

Others saw it differently.

“The reason it will never be ‘the year of the Linux desktop’ is actually quite simple: follow the money,” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet told LinuxInsider via email. “As my dad always says, you can learn a lot about someone’s true motives by following the money. And the simple fact is, all the money being spent on Linux is being spent on server and not desktop support.”

Specifically, “Red Hat and Novell and Oracle and all the other major corps that actually spend money to develop Linux drivers don’t care about the desktop; all they care about is the server,” he explained. “So the vast majority of hardware Joe and Jane consumer are going to find in retail stores doesn’t work. This is why Linux is a support nightmare for retailers.”

In order for there to be a “year of the Linux desktop,” Linux aficionados need to do several things, hairyfeet asserted:

  • “Demand a stable ABI that makes writing drivers for Linux easier than writing drivers for Windows.”
  • “Reach out to the hardware manufacturers and offer free labor and expertise.”
  • “Make a serious effort to make damned sure that EVERYTHING in Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Staples ‘just works’.”
  • “Make a serious effort to reach out to all the small Mom & Pop shops like mine to help build a nationwide Linux repair and support network like what Windows and Apple currently enjoy.”

Failing that? “I’m afraid Linux will remain a niche for programmers and others with IT experience,” he concluded.

‘This Is the Year’

Finally, an upbeat view: “Those who claim it will never be the ‘Year of GNU/Linux’ should wake up and smell the roses,” Pogson asserted. “There is fresh air out there.”

This is the year, in fact, “because everything is going right for GNU/Linux,” he added. “Netbooks are on fire all over the world at prices from $100 to $500, and children/women/geeks/youth love them because they are small, cute, cheap and they work.

“Business has rejected Vista, and is seriously examining GNU/Linux,” he continued, and “thin clients continue to grow and live long.”

In short, “this is the year when GNU/Linux cannot be ignored, laughed at or fought — we are winning,” Pogson concluded. “Even M$ is advertising for GNU/Linux by raising their prices and recommending against migrating to Vista. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

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