Linux desktop neglect

April 07, 2009 6:58 PM EDT
Why isn't Linux on more desktops? Here are the usual reasons: 1) Microsoft has hardware vendors locked-in; 2) Monstrous Windows installed base; and 3) Operating system and application FUD. Here's the reason we don't talk about much: the Linux distributors don't encourage the Linux desktop.

Oh, there are lots of Linux desktops. You can read my reviews, such as my comparison of Fedora 10; openSUSE 11.1; and Ubuntu 8.10 or my look at Debian 5's five best features. And, I just touch the surface of Linux distributions. There are hundreds of Linux distributions listed in DistroWatch, and most of them are desktops.

So, what's the problem? How many of those desktops are actually supported and advertised by their vendors or groups? I count two. They are Novell with its SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) 11 and Canonical's Ubuntu on Dell computers like the Dell Mini 9.

What about all those other Linuxes? They're all community-based Linuxes. They're supported by fans for fans, and not for a general audience. Some of them, like the ones I mentioned above and Mint and MEPIS already work well for many people in place of Windows. But, without serious advertising and corporate support, they're destined to stay niche operating systems.

Until recently, the netbook vendors were 'sort of' advertising Linux. They often wouldn't mention the 'L' word, but it was Linux that powered most of the netbooks. Now, that the name 'netbook' is being mis-used for what's really low-end notebooks as Jay Lyman, an analyst with The 451 Group points out, Linux is only mentioned as an also-run in the netbook sweepstakes.

Microsoft, by bringing XP back from the dead and essentially giving it away to system vendors so they wouldn't install Linux instead, is a big part of this problem. But, Microsoft, which really has no love for selling cut-rate Windows XP, has only part of the blame.

Except for Novell, which is targeting the business desktop and laptop market, none of the other major Linux players are trying to get desktop customers or partners. Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu's creator, the most popular Linux desktop distribution, has said "I don't think anyone can make money from the Linux desktop."

Of course, Canonical is more than happy to support Dell and other hardware vendors that want to provide Ubuntu to their customers. But, Shuttleworth is much more changing the world with a free desktop operating system than fighting for desktop market share. Canonical's business focus is really on the server, just like the other Linux distributors.

Red Hat, for example, is planning on doing more with the desktop with its summer release of RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) 5.4. But, their plans don't include a revitalized stand-alone desktop. Instead, they're focusing on virtualized desktops running off a server.

It's not just the company and people at the top though. I've been disheartened recently to see how little attention even developers are spending on the desktop. For example, at the Linux Foundation Summit that starts tomorrow in San Francisco, the Desktop Architects aren't doing much at all.

In years gone-by, the Linux Desktop Architects made giant steps forward in unifying the Linux desktop so that OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and ISVs (independent software vendors) could build for Linux without worrying about which specific Linux or desktop GUI (graphical user interface) would be used. This year I'll be shocked if there's any important Linux desktop news that comes from the designers.

Besides, as Don Hardaway, an associate professor at St. Louis University and Linux developer, wrote the other day on the Linux Desktop Architects mailing list, "There is no leadership that I can see with moving the Desktop forward. So much energy gets focused on the technical issues but from what I am seeing simple business issues are being ignored (e.g., OEMs not offering choice in a visible way on their web sites, getting support information etc.)."

He's right. The Linux desktop is drifting. Novell, which, thanks to its Microsoft connection, is seen by many as the black sheep of the Linux flock, can't do it on its own. If the Linux desktop is ever to become more than a niche operating system, now, more than ever, it needs a major power behind it.

Are you listening Google? It's me, Tux.