Home > GNU/Linux, linux, Linux, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols > Linux desktop: Not pining for the fjords

Linux desktop: Not pining for the fjords

September 20, 2011

When radio became a popular form of entertainment, the prevailing wisdom of the time provided that live theater was dead. Of course, this so-called “wisdom” was just a little off, since live theater “survived” the onslaught of radio entertainment and still lives to this day.

When television became ubiquitous in households across the land, the death knell for movie theaters and radio was sounded by the day’s pundits. There would be no reason to go to the movie theater any longer. Of course, they were wrong again, since movie theaters and radio still exist and are an integral part of the social landscape.

Even the death sentence for newspapers at the hands of the Internet — not the fault so much of the Internet as it is of bean-counting pinheads in publishers’ offices around the world — is still widely premature, though admittedly it doesn’t look good for the printed word.

Now there’s the future — or lack thereof — of Linux desktop, where tech writers are tripping over each other recently to announce its untimely demise.

I’ll just let time prove them wrong.

The problem is, to paraphrase the oft-quoted (and misquoted) Mark Twain on this particular topic, the report of its death is an exaggeration (the popular misquote, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” admittedly sounds better than what Twain wrote to the New York Journal is 1897: ” . . . the report of my death was an exaggeration.”).

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols points out in a recent article that the resounding butt-kicking that Android and Chrome are laying on the digital world these days doesn’t bode well for the Linux desktop. Vaughan-Nichols links to a blog post by Jason Perlow that says that, essentially, we are entering the post-PC era in which, while the x86 may be dead, personal computing across different-sized hardware will continue.

I can see this and generally have no qualms with that, however I think this sales pitch for a brave new world of tablets and smartphones goes overboard. Arguably, what Perlow describes doesn’t sound like post-PC, but rather PC-plus-(fill in your additional hardware here).

Linux’s success in the non-desktop realm is hardly an accident and I am neither belittling it nor taking this for granted. On the contrary: Linux’s superiority in servers, supercomputers and mobile provide resounding proof that it is a successful operating system, to the point where “the year of the desktop” has now become laughable since it is no longer the standard by which Linux’s success should be gauged (if that was ever the case in the first place).

Yet, to those risking injury jumping on the Linux-desktop-is-dead bandwagon, my question is this: Does Linux’s skyrocketing use and popularity in the mobile and tablet realms necessarily mean the “death” of something else in Linux, like — oh, I don’t know — the desktop, as some sort of technological quid pro quo?

I’d say “no,” and I’m willing to bet history has my back.

This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software Guy and Larry Cafiero, are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND license. In short, this license allows others to download this work and share it with others as long as they credit me as the author, but others can’t change it in any way or use it commercially.

[FSF Associate Member] (Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software in his new home office. Watch this space.)

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  1. Contrarian
    September 21, 2011 at 5:38 am

    Success of Android on phones and tablets says nothing about any demise of Linux on the desktop. The two are not at all connected and the consumers do no make any sort of connection either. Fundamentally they decide to buy an iPhone or a substitute or decide to buy an iPad or not.

    For some people, it may very well be the case that buying new phone or iPad causes them to postpone or abandon the notion of buying a new laptop, but it is true that PC sales are actually increasing, if only slightly, and are projected to maintain some positive growth. Of course phone and tablet purchases are booming, but do they really have anything to do with one another?

  2. paul
    September 21, 2011 at 6:48 am

    I completely agree. I understood the “post-PC” prediction in the same way. It’s going to be more like PC+_____. (I better TM that right away, eh?)

    You make an excellent argument by using historical refs. It’s hard not to be skeptical in light of all that.

  3. Bob McKeand
    September 21, 2011 at 7:01 am

    There are still coopers out there. The people who build barrels.
    Buggy whips are still made because there are still buggy drivers,
    that is not a Linux joke. Man has flown and the world still turns.
    Typewriters, Larry probably has several and I know others who use
    them. We get new things and we keep old things, some jump to the
    new and some continue on with the old and some just co-mingle as

    Live theater, radio, TV continue, news papers are available in many
    formats now, less news but more ways to enjoy it.

    Linux desktop? I have heard of some other operating systems, that may
    be urban legend but if they exist they have desktops. Tablet? Dude, that
    tablet has a desktop. What comes up on your screen when you turn that
    tablet on is called a desktop. You use a smart phone? You have a desktop.
    What ever OS you are running it is a desktop. Now it may have a new name,
    but even if they call it Fred it is still a desktop. If you run Linux on your
    wheelbarrow it will have a desktop.

    Linux and desktops are doing fine in whatever guise they are being used.
    What we can predict, almost for a certainty, is the death of tech reporting.
    After awhile the techies are just going to stop reading the BS that is spewed
    by people who should not be allowed to write.

    There are some tech writers, Nate Willis and Carla Schroder are among the
    best, who do not speak with a forked tongue or with the upper most part of
    their body inserted in their nether regions. You shall be know by who you

    Peace, Bob

    • September 21, 2011 at 7:30 am

      Nate and Carla are great — I know them well, and I have met Nate on a few occasions (good guy). I’ve met Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, too, and I think he’s a good journalist and he gets the facts right. But whenever you wander into the realm of commentary, opinions are not so objective. While Steven makes an interesting case, I don’t agree with him.

  4. dave
    September 21, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Linux is a great OS, but it didn’t make it as a desktop OS for a few simple reasons. They are (in no particular order):
    * KDE? Gnome? Other? Too many choices for the consumer.
    * Distributions by the 100’s. Choice is a fine thing – until it is not. Too many distributions mean that each on suffers from lack of developer attention to a select few.
    * Software applications – 3ard rate usability, 4th rate documentation. And getting the latest stable release, well, you often have to upgrade the entire OS. Not good. Personally, I would gladly pay for Linux software (like I do Windows) if it is 1st rate, good documentation, and well supported.

    (Ubuntu 10.04 LTS)

    • September 21, 2011 at 1:05 pm

      I’ll concede that some applications and most documentation are unworthy, and I believe that would be reason enough for the desktop’s lack of acceptance right there — especially documentation. I don’t agree with the choice argument because we don’t all drive Fords and we don’t all live in houses that look the same. Choice is good, as I’ve mentioned in other blog items before, and more choice is a.) better and b.) has a Darwinian aspect to it (i.e., the better distros/desktops will rise and the worse ones will fall and perhaps atrophy to oblivion). I have no problem with 320-something distros and I don’t see that as a failing.

    • Gmasterboots
      September 21, 2011 at 2:12 pm

      Yeah, I really hate being able to experience a new distribution, finding a new window manager or discovering the perfect application for video playback. Having hundreds of options and letting me choose which one I want to use just makes me give up in despair, you know?

      I can’t really see Linux disappearing anytime soon. There are way too many people using standard desktop Linux (1% of 1 billion or so computer users?) and way too much money invested in its continuity.

  5. paul
    September 21, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    @Dave: re Ubuntu, how’s it working for you? I’ve been using Aptosid for almost three years. So far I’ve re-installed once; maybe twice. Can’t remember for sure. Typically I just update every couple of weeks or so.

    @Dave, Larry, et al: I’ve found Linux to be everything I’ve needed as a web designer/dev. I only run Windows as a VM in VirtualBox. I use it like a utility to verify that my pages will look okay on an MS product. I use my Mac mini for more stuff than I do Windows; which isn’t very much at all. Other than checking web pages again, I may use the Mac once a month… maybe. I still use Acrobat Pro. I need to find a nice FOSS replacement for it. It doesn’t have to be free either.

  6. Robert
    September 21, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    There seems to be confusion by many as to what is meant by a “desktop” computer, or maybe I’m confused. When I hear the term “desktop” in relation to personal computers, I think of a computer work station. A table, or desk, of some sort, with a large monitor, a good, full-sized keyboard and plenty of space for other input devices. A place where real work gets done. Whether it is work with graphics files, software programming, using CAD/CAM, or monitoring a large network, factory, or power grid. Assuming civilized society doesn’t completely implode due to political insanity, there will still be work stations, or “desktops” hundreds years from now, simply because there will still need to be places to do that sort of work. Mobile devices are great for many applications, and will continue to displace many functions previously conducted on “desktop” computers, but most people who have real work to do are not going to want to spend 8 hours working on some hand held device. Just ain’t gonna happen.

    And, there will still be people who will prefer to use Linux (or other UNIX-type variants) to do whatever work they are doing on their “desktop”. So, it is logical to assume that there will still be “Linux desktops” around (or the functional equivalent) long after everyone currently alive is long dead. Or, political insanity will prevail and civilization will collapse and the survivors will be shaping their spear points on their “rocktops”.

    • September 21, 2011 at 5:06 pm

      Robert — This is a good point because in watching the Linux-desktop-is-dead pileup grow, I tried to figure out if they mean the hardware or the screen. Like you, I also take it to mean the actual, physical hardware that sits either on or below your desk, as opposed to the what you see on your screen (and I would even include “laptops” — real laptops, and not netbooks — as a subset of the “Linux desktop,” providing you can get work done on that particular machine).

  7. September 29, 2011 at 4:42 am

    This is an utterly bizarre conversation.

    GNU/Linux is not Android which is not Chrome. Linux is not an operating system but a kernel (very crudely put, a device driver and hardware resource sharer). These are different operating systems with varying degrees of freedom.

    The Free Software Movement (as in freedom of speech) is not about to give up on the free desktop or operating systems. Debian is not about to give up on the free desktop or operating systems. Talking about these as if they are commodity software is ridiculous. You fall into the hole that Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols falls into by not really understanding how the free software world works.

    GNU/Linux was never the point, the free desktop (and operating system) has always been the point. Prattle as you like, that movement is nowhere near dead.

    • September 29, 2011 at 8:42 am

      So let me see if I get this: I write that the Linux desktop is not dead, you seem to agree with me, but I don’t really understand how the free software world works? Thanks for setting me straight. Incidentally, as I’ve written before in the past on more than one occasion, I use “Linux” as shorthand for “GNU/Linux,” in the same way almost everyone on the planet uses “Chevy” as shorthand for “Chevrolet.”

      • September 29, 2011 at 9:41 am

        “This is an utterly bizarre conversation.”

        That’s one operative sentence.

        “Talking about these as if they are commodity software is ridiculous”

        That’s another. Maybe I should have use a comma to make the link with the next sentence clear.

        I haven’t read enough of your posts to know exactly what you think about free software etc.

        However, personally I take more care over the use of the word “Linux” to describe the whole operating system.

        People are open to great misunderstandings. The next Amazon kindle is going to run on “Linux” they say, with all that DRM and proprietary interface and it’s proprietary operating system. People get “Linux” on their smartphone and are confused by what they are getting and the reality that it is neither free or even open source software.

        I have been reading on another blog someone complaining about Gnome 3, and the fact that Linus Torvalds doesn’t like it. When the creator of the operating system doesn’t like the user interface they say …

        … well, it brings to mind the observation that Richard Stallman has made. That is, if you talk about “Linux” and forget the GNU operating system, people forget about GNU and free software. Gaining control over our devices with free software is not really technical mission, it’s also a social and political one.

        btw. this is not a “Stallman said that so it’s true!” point. It’s simply that I remember him making this point which I think has a lot of truth in it.

  1. September 21, 2011 at 9:38 pm
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