The 2016 Case for the Linux Desktop

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[I wrote this a year ago and sat on it. Finally decided to publish, updating the year. I believe it is accurate.]

Around 2001/2002, I wrote an article called "Our Open Source Future: It's Just a Matter of Time".  It painted a very optimistic future of free/libre/open source software taking over the world.

Well, in a way, it has. Linux has been a wild success in so many places. It runs most of the world's fastest supercomputers, about half of smartphones and tablets (via Android), a horde of gadgets such as smart TVs, various mission critical stock trading and finance systems, telecommunications systems, and serves most of the world's web sites. It even runs much of the International Space Station!

There is really only one category where Linux hasn't been a wild success: the end-user desktop. And that is a crying shame. It absolutely should be the standard desktop that everyone uses, as I predicted that it would be.

This article is somewhat of a response to this TechRepublic piece pleading for us to stop talking about the Linux desktop. I couldn't disagree more. Most of the advantages I cited in 2001 are still applicable (though I did miss the mark a couple times). The author of this article used to use a Linux desktop and now does not. I've never stopped using it at home. At work, when I had the choice, for some reason I caved to the temptation to get a Mac laptop. Frankly, I regret it and can't wait until it's up for replacement so I can go back to Linux there.

Perhaps the saddest sight to see is at open source related tech conferences. If anyone should be using a Linux desktop, it's those folks, but more often then not what you see is a sea of lighted fruit logos on the backs of laptops.

Why hasn't it happened?

That's a great question, and I'm sure there are a myriad of reasons.

The biggest reason has got to simply be momentum combined with the marketing juggernaut of both Microsoft and Apple. My 2001 article suggested that Linux would save PC makers money; unfortunately that turns out not to be true as so many incentives are given to these companies to include Windows and pre-installed bloatware.

People have not been clamoring for PC makers to include Linux. It is difficult to change what billions of people ask for - even if your proposed alternative would be better for nearly all of them. This is true of far more than the computer industry. Just look at US politics, where people continually vote in the same corrupt politicians and parties who are systematically running the country into the ground.

Lack of software (perceived or real). I am convinced that most people could do everything they need to do, today, using Linux. Yes, there are some exceptions. Creative people do, by and large, seem to genuinely need Adobe products, which require Windows or OS X. The likes of Quicken and QuickBooks are staples for small businesses. Most of the functionality of these tools can be done using free software on Linux, but it will not be nearly as polished as the commercial software. If it takes a lot longer, and time is money, well that is a genuine problem. But what about people who use office software, web apps, scientific tools, or do software development? They should be just fine using Linux today.

Really, why bother?

This site is about economic optimization, and one of my proposed Pillars of Economic Optimization is to use Open Source Software. I stand by that.

Open Source Software promotes sharing, learning, collaboration, freedom, and individual empowerment. When you use commercial software, you must agree to a long stream of legal jargon that you probably won't even read. You forfeit all rights to study, learn from, modify, and share the code. Innovation is bottled up at the software company. If you need it taylored for your needs, that is not possible. If you have a great idea for an improvement, but the vendor won't listen, sucks to be you. Even worse if the vendor goes out of business or stops supporting the product! All of this forces you to be less optimal than you could be. Although you yourself might not want to touch open source code, you very much benefit from the collaboration of others around the world who do want to do that.

The license management surrounding commercial software is a real headache! That is time spent that you can't put to use for more productive things.

Linux is far more flexible than a closed source operating system could ever hope to be. You can replace nearly any part of the system with a part that better does what you need, and architect the perfect overall solution.

What can we do?

I think the answer I gave in 2001 is still accurate. You should decide that, as much as possible, you will use a Linux desktop. That means, if you're at all on the fence, take the plunge and start using Linux for your day to day activities. All of them, unless there is a really good reason why that simply isn't possible. Tell your friends and help them do the same.

Encourage software vendors to support Linux. Although I like open source software and would prefer it everywhere, I am not inherently opposed to commercial software. (My main argument is that we get the most benefit if the operating system that everyone uses is open source, giving a level playing field to all.) If Adobe and Intuit would embrace it whole-heartedly, we could see a sea change. But they have to do it right. My 2001 article mentioned Borland Kylix. Unfortunately, they royally screwed that up, relesing it with quite a few flaws. Then when it didn't sell extremely well, they quit supporting it.

Promote a culture of freedom. This includes things like opposing Digital Rights Management (DRM), overly broad patents, and an overbearing surveillance state. We need for people to understand that their rights in the digital age matter, but they are being systematically taken away. When folks understand that, they are more open to using open source software.

Perhaps a group of talented marketers could put together a campaign to promote the Linux desktop along with the culture of freedom. Marketing is much more than advertising, of course, and should include encouraging software company support, the creation of more open source desktop software, help PC companies pre-load Linux, etc.

Just a few things to think about.

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Canes Chiefs 2 weeks ago

its right way for Tell your friends and help them do the same.

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Chiefs Super Rugby Aotearoa live 2 weeks ago

its awesome topices

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Brumbies vs Rebels live stream 1 week, 5 days ago

Rugby Australia has revealed the full fixture for the new Super Rugby AU competition, starting on July 3.

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