[plug] Why is it never the year of the Linux desktop?

Gregory Orange home at oranges.id.au
Fri Feb 10 09:07:06 WST 2012

This post came from the link below but appears gone (but still in my
Google Reader, go figure). It's also a comment posted at the second

I'm pasting it because despite it being an utterly cliche topic, I
think this guy is fairly level headed. He even says something I have
thought for a long time: "the current state of affairs is not an
objective failure", which firmly puts him in the moderate camp as far
as I'm concerned. I like reading what moderates have to say.


I think the point about the failure thus far of free software to cross
the chasm into mass adoption, despite its obvious benefits, is a very
interesting topic to discuss. It has been said that people identify
with, and adopt, brands most strongly when they are aligned with *why*
that brand does what it does. If you are strongly in agreement with
the motivations of a brand, then your adoption is simply proof of what
was already true. Free Software, on the surface of things, would seem
to have one of the most compelling "why"s possible - we are building
software for you because we want to ensure your basic freedoms. That
seems like it ought to be more attractive than Apple saying "we are
building products for you because we want to make the simplest, most
attractive products in the world" and yet, Apple's brand is the one
that has crossed the chasm and is now seeing rampant market adoption.

I think anyone who truly cares about adoption of FOSS needs to take a
step back from the "why" we cling so dearly to and examine this very
real state of affairs. It suggests to us that the "why" of freedom is
insufficient and we need to do more. We need to offer a broader "why".

There are software projects that achieve this - Blender is attractive
because it's tremendously capable and most proprietary 3D animation
software is ruinously expensive. Firefox/Chrome are attractive because
Microsoft got a bad reputation for their browsers (which is probably
no longer deserved, but is very hard to shake) and Firefox in
particular has succeeded as a platform for thousands of extensions to
offer customised functionality. The list goes on and on, but what we
don't yet have is a cohesive whole for the free software desktop. We
need a distro that ships with a sublime, yet powerful desktop shell,
which we are arguably getting pretty close to having, but what we need
on top of that is a set of personal productivity applications that are
equally sublime to use and powerful in their features. This latter
point is something we are very far from being able to offer, in my
opinion. The typical desktop software on a Linux distro is either
poorly integrated cross platform stuff like
Firefox/Thunderbird/OpenOffice (their cross platform nature means they
offer no compelling advantage for the distro, and hurts their ability
to integrate on any platform), or immature media tools like
Shotwell/F-Spot/GThumb/Rhythmbox/Banshee/Totem. These latter tools
have great motivations, but they lack resources to achieve them.
Shotwell would be the only one that obviously exudes quality and that
is because it seems to be striving to clone iPhoto as closely as
possible. Banshee would also be above the rest, but it doesn't seem to
be moving particularly aggressively and is controversial due to its
use of Mono.

So why doesn't this class of desktop applications exist? My hypothesis
is that it's because building sublime yet powerful desktop
applications is really hard and not terribly interesting. It not being
interesting to free software hackers basically requires that some
group or company spend millions of dollars buying talent that can make
it happen in a reasonable timeframe and with a consistently high level
of quality. Since almost nobody is making useful money from the free
software desktop, few are prepared to make that investment.

Until they do, folks like Stallman will continue to preach, but only
to the choir, and will fail to achieve a true diffusion of innovation.

As a postscript, I would suggest that the current state of affairs is
not an objective failure. It is a failure to achieve mass adoption,
but we still have a significant desktop userbase that seems to be
measured in the tens of millions. Some say it's 1% of the market,
which sounds tiny, but is still a huge number of people. However, if
any of what I said above is true, and we do need to change/expand our
why, then these tens of millions of users may not approve. They have
been attracted, to some degree, by the current "why" and if we change
that, we risk alienating them - the obvious current example of that
would be that Ubuntu and GNOME are radically altering their desktop
metaphors to try and express their opinions about the future of
computer interaction. They are doing fascinating, challenging work,
and losing some friends in the process. This is a huge, but necessary

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