Does the Linux desktop need to be popular?

How to win users and influence developers


LinuxCon 2009 Does Linux desktop even need to be popular? There are, shall we say, differing options among the open source cognoscenti gathered in Portland, Oregon this week for the annual LinuxCon.

For the last eight years, we've been told it's the year of the Linux desktop. Yet penetration figures have remained somewhere in the region of 0 to 1 per cent.

The top brass at the Linux Foundation don't seem particularly interested in desktop uptake these days. They prefer to press towards successes in end-user device and mobile phone markets rather than worrying about turning hearts against Windows and OS X.

"The thing that is much more interesting to me is whether or not someone who chooses to use Linux as their desktop can do so in a relatively pain-free way," said Ted Ts'o, chief technology officer for the Linux Foundation.

"I don't know that it's important that everyone or some substantially large percentage of the user population is using Linux as a desktop. And it's not clear that it's ever going to happen," he added.

Bob Sutor, vp of open source and Linux for IBM takes a middle-road, saying "if the Linux desktop got in the double digits among a broad range of people, then it's time to declare victory."

Meanwhile, others are not nearly so resigned on the matter. Community manager for openSUSE Joe Brockmeier told LinuxCon on Tuesday that mainstream success on the desktop is crucial for what needs to be done.

"We're getting our asses kicked," he said. "We're not capitalizing on the opportunities we've had." Brockmeier's solution is to focus on what he sees as weak points in the Linux desktop community: marketing, app development, accessibility, and unity.

For marketing, he said the Linux community needs a better way to get distros out to the public. "Most people don't want to download their operating system," he said. "They don't want to have to burn it to a CD. They don't want to have to worry about rpm versus V package. We have a lot of work to do to get Linux into people's hands and to do it in a way that's comfortable for them rather than us."

Brockmeier called on PC vendors to help promote Linux beyond offering it as a check-box in an order form.

"We are outgunned. We need some help and so I'm asking not only Novell and Red Hat and other companies that are in the Linux space, but also the OEMs to put some of their marketing muscle behind Linux because we need that to succeed."

He also wants Linux backers to work more closely together in order to promote the operating system as a whole, regardless of the distribution.

In the application space, Brockmeier said there's not enough developers working on end-user apps, and those that do too often lose interest before it can be polished into something appealing to the average user.

"The iPhone has been in existence for two years, and they're already skunking us on applications. Imagine what's going to happen when Apple actually comes out with a tablet or something like that," he said. "We need to really focus and worry about development of new applications. And that's not easy because the main distros have cut back a little bit on developing new end-user apps — I know Novell has, because frankly, that's not where we make our money."

Brockmeier said too many applications today are abandoned, redone, or determined to be 'good enough' when they're only 80 per cent complete.

"How many network managers do we have to go through before we finally commit to fixing one? How many sound systems do we have to go through before fixing one?"

Accessibility is also a hurdle to desktop Linux adoption, according to Brockeir.

"Usability has increased dramatically since 10 years ago, however it has not kept up with other platforms," he said. "This is something developers need to keep in mind. Good enough for Linus for and end-user application probably isn't good enough for my mom."

Finally, Brockmeier finds the often heated Linux development process on in public mailing lists discrediting to the public. "There are people that are very destructive in the way they approach problems. They jump from 'this might be a problem' to extraordinarily frothy and screaming about something. I don't think it helps Linux trying to achieve the mainstream. This isn't the face we want to present to the rest of the world."

Brockmeier said as a whole he believes the Linux community is in good shape, but it needs to be mindful of its weaknesses going forward.

What remains in the air is whether these troubles truly need to be cured or they're simply the unavoidable nature of the, er, penguin. ®

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