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I love the Linux desktop, but that doesn't mean I don't see its problems all too well
Fragmentation has put paid to the dream of this OS ever being bigger than Windows
Comment Recently, The Register's Liam Proven wrote tongue in cheek about the most annoying desktop Linux distros. He inspired me to do another take.
Proven pointed out that Distrowatch currently lists 270 – count 'em – Linux distros. Of course, no one can look at all of those. But, having covered the Linux desktop since the big interface debate was between Bash and zsh rather than GNOME vs KDE, and being the editor-in-chief of a now-departed publication called Linux Desktop, I think I've used more of them than anyone else who also has a life beyond the PC. In short, I love the Linux desktop.
But that's not what Linux desktop fans want. They want Windows crushed and bleeding underneath the Linux juggernaut
Many Linux desktop distros are great. I've been a big Linux Mint fan for years now. I'm also fond, in no particular order, of Fedora, openSUSE, Ubuntu, and MX Linux. But you know what? That's a problem right there.
We have many excellent Linux desktop distros, which means none of them can gain enough market share to make any real dent in the overall market.
It's been like that since people first started talking about Linux stomping on Windows on the desktop. But dream as we might of a true year of the Linux desktop, it won't happen. As Forrester senior analyst Andrew Hewitt recently pointed out: "Overall, just 1 percent of employees report usage of Linux on their primary laptop used for work. That's compared to 60 percent that still use Windows... It is very unlikely that Linux will overtake Windows as the main operating system."
He's not wrong.
That's not to say that Linux can't be a successful end-user environment. It is. Indeed, you can argue that Linux, not Windows, is the most successful end-user operating system. That's because there are over 3 billion Android phones out there and Android is just a smartphone-specialized Linux distro.
It's not the only Linux hiding in plain sight. Chromebooks, which you'll find in every school in the land, and in my travel bag, are everywhere. Chrome OS is simply Chrome reworked as a web browser and interface on top of Linux.
Add it all up and you can say with a straight face that Linux has actually long been the most popular end-user OS of all.
But that's not what Linux desktop fans want. They want Windows crushed and bleeding underneath the Linux juggernaut.
Sorry. That's not happening. Linus Torvalds already told us why we'll never see a classic Linux desktop on every PC: fragmentation.
- Sick of Windows but can't afford a Mac? Consult our cynic's guide to desktop Linux
- Version 251 of systemd coming soon to a Linux distro near you
- The sad state of Linux desktop diversity: 21 environments, just 2 designs
- Unity and Trinity: New releases for forks of abandoned Linux desktops
Think about it. Besides over 200 distros, there are 21 different desktop interfaces and over half-a-dozen different major ways to install software such as the Debian Package Management System (DPKG), Red Hat Package Manager (RPM), Pacman, Zypper, and all too many others. Then there are all the newer containerized ways to install programs including Flatpak, Snap, and AppImage.
I can barely keep them all straight and that's part of my job! How can you expect ordinary users to make sense of it all? You can't.
None of the major Linux distributors – Canonical, Red Hat, and SUSE – really care about the Linux desktop. Sure, they have them. They're also major desktop influencers. But their cash comes from servers, containers, the cloud, and the Internet of Things (IoT). The desktop? Please. We should just be glad they spend as many resources as they do on them.
Now, all this said, I don't want you to get the impression that I don't think the conventional Linux desktop is important. I do. In fact, I think it's critical.
Microsoft, you see, is abandoning the traditional PC-based desktop. Oh, Windows isn't going away, but it is moving. In its crystal ball, Microsoft sees Azure-based Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) as its future. Sure, Windows users will still see what looks like a PC on their desk, but really it will just be a smart terminal hooked into a Windows 365 Cloud PC. The real computing smarts will be in the cloud.
That means that the future of a true desktop operating system will lie in the hands of Apple with macOS and us with Linux. As someone who remembers the transition from centrally controlled mainframes and minicomputers to individually empowered PCs, I do not want to return to a world where all power belongs to Microsoft or any other company.
The Linux desktop will never be as big as Windows once was. Between DaaS's rise and the fall of the desktop to smartphones, it can't be. But it may yet, by default, become the most popular true conventional desktop.
So will 2028 be the year of the Linux desktop? What do you think? ®