The next twelve months will be good to Linux and Free software, but we won't capture the market just yet.
The coming year should be a good one for free software. Desktop environments are maturing, technology is improving. A lot of the ground work done in many areas over the past twelve months should propel free software further.
While things are looking good, 2010 still won’t be the “Year of the Linux Desktop” (whatever that means).
Behind the scenes
The new Ext4 file system will become the default for most distributions, now that the major issues have been sorted out. We are likely to see some further implementation work on Btrfs, however it won’t become a stable enough file system over the next twelve months for general adoption.
Kernel based mode setting will become the norm for most distributions. The Nouveau driver for NVIDIA cards is progressing well, but there is still a lot to do. While basic 3D works, hopefully soon we will gain some more advanced support and smooth Compiz support. Nevertheless, the proprietary drivers will remain the drug of choice for these cards, which is unlikely to change for years to come.
Should the sale of Sun Microsystems to Oracle finally go ahead, what will it mean for products like VirtualBox, MySQL, OpenOffice.org and ZFS? Will we see Oracle pour buckets of money into further developing these projects under free licenses, or will they fall the wayside, be forked and rely only on community support? If so, PostgreSQL might take over from MySQL as the most popular open source database, while IBM’s Symphony Notes might find its own path and become a more viable option to OpenOffice.org. Oracle is the major developer of Btrfs, so would they make ZFS GPL compatible and waive rights to patents? Probably not.
Or perhaps desktop applications will become less relevant. The cloud will no doubt continue to gain interest, but 2010 might also see some important questions raised about it. For example, where does a Cloud service built on free software begin and end? Businesses might be quick to offload their data to third party companies now, but they might soon want it back under their own control. Private Clouds might start making a mark, especially if Ubuntu’s integrated cloud technology makes it attractive enough.
Reboot-less updates with Ksplice was one of the most interesting innovations of 2009, and could well see greater adoption in 2010. There is already a free service for users of Ubuntu and while no major distro has yet integrated it into their core operating system, it is surely technology that companies like Red Hat will be interested in. Fedora might therefore see it integrated at some point, after all they’ve already gone through the pain of technologies like SELinux.
In the office, seamless integration with and native support for Microsoft Exchange will become possible thanks to Samba4 and the OpenChange project. Linux is unlikely to replace the majority of small business networks however, as Microsoft’s Small Business Server offerings are too convenient and provide features like calendar sharing and Outlook support out of the box.
Applications and appliances
The desktop itself will start to shine. Finally GNOME will get a much needed make over, introducing major new modern features such as GNOME Shell and Zeitgeist. Version 3.0 is expected to be a major update to the popular desktop. It is unlikely to be as big a flop as KDE 4.0 was, given that it’s not a complete re-write of the desktop but rather a change in direction with major new features and enhancements added to the existing code base.
What should really take off in 2010 is KDE, finally! The groundwork is complete and further refinement has been coming thick and fast. It has been a long, hard and dangerous road, but the KDE team will finally be able to release a desktop aimed squarely at end users. It should be good enough to even entice those KDE 3.5 die-hards from their much beloved desktop. Will it finally become The Komplete Desktop? Not quite yet..
KOffice should also release a stable “end user” version, which will mean one less missing piece of the puzzle. Other core applications such as the K3b optical burning suite and Amarok music player will also continue to improve their Qt4 ports. VLC is releasing a video editing suite and competition will heat up with other projects such as Kdenlive. However, the major component still missing from KDE is a decent, well-integrated Qt based web browser. We’re unlikely to see this coming in 2010 but integration with Firefox has been greatly improved, thanks to the openSUSE community.
Some time this year we should see the much rumored Google Phone, the Nexus One from HTC. Several other Android based phones should also make an appearance and give Apple’s iPhone a run for its money. Nokia only has plans for one Maemo device in 2010, but should it prove successful it may spell the beginning of an entire product line of Linux based phones from them. We should also see Chrome OS appliances at a store near you. Of course while all of these devices run on top of Linux and free software, consumers are unlikely to realize this and transfer that understanding to their desktop machines.
What NOT to expect in 2010
Even though we should see more consumer products shipping with Linux over the next twelve months, it still won’t be the year of the Linux desktop.
Firstly, no-one has defined how you measure such a thing. Does it mean that Linux will have a certain market share? Are we taking about just the desktop, server, embedded devices, everything? Does it mean that people just become more aware of Linux and free software? Does it mean that you can walk down to your local retailer and choose the operating system with a new machine? Wouldn’t that be nice. Does it mean Windows is dead altogether? Who knows.
Linux already has a huge share of the market in the server and super computer sectors, but this hasn’t really raised any awareness outside of these areas. Back in 2006, Eric S. Raymond wrote an essay about dominating the desktop market by 2008. It didn’t come last year and it won’t come next year, but maybe one day.
No matter how you measure it, it’s still unlikely to happen in 2010. What will happen is consumer awareness, especially as companies like Dell start to ship more Linux based computers. Linux will become more visible, helping to overcome people’s narrow vision and open their mind to alternatives.
Consumers are starting to know about Android, but do they know that it’s Linux? Do most iPhone users know that it’s based on BSD? Probably not. A component of this is more likely to exist in the desktop market, however. Certainly users will think of their machine as running “Ubuntu” rather than “Linux”, but a desktop is not an appliance in the same way that a phone is. Users interact with it to a greater extent and for this reason the name “Linux” should be come more widely known. That is a good thing.
Despite all that hard work, the same old problems continue to plague the free desktop. Proprietary data formats, codecs, drivers and applications. There is not really any answer to these questions in sight. There is nothing pushing companies like NVIDIA to release their drivers under a GPL compatible license and so it simply won’t happen. Likewise, Adobe is highly unlikely to open source their Flash player, which means that Linux users will continue to be second rate citizens on the Internet.
The computing industry was built by vendor lock in and that’s a hard thing to compete with. On the one hand you have consumers racing out to buy the latest iPod and other gadgets, but at the same time Apple is working hard to ensure that they only work with iTunes. These devices often use proprietary data formats for audio and video, which generally do not work out of the box under Linux (although automatic codec detection and installation is very good these days). To excel, Linux needs a world built on patent free open standards which simply does not yet exist.
Commercial games are also a huge blot against free software. Thanks to Microsoft encouraging developers to use the non-cross platform DirectX, most commercial computer games just don’t work under Linux. This will not change until developers stop using DirectX (which is highly unlikely to happen), or a market for commercial Linux games pops up (also highly unlikely). Sure there are lots of great free games on Linux, but this is about playing the latest games off the shelf. Companies have come and gone trying to create this, but it just won’t work until Linux has a larger share of the desktop market and there’s consumer demand for it. Either way, this won’t happen in 2010 either.
Despite all this, the world is changing. Slowly. It’s moving away from closed source proprietary software to free and open source. Microsoft has released Windows 7 and as such has put all its cards out on the table, for now. Linux will continue to improve, but there are still some areas which need lots of improvement before it can be accepted more wide stream.
Governments and Educational institutions will continue to switch to free software and legislate the use of Open Document Format. This is good for Linux and free software because once vendor lock in is removed, the traditional model falls apart and free software is a viable alternative. A new world order is coming, it’s just happening slowly.
Canonical will continue to push Ubuntu to OEM manufacturers so we might see a few more products coming with Linux. With Mark Shuttleworth resigning as CEO to concentrate on this area things should get interesting over the next twelve months. Linux can be as good as can be, but in the commercial world Microsoft will still do everything that they can to block it from gaining any traction. Microsoft can’t stop free software, but they are certainly giving it their best shot and this will continue to be a big challenge in the years ahead.
The biggest win for 2010 will be consumer awareness of viable alternatives to Windows and OS X. Thanks to the Web 2.0 phenomenon and Cloud computing, the desktop that people use is becoming less important. Exposure from Linux based devices will help break the current psyche.
It doesn’t matter how good Linux becomes, don’t expect a world wide surge in computers shipping Linux instead of Windows. Microsoft simply won’t allow that to happen, they are still too powerful. What will continue, is the slower adoption via users like you converting your friends, one at a time.