Will The Linux Desktop Soon Be Irrelevant?

Some of us are still waiting for the year of the Linux desktop. Some think it's already here. One thing is certain however, Linux does not have a majority desktop market share. By the time we get there, perhaps the entire idea of what a Desktop is will have been re-defined, thanks to "The Cloud".

We’ve all been hanging out for the “year of the Linux desktop” (whatever that means) but we’re still waiting. Let’s face it, we’re going to be waiting for a while.

Is it because Linux isn’t yet good enough? Hardly. These days there are few barriers to adopting Linux, primarily issues relate to the requirement for a specific Windows based application, proprietary devices, or perceived complexity of this strange new system.

Is it because Microsoft has too strong a hold on the market? Well, that certainly does help to hinder Linux adoption. Whatever the reason, in the end it might not actually matter at all.

Up, up and away

You see the world is once again changing, this time we’re moving away from the thick client. You might think it’s a joke, but it’s true. How many of you keep your email on “the cloud?” We access most of our information via the Internet and we can use web applications to create just about anything. As we speak, I’m typing this up using an online word processor, yet my machine has numerous text editors and of course a fully blown office suite (or two). It’s not that individual, powerful machines are going anywhere, but rather that our focus on localisation is disappearing.

OK, so we’re not there yet, but think about this – how many people actually use an email client on their home computer? I honestly don’t know the figures (and I’m sure it’s still a lot), but the last time I used one was about 5 years ago and even then it was Mutt via SSH to my local mail server. Could we expect to see email clients dropped from default Linux installations over time? Heck, Ubuntu even got rid of GIMP because it’s not cool.

“The Cloud” reminds me of “.NET” and “Web 2.0″ where no-one really knew what they meant at the time. Distributed computing has been around much longer than this idea of “the cloud” which sounds like some new fancy, happy place. All that doesn’t matter though, things are going to the cloud, a place where all your dreams can come true. Or where anyone can steal your information. Well, I’m sure it’s one of those anyway.

What is a desktop? An interface and system for managing and performing tasks via user applications? So, what if the majority of the tasks you traditionally perform on a desktop were available online. Like, your music collection was stored online and streamed to you at will, you could create any kind of document, store and search for files, manipulating photos. None of these things have to be done on the desktop. These days more and more people upload their photographs to places like Flickr or even Facebook, they don’t store them on their machine – not long term anyway.

Mindshare

It’s not that the Linux desktop isn’t cool, nor that it won’t get even better. KDE is great, as is GNOME, Xfce and a myriad of others. Will they disappear entirely? I doubt it, it’s more that it will become less relevant. As long as Microsoft continues its stranglehold on the market, Linux simply won’t be available on lots of consumer products. So, users will continue to use Windows because that’s what came with the machine.

People have a perception that a desktop PC means Windows.

“Hi, I’m a Mac.”
“And I’m a PC.”

If you’re not running a PC, then you’re running a Mac. That’s all there is, right?

It’s more than that though, Windows, despite all its widely known flaws, is familiar. As they say, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”. So while companies like Canonical continue to fight for adoption of Linux on the desktop, by the time they might achieve this, it won’t really matter.

In the mean time, free software developers will continue to make great free software for free software users. Their goal won’t be to entice Windows users over, and nor should it be. Nevertheless, this will still happen thanks to distros like Ubuntu, because that’s where the market share is, and that’s what they need to build in order to make money.

So maybe Linux won’t be the default installation on new PCs any time soon, but where it does do really well is as an appliance. Routers, hand-helds, phones, ebook readers and netbooks. OK, so netbooks aren’t quite yet appliances, but the trend is heading that way and when it does, they’ll work really well (we hope). It will be interesting to see how much netbooks and “the cloud” change the way we use computers, over time. Right now there are some valiant efforts like Jolicloud to bring a “Cloud focused” operating system mainstream. While this is laying some important groundwork, it’s not quite ready for mainstream yet. Or perhaps rather, mainstream isn’t quite ready for it. Could you live with everything you did solely online? Have you even tried?

Still the emphasis today is still on thick client, that’s for sure, and in this space the Linux desktop is already highly competitive. Once it’s normal for users have gigabit access to the Internet from their home, that’s bound to change things (and Google is working on just that).

Meet my needs

The popularity of services from the likes of Google and Facebook shows that users don’t care about their own privacy (perhaps they don’t yet know its value). So that’s really a non-issue. As an example, people use web based email systems like Gmail because they work well. You can access it from any computer with a web browser (if browser != IE6), your work machine, your home machine, a laptop and even your mobile phone.

If companies like Google can do the same for a suite of what are traditionally desktop applications, what’s to stop people from using them? And once they use them the desktop they use becomes irrelevant, but the right environment becomes important. You could access these services on a full blown desktop machine with Windows, Mac or Linux. Or you could get the same experience on a mobile phone or 10″ hand-held. As users realise they have less and less need for a desktop, they’ll start buying other things – like a Linux based iPad-like device. It won’t matter, because it will be an appliance (and let’s face it, Linux as an appliance reigns supreme). One that just works, and gets them where they want to go, fast.

Just take a look at what to expect from HTML5 and the sorts of things that are possible. Also check out what you can already do with Javascript. Who knows what the world will look like in ten or twenty years!

So really, the main piece of the puzzle is a massive online market of web based applications. A central account with a provider where users can subscribe or buy access to a photo editing program, online music player, whatever else you would currently use a desktop for. No doubt it’s coming.. Take a look at the amazing amount of products Zoho offers for free. Even traditional programs like Quicken are moving online (and you can even something for free), so there’s no need to get it running under Wine.

Games are the obvious exception to the rule where desktop is likely to remain king, but moving these online will be possible one day. Even if not, once everyone has everything online, perhaps we’ll also then see the death of the gaming PC and where gaming means console. Even so, we’re not talking here about killing the desktop, merely transforming it. A graphical shell environment with basic functionality such as mounting removable media, sound, video and printing (although who doesn’t “print” to PDF these days?). There’s nothing to say that it can’t also play games.

The future?

The idea of a “desktop” is old and fast becoming irrelevant. At least, what we think of a desktop as – a thick client that does all the heavy lifting. That’s still the current trend and it’s not going to change any time soon. Users today still want to purchase a machine with something familiar. In the not-to-distant future however, when the only ones buying computers are the Web 2.0 generation (yes, I made that up), could the “desktop” well be replaced by a shell operating system, a few interfaces and a browser? Quite possibly. Then, whether you’re running a cut-down version of Linux underneath, or indeed even Windows or OS X, won’t matter any more.

We’re not there yet, primarily because the complete array of services required to replace a desktop haven’t yet been developed. That’s changing. HTML5 will someday be ratified, some amazing stuff can already be done with Javascript (and browsers don’t crawl to a halt processing it), and toolkits like that from Google help to make the web an easy place to centralise and deploy applications. Don’t be surprised that if by the time Linux even manages majority market share on the desktop, it simply no longer matters.

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