Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Why 2007 ( and '08 and '09 ) will not be the "Year of the linux desktop"

Whenever I talk to my mother about switching systems the first question that she asks is “Will it run Quicken?” This is no trivial question as she has over 7 years of data stored in the archives and she uses it for her business. The answer to this question is important to all linux users as without understanding Windows users you will never be able to entice them over.

Right now under linux the honest answer would be “No”. While you might be able to get it running under Wine or CrossOver, both admit that there are serious limitations with this solution.  There are native UNIX applications like Money Dance, but that does not offer a drop in solution since it lacks online banking and other feature.  Really there is nothing for the advanced Quicken user, just as there are advanced Office users that are equally put out by Open Office.

Don’t get me wrong I think there is more to linux than the desktop.  It absolutely shines in a managed environment or in the pre-packages environment where the end user does not have to worry about the low level management of the system.  It also goes without saying that the server realm will continue to be dominated by linux for some time to come.

Anchor Applications a.k.a “The Killer App”

This question underscores one of the current failings of the linux community. The inability to bring to fruition any applications that are linux only and compelling.  For the most part the “superstar” desktop linux offering fall into one of three categories.  

  • Blatant rip-offs:   Kontact, evolution,  AmoraK, songbird ( oops songbird is cross platform ), and more.

  • Cross-platform staples:  Firefox, VLC, and OpenOffice

  • Ported to Windows or Mac: Gimp, and Pidgin

Compare that to both Windows and Mac where there are plenty of “Anchor” application that their end users really can’t live without.  Try to get an accountant to go without the use of QuickBooks, a Videographer without FCP, or a photographer without Photoshop and you get the idea.  These people do not have any reason to put up with any degradation in their experience no matter how much it might save them in software licensing costs.  While consumers are cost sensitive, they tend to be much more time sensitive and software.

The problem this presents for linux is the lack of traction with desktop linux users.  What’s keeping them from fleeing at the first sign of something offered on one of the other desktop solutions ( be it from Windows, Mac, another distro, or other platform )?  Really there is nothing.  Applications already make it dirt simple to move most files to and from linux, Windows, and Mac without incident.  There are virtually no files that you can create under linux that can not be read by Windows, Mac, or other platform.

The Linux Desktop Market

What appears to make up the current linux desktop market.  This only includes those people that are running an unmanaged, standalone copy of linux on their desktop or laptop computer.

  • Hard core linux users:  These are users that use linux because it’s linux.  They don’t need a reason to run linux.

  • Cheapskates:  People who get the $199 special and don’t want to be bothered with windows.  People who have a pile of computers in their basement/attic and can’t be bothered to pirate another copy of windows when linux is “good enough” for now.

  • Techies:  UNIX professionals who need a tool that will interact well with other Linux/UNIX system.  The problem with these users is that it seems like they are flocking to Mac hardware since it gives them the ability not just to interact with UNIX services, but will also boot or virtualize linux and windows as well.

  • Refugees:  People from the Windows world who feel they are no longer welcome.  These users are also likely to be poached by Apple.

Realistically there is only a limited number of people that are hard core users.  The bounds of the other two groups will ebb and flow with the times.  If Microsoft ever started giving away a “home” version of the OS the linux desktop movement would be set back years in total numbers because only the hard core users would remain.  Dell’s foray into selling Ubuntu on some of it’s laptops will be an interesting experiment in the overall growth of linux.  Will it have a material impact or will it just fizzle out like almost all other attempts people have made?  HP, Dell, and countless smaller vendors have been preinstalling variants of linux or freedos for years without significant impact on the market.

But What About ‘X’

Well I have received a number of reasons over the years.  Some of them less compelling than others.

  • It’s about choice:  Good for you.  If you can make a solution of hardware and software work for you then congratulations.  But you seem to forget that it’s not a reason for someone else to switch.  The possibility of some future advantage is rarely a good motivator for someone who is comfortable with what they have.

  • It’s not Microsoft:  It’s amazing how many linux advocates take this position.  Personally I wouldn’t shed one tear if Microsoft disappeared tomorrow, but that is still not a good reason for an existing Windows user to switch to a linux desktop.  Personally I will not recommend a Windows solution to people at the current time.  Based on pst behavior I see them continuing to treat their customers like criminals when they are not busy making their current hardware and software obsolete.

  • Developing counties:  While poor places like India, China, and the OLPC project do offer an excellent opportunity for linux to get hundreds of new users there is also a huge problem.  As these places become not poor they will once again be aggressively courted by Microsoft and Apple.  I foresee any gains in these markets to be taken back once their economies have picked up again.

  • New users:  There is also some delusion that all new users could take to linux as well as any OS.  I feel this is true, there is no reason a new user would not be able to pick up Ubuntu as easily as Windows these days.  The problem is they have little reason to stick to linux when push comes to shove.  When a “killer app” is released for this user under Windows what’s to stop them from jumping ship?  The smart ones will virtualize, but lets face it most users are not that smart and will end up dual-booting or wiping linux.

And That’s Not All!

At this point I have been concentrating on the lack of “anchor” application for the linux desktop, but I could have selected any number of the other failings that linux has for this piece.  I can think of no less than a half dozen possible issues that linux needs to address before a significant desktop userbase will ever be achieved.


Every year for the last few I keep hearing “It’s the year of the linux desktop” but don’t you know it never happens.  Each year it’s heralded in by some new amazing success stories and breakthrough news.  Each year comes and goes and nothing happens.  This year will come and go too without the desktop market being consumed by Linux. 

The linux desktop market is doomed to a niche.  I don’t believe it can ever grow beyond a very limited set of users that will be constantly “flipped” to one of the other two desktop platforms as they grow and find their own “killer app”.  Without it’s own “anchor” linux will always be adrift, picking up refugees, techies, and cheapskates who will bring down the community and then leave.

To the linux users who take offense to this article, write in your own blog and post the link since it’s going to take more than just a one line reply.

1 comment:

Arielle said...

"While poor places like India, China, and the OLPC project do offer an excellent opportunity for linux to get hundreds of new users there is also a huge problem. As these places become not poor they will once again be aggressively courted by Microsoft and Apple. I foresee any gains in these markets to be taken back once their economies have picked up again."

Better reason: in these countries, mine included, Microsoft is just a label on a DVD. People here don't buy MS products because they've been 'marketted' into it; people here use MS products because they can get them at around US$5.00 max-- not from MS, of course-- and spend another $2 bucks for the installation.

I guess the above is more related to this: "Cheapskates: People who get the $199 special and don’t want to be bothered with [insert other OS here]..."

Where I'm from, many people who use Windows are bigger cheapskates who can't make investments (not necessarily money) on their machines.