Why the Linux Desktop is Still Not #Winning

Let's face it; Linux's chance of winning the desktop war is now slimmer than ever. Mobile devices like tablet computers and smartphones have started to pull a lot of people away from using traditional PCs. But I think we shouldn't blame the fate of the Linux desktop solely on these devices because personal computers are far from being irrelevant and is still preferred by many, including myself, for getting things done. So why do I think Linux is still not winning in the desktop space?

Before I'll answer that question, I would like to explain that winning doesn't necessarily mean beating Windows and Mac in terms of market share. We all know that those two tech titans have all the money in the world to get what they want. For me, the Linux desktop is already winning if it could reasonably increase its usage share. I know it is quite hard to measure the desktop market share accurately, but the way I see it, Linux is moving at a very slow pace.

The main reason why the Linux desktop is still not winning is the lack of "focus". Looking at the Linux desktop right now is like watching a person with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). To know what I mean, let's take a look at Ubuntu.

Considered by many as the most popular Linux distribution, Ubuntu is a favorite among new-to-Linux users and for those of us who want a hassle-free desktop distro. In a span of a few years, it has successfully improved the whole Linux desktop experience by keeping things simple, fast, stable and usable, and by providing a good online technical support, forums, and documentation.

I still love Ubuntu but the project's lack of focus is frustrating. Instead of moving forward, I think they are moving the opposite way. The last two releases and the upcoming version of Ubuntu gives too much attention on tweaking/modifying and beautifying the desktop user interface instead of simplifying and improving performance and stability. Also, it seems like it is always starting from scratch with every releases by constantly changing the default UI, IM client, photo viewers, etc.

Before, I have criticized Ubuntu for trying to become like a cheap imitation of Mac OS X. Now, seeing the Natty Narwhal (Ubuntu 11.04) with its Unity shell interface made me think that I was indeed right.

I think it is not wrong to copy Apple if you only copy the way they do things and not the actual things or products that they do. The Ubuntu team could imitate how Apple slowly enhanced or polished the Mac desktop environment to perfection while focusing on performance and intuitiveness without sacrificing simplicity and without rushing to drastically change things. A lot of users love the GNOME desktop environment for its speed and simplicity so why not try to make it even more simple and faster instead of adding bulk like the Unity shell just to make it feel and look more like Mac OS X.

One of the best advantages of Ubuntu and other Linux distributions over Mac and Windows is that it can integrate or preinstall useful desktop applications like office suites, graphics editors, multimedia applications, and many others without cost. So why not focus on helping develop and improve those applications so that users won't have to look elsewhere.

I could go on and on with my semi-rambling but I hope you get my point by now. Forgive me if I put too much emphasis on Ubuntu. We can't deny the fact that it is the face of the Linux desktop at the moment hence it is only significant to show it as an example.

Why do you think the Linux desktop is still not winning? You may share with us your thoughts via comment.


  1. I agree with you. As a newcomer to the linux environment I am confronted with a bevy of disconcerting paradigms. It is as if some developers don't live in the real world or use real world applications. A small example, I like dark desktop themes. Finding one that I really usable is a herculean task. The attractive aspect of linux is the user's ability to customize, pick and choose. Now even that choice some want to remove. At the other end of the spectrum, E17 is a decent alternative, but again not for the new user. There you'll encounter dialog boxes cryptically worded (just to be different).
    Clarity and simplicity is sorely lacking in the linux landscape. Oh, I know (rtfm) that too at time is cryptically worded.

  2. Setting aside the elephant in the room - that Linux is not readily available pre-installed (at least in the UK) - I believe the principle problem is the applications themselves.

    For example, my mother loves iTunes and Picasa. Both applications she learned how to use herself, despite being a technophobe. I gave her KDE with Amarok and Digikam and she was completely lost. These are good applications, which I use daily and love, but they just don't pass the granny test. Close, but just not quite there. And these are the good apps, we all know that there are others that we dare not mention.

    The fact is that most Linux apps are written by geeks for geeks. They tend to be well written, enormously powerful, but they aren't always designed with the granny in mind.

  3. I agree with you. The ADHD driven obsession with reinventing the wheel is getting silly.
    I have now switched to Xfce to escape the madness (I hope).
    To many 'developers' want to recreate the 'me too' euphoria that props up ailing egos by messing users about.
    This behaviour is tedious and unnecessary.

  4. I dunno. I've been "playing" with linux for 6 years now and have exclusively used it for 2 years (due to my daughter's requirement for iTunes, I kept Win on there as dual boot longer than I wanted) Finally, I forced/coerced my children into using Linux (both Ubuntu 10.10 but previously Mint and Qimo). Both girls have been running Ubuntu on laptops for about 2 years (the only person still on Windows is my wife due to work requirements) biggest issue is distro hopping. I just love playing and changing my distro looking for the latest and greatest....I suppose I could install all the KDE/Gnome/Xfce specific stuff...but I think it would be nicer to have things that worked and looked well in any desktop environment. My current flavor of the year has been KDE....with a dabbling of Xfce 4.8 and I'm intrigued by Gnome3. My kids 10 and 13 have their desktops so tweaked out its not funny....perhaps the linux winning the desktop issue is winning the hearts and minds of the young....which may be due in large part to the elephant in the room identified by chrisjrob above

  5. Precisely the reason why i did not toss away my mac for a linux base laptop. I think haiku has more potential to dominate the desktop than linux is.

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  7. Linux is doing quite well. Laptops, netbooks, smartphones, and tablets also count. Let's not limit ourselves to the "desktop" (presumably just so we can say "We lose!"?) And yes, Android IS Linux.


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  9. I'm a long time Linux user, I eventually got rid of my windows partition in my laptop and decided to use full Linux, one of the challenges that I faced was to get all the hardware working properly, I eventually found guides and all sort of commands to get things like Webcam, fingerprint reader, 2 graphic cards, etc. but people need to use other types of hardware like scanners, all types of printers, etc. we can't expect of course that the linux installations come with support for all these devices, but in the other hand, most people want to use their hardware without worrying of where to find drivers, etc. they want to plug their devices, insert the Installation CD click next, next, next, and have everything ready, instead, in Linux sometimes you need to edit files, execute commands, etc; for the people reading this website is probably not a problem, but for most users, it would just not be worth it.

    agree with the other users comments, games, applications compatibility, and agree with the original article, they should be focus more in making a desktop stable and robust rather than focusing so much in the beauty of it.


  10. Interesting discussion, however the view is opposite what the market is doing. Android is growing by a quarter million units a MONTH on various smartphone platforms. Linux is growing in the embedded space by about 10% a quarter. Convergence of the smartphone and the desktop/laptop will happen this decade.

    With convergence there is no guarantee that the current legacy leaders retain their hold on the market. So hold on, its going to get a lot more interesting than worrying about Unity and tweak- ability.

  11. That is true, Android is growing fast, but I think this article refers more to the desktop world rather than the entire linux, so excluding Android, Maemo, servers, and all other flavors or embedded linux in devices, the desktop itself (in the layer of Windows/MacOS) is not growing as fast as Mobile...

  12. I hope Linux stays away from the noobs (which it probably will, because right now they think it's "hard"). If it gains too much popularity it may attract attention from malware and virus creators.

    Regarding the iTunes issue, there's VirtualBox. But you'll have to get the PUEL version, not OSE (meaning the one with USB support). Hmph. I have TinyXP installed with iTunes, iFunBox, Cyder 2, WinSCP, and 7-Zip, all inside a 2 GB .vdi file. It keeps my iPod touch updated. I even restored the sucker a couple of times. So no issues there.

  13. Andother issue I hear is with artists. That they like the OS X interface better. Are you kidding me ?? The interface can be as beautiful as you want it to be ! You want your UI to look like the next Apple sheep ?!5651352/the-gaia-10-linux-desktop

    Regarding Photoshop, there's gimpSHOP (which is Gimp with the PS interface so PS tutorials match). And same for InDesign, Inkscape works wonderful.

    Anyway, It can be as lightweight (low resources requirements) or as eye candy-ish as you want it to be. You want a panel, a dock, both ? You got it. What's that ? I can't rename my file using *, ?, \, even " ? Yeah ? Fuck you, I can with Linux. What's that, I can't rename or even REMOVE the file because it's in use ? Fuck you, I can with Linux.

  14. Having been on and off of Linux for the past 10 years I had almost given up. Linux appears to the worse than a case of design by committee, rather its a fine example of anarchy. No individual or group is in charge. There's a ton of useless and redundant software out there that nobody really needs and people keep making more of the same instead of addressing the core problems. Try installing a distro on even a popular model of Thinkpad or Dell and chances are the usb, sound or wifi doesn't work. After spending days on it you still can't figure it out. Ubuntu is such a relief. Finally some folks are getting the basics right. Please keep the momentum going. Why try to imitate Mac or worry too much about subtler aspects on the interface? Linux has its personality and people will be just fine with it as long as it works on atleast a few major hardware and is easy to use by the average user. Compiling code and editing config files aren't activities the average desktop user likes to be engaged in. Lack of application support is still a problem. But the fragmentation of linux into a zillion distros probably means it will continue to be a problem. I hope Ubuntu emerges as a strong contender and some weaker distros die out. Thats necessary for the success of Linux desktop IMHO.

  15. Linux, any flavor, would be more acceptable if it had more photographic apps. It's Plug-Ins for Photoshop that keeps me bound to Windows OS.

  16. Linux desktop market-share is growing. I played with it for years, and went full time about 1 year ago. It's great, it works - and reading the reviews I'm not the only one adopting. The big question is does it really matter if we achieve 80%+.. and I don't think it does. We just need a big enough community to be a viable alternative, and I think we are pretty well there.

  17. I too agree that the main focus of the any linux distro's should be the ease of use rather than imitating graphics and developing complex tech savvy programs which include changing configuration file editing, or scripting. The main focus should be the ease of day today activities like installing basic hardware and programs with simple and crisp.

  18. I really don't care for Windows or Mac. I'm just drawn to Ubuntu for some reason. Linux shouldn't try to copy Windows or Mac, it should be it's own thing.
    It doesn't matter if you win or lose, what matters is Charlie Sheen.

  19. AnonymousMay 11, 2011

    I totally agree with you, I installed Ubuntu and Kubuntu as guests on a VM on my Mac and I was rather disturbed by all those fancy widgets and activities and what not which I even don't use with Leopard but I couldn't find a possibility to do simple tasks like mounting my CDrom and HD on the desktop. After several hours of trying this and also to install guest additions, all in vain naturally, I deleted both LINUX distros from my computer in frustration...
    Finally I found the Pardus distribution which provides at least a clean and useable desktop.
    I use this Linux-VM now for browsing the internets and think of setting up a computer with this Linux distro as main OS.