10 Reasons Why the Linux Desktop is Still Flapping its Wings

A few weeks ago, the Linux Foundation chief Jim Zemlin openly said that bashing Microsoft is 'like kicking a puppy’, every Linux user saw some amount of truth to that. If some disagree, they can always look at Android, Amazon's Kindle, and a bucket load of Linux-based gadgets that have sprung up in the market recently. Also, when it comes to servers, Linux has managed to beat Microsoft hands down. The conformation came straight from the horse's mouth when Steve Ballmer admitted that Linux's server share is 60% as opposed to Microsoft's 40%. Having said all that, Linux desktop's market share stands at a meager .71 % in the United States, which is even less than Apple iPad's userbase. So, what are the reasons why the Linux desktop is still far behind its server counterpart? Why the Linux desktop still isn't winning? Let's take a deeper look at the problem.

1. Lack of Leadership and Direction

Think of Microsoft, the image of Bill Gates' lopsided smile comes to mind. Think of Apple, you see Steve Jobs giving an enthralling presentation to a bunch of rich people. Think of Linux, whom do you see? Linus Torvalds? Richard Stallman? Or Shuttleworth? The truth is no one. Since the beginning, Linux has always been a scattered effort and it still is. Whenever non-geeks think of technology, they need to see someone they can look up to, someone leading at the front. Instead, the name Linux has become synonymous with diet coke-guzzling nerds who can fix any computer in a minute.

Besides lacking a proper role model to look up to, Linux also lacks direction. People contribute, but they don't know how and where to contribute; hence they end up making distros like Hannah Montana Linux. The open-source community is really vast; however, it needs proper leadership to unify people and motivate them. For example, look at the work Android has done. Android was Linux before its inception, Google brought together all the devs, even gave them incentives, and finally came out with a mind-blowing product. The same can be said about Mozilla, but Linux on the other hand is too scattered. Developers make applications according to 'their needs' not the users' needs. It's time someone makes a stand and gives developers a sense of direction. Linux really needs a Steve Jobs, albeit a nicer one.

2. Lack of Advertising

Can't blame Linux on this one. Advertising is the prerequisite of getting a product noticed; however, Linux is not as rich as Apple or Microsoft. Instead, Linux relies on word of mouth publicity; which, to an extent works, but doesn't get the expected results. It's time individual distributions take notice of this problem and invest some cash in the area. If that's not possible, then why not launch a pledge drive and collect funds for marketing? Something less creepy than what Wikipedia did? Furthermore, Linux should not be promoted as a whole product much like IBM was doing (Remember the Linux is everywhere ad?). Instead, individual distros like Ubuntu and openSUSE should make quality adverts and put them out there, showing what features they offer and how they're better than Windows and Mac.

3. Too many choices, too many distributions

Enter the world of Linux. We've got Ubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE, Mint, Slackware, Arch, Elementary OS, PCLinuxOS… we've got a lot of choices for you. Does Apple offer that many choices? No. Instead, Apple makes one Snow Leopard, and that's it. Linux and Microsoft on the other hand keep giving their users the much-overrated 'freedom of choice'. This is where the Paradox of Choice comes into play. What this means is, whenever the user/consumer is given too many choices, it leads to poor decision-making or failure to make any decision at all. The cause of this paradox is attributed to rational ignorance and more commonly analysis paralysis. The concept has been studied by many researchers including more prominent ones like Barry Shwartz, Sheena Iyengar and Mark R Lepper.

The analysis paralysis is more pronounced in cases where a particular user wants to start using Linux. She Googles a bit about Linux and comes across a concept called distributions. She gets excited about the amount of choices Linux offers. However, owing to the huge amount of distributions out there, she has a difficult time choosing the right one to start with. She then asks the question in a forum or Twitter, and gets 5 different responses from 5 different people, leaving her utterly confused.

Taking cue from this and many such situations, developers should simply stop making new distributions; especially the bad or bizarre ones. Instead, they should focus on contributing to existing and popular distributions like Ubuntu and Fedora. It is obvious that Linux needs some healthy competition from within, but looking at the sheer number of Linux distributions out there, the situation is anything but chaotic. This also reminds me of a hilarious article I came across the other day, which reports that the number of Linux-based distributions has surpassed the number of users. A joke of course, but it does remind developers that it's time to change their priorities. Usually it's crowded at the top; however, in the Linux world there's an ample amount of room.

4. Too many misconceptions

Fact: You can't watch Jersey Shore and be a Linux user at the same time.

The target audience for Linux has always been geeks, nerds and hackers. Ubuntu however, has managed to expand Linux desktop's outreach, and has been somewhat successful so far. However, whenever a Windows user is told about Linux, he always gives you that weird puzzled look. And forget asking a Mac user about Linux, he's way too intoxicated to ever return from Steve's Apple factory. People come up with all sorts of reasons why the products 'they use' are the best. Arguing with them is futile, unless you are a debate expert like Christopher Hitchens. Being a Linux user makes u look like a 3-eyed monster in a crowded bus. Never mind, it's no use tackling morons. Do share your experiences in the comments section if you've met people like these.

5. Specific requirements

Windows has been around for a really long time. Long enough to make people completely dependent on applications developed for their platform alone. There are FOSS alternatives to almost any proprietary software out there, but most of the users want the official stuff and not the 'clones'. Quite ironically, many newbies also hold a misconception that Wine is an emulator. What can I say? Go suck on your stupid software!

6. Support

Even though last week, we wrote an irritably long article on getting support on Linux, there are still a lot of Linux users who throw in the towel when faced with the slightest of glitches. A sizable amount of people just aren't comfortable using forums and IRC. They want some guy on the telephone who can magically 'fix' their computer. And reading the manual... who does that these days?

7. Piracy

If you think piracy is just Microsoft's problem then think again. Piracy is probably the biggest problem Linux is facing right now. Don't believe me? There are practically millions of people in the world, especially in third world nations, who cannot afford a Microsoft license. So, for them, paying 2-4 Dollars for a pirated copy of the latest and greatest version of Windows is nothing new. Many of them even get it for free, off the Internet. If you ask these people about Linux, they've a better excuse for not switching – “If I can get a copy of the latest version of Windows, for practically no cost, why should I go for Linux?” Can't blame them either. It's curious how Microsoft, a company that has invented so many restrictive technologies, has fallen flat on its face when it comes to curbing piracy.

8. Too many changes

GNOME fan to a KDE user: I really love GNOME; it's incredibly snappy, clean, minimalistic... much better than the half-baked KDE4 interface.
KDE fan smirks and walks away
GNOME fan to KDE user: Wow look! There's my new GNOME 3! *click click* Here's the new shell, *click click* here's the new menu *click click* Oh wait... where's the minimize button? Why is there so much padding? Why did they do this? Why? ...

Moral of the story: Too many changes = pissing off loyal friends.

I'm sure there's a chunk of Ubuntu loyalists who are switching to Mint, once the next version comes out. Although these changes are moving the desktop forward, there are many people who are never willing to accept any radical changes. Try this: make a seasoned IE6 user try out Firefox 4 for a while... he won't ever be convinced that Firefox is better and instead he'll revert back to IE6.

9. Hardware Issues

Despite the best efforts of Canonical, Red Hat and Novell, Linux desktop isn't as user-friendly as Windows or Mac. Most of the problems come from hardware rather than the software itself. There's nothing the Linux desktop can do about this situation except work hard on reverse-engineering proprietary drivers and come up with their open-source alternatives. Besides the hardware problem, there are many areas Linux can improve upon. Many of these improvements are needed in the User Interface (UI). Also, apart from becoming noob friendly, Ubuntu has to give people strong reasons to make a switch. The general mentality amongst neophytes is – Why fix if it isn't broken?

10. Microsoft

Are you in the mood for some Microsoft bashing? Here we go. To be really honest, Microsoft is Linux's biggest problem. Almost every shortcoming the Linux desktop faces, one can easily blame Microsoft for that. It's no Wikileaks-worthy secret that Microsoft lobbies hard with governments to keep their no 1 spot intact. Furthermore, Microsoft makes sure no open-source software gets in its way by coming up with propaganda ads like this. Then, they set up a shiny new web page showcasing their 'dedication' towards open-source. The heading on the page says - “We value openness as a company”. Their C.E.O Steve Ballmer on the other hand, calls Linux a cancer. How much more hypocritical and phony can u get Microsoft? Stop it already. If you're a Microsoft fanatic and a staunch believer in their “We're not evil, they are” Billosophy, do take a look at this article: A Brief History of Microsoft FUD


Though Linux desktop faces so many challenges, it is still giving Microsoft a tough time. Redmond has already admitted Linux's growing dominance over the desktops and they've started taking the penguins pretty seriously. However, there's a lot of work to be done to ensure Linux overcomes the aforementioned hurdles. A proper game plan is needed to tackle these problems one by one, not leaving a single chink in the armor. This will make Linux ready for even bigger challenges. Furthermore, as the tabletmania is gaining heat, Linux ought to be readying itself to capitalize on the market before anyone else (apart from Apple) does.

Contributed by: MJA, a Slackware Linux user and TechSource fan


  1. AnonymousMay 02, 2011

    Very nice and mind blowing article.

    I'm nominating Mark Shuttleworth as the one to lead the way for desktop Linux.

  2. 1. This is true to an extent, though I think Canonical is providing some leadership as to where the desktop should be going.
    2. Yes, that's true, though calling Linux "not as rich as Apple or Microsoft" implies that it's a monolithic entity, which is misleading.
    3. Yes, there are a lot of crappy little distributions out there, but those don't really meet the public eye. And plus, is anyone complaining that there are too many entrants into the midsize car segment? I think it's clear that the main competitors for new users here are Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Debian, Fedora, Mandriva, PCLinuxOS, and openSUSE. That's about what you'll see in things like cars, toilet papers, et cetera.
    4. Yeah, and this remains a problem.
    5. The good news is that a lot of popular free software is cross-platform, so in all likelihood people have seen Mozilla Firefox, Pidgin, and LibreOffice before.
    6. The idea here is that you need to convince new users that getting help in the forums is far faster and more reliable than trying to call someone for support; that person could have no idea what the problem is, could exacerbate it, or could just ignore the user.
    7. This is true, and Microsoft is actually intentionally letting this piracy happen so that way it can lock these users in to using Microsoft products.
    8. This is a problem with the most popular stuff, like Ubuntu, GNOME, and KDE. Other distributions and DEs, like Linux Mint, Mandriva, openSUSE, as well as Xfce and LXDE have remained reliably constant and work in ways you would expect (and not in ways you don't).
    9. I'm pretty sure that aside from graphics acceleration in special cases, hardware is essentially a non-issue these days. Plus, in Linux, hardware is plug-and-play, as opposed to having to download and install drivers as in Microsoft Windows. But it is true that Ubuntu needs to have compelling reasons to make people switch; saying "I'm just as good" isn't enough.
    10. Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
    a Linux Mint user since 2009 May 1

  3. AnonymousMay 02, 2011

    We need a "Take-Over" Linux!

    There are not many people today which start really from beginning with computers. Most of the users are already infected by the "Windows"-Desktop and have at least 2-3 Apps that are only available on Windows.

    The right moment to try to convince them to try something new is when they buy a new computer.

    At this moment I would like to have a "Take-Over" Linux ready. It should wrap the "old" computer in to a virtualbox and install linux on the new computer.

  4. AnonymousMay 03, 2011

    KDE 4.0 change was required. There was a technical issue the back end was basically imploding on itself.

    Gnome not exactly sure what road block they run into.

    You missed the big one. The Unix idea that desktop and server are different. Boy has that caused problems.

  5. AnonymousMay 03, 2011

    I think Software Patents are the most dangerous threat to GNU/Linux and FOSS in general. Everything would be MUCH easier w/o them.

  6. AnonymousMay 04, 2011

    KDE 4.6 has been great one. And the distro i really have started to like is the new Open SUSE 11.4. Great one!

  7. Congratulations the Linux Foundation chief for beeing truthful. They know their mistakes so they start work on them harder. Hope Linux finally beats Windowns. Better one should win isn't so?

  8. AnonymousMay 07, 2011

    I wouldn't say that the hardware is the issue for the most part. I just built a brand new AMD Phenom II x6 system, all parts work perfectly out of the box, no issues what so ever. I am using Linux Mint 10; I always have too many issues / bugs with Ubuntu.
    I agree with your sentiments towards Gnome 3; That is the complete wrong direction for the project. KDE 4 is kind of nice, but I've only tried it in a VM using Fedora.
    I don't think the linux community needs a figure head, I think it just needs a more flagship product; If Ubuntu would drop the 'only FOSS' tag, and include the necessary proprietaries, and in .debs were made to operate more like Yum (ie, include the necessary dependencies in a freaking package, or point to them, how hard is that?) it would be great.
    So, basically I want Linux Mint with Yum, lol.

  9. SpufflerMay 11, 2011

    1 - 6,8, 10. Yes, exactly.
    Just because it is almost all voluntary contributions, that doesn't mean it produces plasmoids which work, there is no guarantee the network settings will return when you reboot, and who is able to check in on when those feeble little fudges will get some developer attention? All in all, too many source control versions (SVN, CVS, GIT, u name it), disparity of feedback paths (some require you to join yet another website); some error reports (as automated as one could ask), require stack traces and whatnot, but those added data seem to never be available when the crash takes place.

    Chaotic, confounding, even careless.

    But whatever you do, don't offend anyone by saying you think this is not the best way to address user needs - you'll get 'if you don't like it, then rewrite it yourself'. Right, that network tool needs a full data fork before it will get a code review, why should someone just say it is failing and expect that someone might quickly see the problem? No sense in doing that!

  10. No one mentioned essential issue: GAMES

  11. Well guys no one said anything about tabs and mobile devices running linux. The issue is very simple. Linux is failing because they are selling linux.

    Isn't Android a Linux distribution?

  12. I have read your article, and agree with many of the points, it was very well done, and I always enjoy coming across articles with unseen/original points. I agree with many parts of this article, and found the Steve Jobs, and his AppleFactory very humorous(May he RIP). Additionally I agree with Ubuntu beginning to create a platform which will in the long-run translate into greater market penetration in the mainstream end-user desktop market. It is sexy, sleek, and creating its own aesthetic very much in the same way that Apple has(though think Unity is tablet-centric, and the gui-difference of laptops/netbooks/desktops/etc). need to be taken into consideration.

    But, I believe with the recent advances, coupled with the overall increased usability, are the two major factors which will get Linux further into the mainstream. I don't think advertising is so much in the way, as with the insane increase in the avenues with which media uses as channels w/an equaler playing ground more and more people are able to see through the most complex red-herring ad-campaigns. Not to mention google/twitter got to the limelight big time with no direct advertising. The other two reasons I believe that Linux has not had a fair share, and has somewhat of a disadvantage to Windows is in the way of OEM(though with software this matters less), by increasing the overall amount of computers sold shipping Linux.

    As most don't want to install a new operating-system, after their purchase, due to riskyness/paying for a license. The second, is the alliances that Windows/Apple/IBM/etc... have with the major hardware co.'s, more specifically this is seen in the new acpi designations, as it gives in so many words sheds Linux's ability to boot on computers shipped with on-board Windows 8 computers. To expand, this point of crowding out for software/OS developers through strategic hardware alliances to further create market advantage touches on the point of problems with the development of open-source drivers/etc... As Linux should get the same exposures to the hardware co.'s and information that Microsoft/Apple, and the other big guys get.

    My final point is I have gotten a number of people(close-friends/colleagues) to switch to Linux, however it is after 1 or 2 things happen. The first being, me gaining credibility by fixing their more complex computer problems with ease, and then using my credibility to convince them of the benefits of Linux. Or the second, having them see my netbook(running arch), and Compiz enabled for sexy effect kick their Windows 7 Starter netbooks ass in speed/performance. Once this occurs it is typically in the bag, once the concession of a complimentary installation/walkthrough is given, where I show them how to make a Live-Disk(w/ a user friendly program ie. LiLiUSBCreator), and then walk them through an installation(typically Mint). This is when they become live-long converts.

    I feel that the bugginess although bad, is not what it was, and that using a less updated version is key(like many specialized distros). But to combat this I feel there does need to be more of an emphasis on unity of the open-source community, and possibly create a entity for system-std.'s(kinda like std.). This would bring less conflict, bugs, glitches, and more insights as to the likelihood of their cause. But an additional upside in the way of Linux is that outside of the US the majority of the world does not have the same patent laws that protect software that the US does, and since this is the case Bill Gates is constantly lobbying to in some way take care of it, and make more of the world more like the US. I know the article is old, but I really enjoyed and thought it was very good!