Those of us observing GNU/Linux over the past decade have spent so much time talking about how “next year is Linux’s year on the desktop” that it has become more of a humorous cliché than a useful statement. Nevertheless, while every year the Penguin has disappointed us in not quite readying itself to compete against Apple and Microsoft’s systems, at least in the small office and home office market, we can always cling to the eternal hope: next year. Or can we?
Though I backslid away from the Free Software desktop into Mac OS X a few years ago, I have not given up on the idea of the GNU/Linux desktop that I spent many, many hours promoting in the past. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel that the system remains far away from the elusive goal of reaching the average user out of the box. Sure, GNU/Linux worked fine for me, but it never seems to reach the state that the average novice can sit down in front of an untweaked copy of a major distribution and do everything he or she wants.
If Linux would be just a bit less behind Windows and Mac OS X in usability, it would have sailed comfortably into the number two slot in desktop OS sales several years ago. Stability, price and freedom (perhaps from copy protection, primarily, for the average user) are appealing, but not when it does not offer the functionality people demand. I’ve been able to get people successfully to switch to Mac OS X, because it can usually do everything Windows does and it tops that off with the ever-amazing iLife suite. Conversely, every user I tried to switch to GNU/Linux either switched back to Windows or went to the Mac (just as I did) because they were seeking the cohesive, easy to use integration of everyday tasks with multimedia that is still immature on the Free Software desktop.
There is a difference between a good value and something that is cheap, and while Linux can appeal to the former on the server, it usually qualifies as the latter in the desktop user’s eyes. But, next year, in 2002, KDE 3.0 will make it all OK. Wait, I mean 2004 and GNOME 2.8, with its sleek dialogs and bundling of Novell Evolution. Uh, maybe 2005 and the second Ubuntu release will solve our problems? Oh, right, it’s 2006.
I do not think those of us who spent so much time predicting the impending desktop-readiness of Linux were entirely crazy. The progress from KDE 1.0 in 1998 to KDE 2.1 – the first really usable KDE 2.x release – in 2001 was absolutely jaw dropping. With Microsoft staggering toward its first Windows NT-based consumer OS and Apple still hoping to put its 17-year-old Mac OS Classic to rest sooner rather than later, things looked really bright for the darling of the computer media. Suddenly, the world had a server strength OS with a friendly face on it – something neither Apple nor Microsoft had at the time – and all that needed to be resolved were a few “minor” details: problematic third party package installation, difficult hardware configuration, continuing non-integration of some applications’ user interfaces, and less than stellar answers to upcoming multimedia apps from Apple and Microsoft.
Five years later, it seems like very little progress has been made. It is still a challenge to install third party packages, something lessened a bit only by the fact that companies like Corel, who were releasing third party shrink wrapped software, threw in the towel. It is still difficult to install the latest hardware without fighting difficult driver installation situations. It still seems to be necessary to use a mixed bag of applications that differ dramatically in the way their user interfaces work. And, it is still difficult to even come close to the package of multimedia applications, for example, in iLife. The problems that were solved in 2002 remain solved, but the amount of progress toward leading, rather than following the other OSes seems only marginal. The basic user interface methodology that dominates on the Free Software desktop continues to differ little from that which Microsoft premiered eleven years ago in Windows 95.
Looking, for example, at the latest Mandriva release, I find myself wondering exactly what has improved in the last few years. How does it really look or act differently than it did back in 2004? There are improvements, don’t get me wrong. And, I’m convinced that Ubuntu has made some good strides at producing a flavor of GNU/Linux that actually feels unified. Nevertheless, as my clients continue to demand more in the way of easy video editing, powerful photo organization and completely plug-and-play operation of the latest hardware, I find less and less times I can say, “maybe you should consider GNU/Linux.” These are the kinds of weaknesses I lamented several years ago; and while yet another iTunes clone may be somewhat worthwhile, there are much bigger hurdles to reach the level that users demanded a year or two ago – much less a year or two from now.
This should be the winter of the consumer’s discontent. Vista is delayed and Apple is in the process of a major transition, which, while mostly complete from the company’s perspective, is still only beginning for users of the PowerPC platform. This is Linux’s chance to swoop in and gain some serious market share, just as Firefox has garnered a foothold in the browser market while Microsoft let Internet Explorer rust. However, GNU/Linux must first reach parity with the 2006 operating system scene. If Apple continues to pull off its Intel switch as well as it has so far, and Microsoft doesn’t stumble too terribly with Vista, the two leaders in the market will have extremely mature, multimedia rich OSes unlikely to breed too much unhappiness among users. So long as that’s true, the amount of defections to Linux will not be all that great.
I concede that a few well-known Mac OS X users have switched to Ubuntu lately, and I would suspect that this point will be used to refute my argument. All I can say is that they are not the target market. Technically inclined users can make the Linux desktop work today, just as we have done in the past. The real issue is attracting those who use a computer as a means and not an end, and that issue looms as large today as ever.
Timothy R. Butler is editor-in-chief of OFB. You can reach him at email@example.com.