Every year for the past N years has been proclaimed as “The Year of Linux on the Desktop!” It hasn’t happened. It will never happen.


GNOME vs. KDE? Which distro?

I understand that Linux is the kernel and that GNOME/KDE is the desktop. I am well aware of this distinction. Joe Average User is not. Joe Average User runs Windows because that’s what came installed with his machine from BestBuy. Jane Schmancy User might be using a Mac, but OS X came pre-installed when she bought her machine. In both scenarios, the computers Just Workâ„¢ when they brought them home and booted them up. It’s a packaged experience where the value-add of the OEM vendor is the preconfigured-everything-work-out-of-the-box.

Enter Linux.

First, you have to download a distribution. Which one? With this single step, you’ve lost 95% of the people.

Second, you have to install the OS. It’s a well-known fact that 98.87823423% of the people don’t know what an operating system is nor do they care. They want to vote for their favorite American Idol, not worry about what it means to walk through Anaconda’s install process.

The Free Open Source Software community (of which I am a fervent supporter) believes that choice is a good thing. They are wrong. Less is more, particularly when it comes to making choices. This is the paradox of choice.

The group of people in the world who likes more choice when it comes to operating systems is vanishingly small.

I’ve got CentOS on a desktop at home. I’ve installed Ubuntu on a work machine. Damn Small Linux is our OS of choice for our message bus. I’m in the minority of users. It takes one to know one.

The real reason people won’t switch desktops

It’s different.

That’s it. In a nutshell, “it’s different” will keep the vast majority of users from switching desktops. Joe and Jane Average User barely know Windows, I don’t expect them to voluntarily want to be a newbie on another system. No one likes being a newbie, especially when they’ve achieved some level of mastery of something.

One of my teammates (we’ll call him “Dan”) just got a MacBook Pro to replace his aging Windows laptop. Dan is among the technical elite. He chose Damn Small Linux for our server OS. One week later, he’s lamenting the fact that he’s not as productive on his new machine because he has to learn all new ways of doing things. He briefly considering remapping all the Mac hot keys to match the Windows hot keys he was used to.

When a tech master is considering remapping hot keys, Joe Average User is lost!

The average user doesn’t use hot keys, doesn’t know what they are, and certainly doesn’t know how to remap them. If they even manage to install a new OS, they’ll be lost when looking to run their programs; they won’t get the dumb joke in KDE where every app has to start with a K (Kommander? Konquerer? Kalculator? Please.)

The rise of Mac OSX?

If there will be another desktop to challenge Windows — and that’s a pretty big IF — it will be Apple’s wares. They’ve got the iPod and the iPhone leading the way. They’ve got a much cooler brand than Microsoft. They are trickling into the enterprise market (our CEO uses a Mac, for example, as does our creative staff, media department, and several developers).

Still, “Think Different” becomes “it’s different” for the average user. The person switching from Windows to Mac will be on the right side of the bell curve. The billion PCs out there in the world (and growing) will be running Windows for a long time.

I’m writing this from a Windows laptop. Of the 12 people I can see in my immediate field of vision, only Dan has a Mac. One runs Ubuntu in a VM on his Windows laptop. The rest are running straight Windows.

This article isn’t meant to be a comparison of desktops, features, security, reliability or anything else. I’m just calling it like it see it in terms of usage. The word “never” in the title makes my position an absolute. Perhaps I should modify it to say “Why Linux won’t be the world’s primary desktop for a looooooooooong time, if ever.”

I’m sure some will disagree.