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Death of the year of the linux desktop

I speak for me and me alone.

We missed the "year of the Linux desktop". That's not to say it happened and we didn't realize it. What I mean to say is it's not going to happen. I've been chatting with people in back rooms and on jabber about it for over a year now. Something didn't seem right to us and I think that's what it was.

The desktop, which I might as well refer to as “client” just doesn't matter as much any more. We fight for open standards and open protocols and as a result lots of providers serve content that can be viewed on several different hosts, devices, etc. We win! We also lost.

I don't have any pull with any desktop people anywhere but Luis Villa does. At GUADEC he basically told everyone that the web is the future. (Sorry if I mis-paraphrased that Luis). He's not wrong. Gnome, KDE, XFCE, whatever, none of them can deliver the content I care about to all of my devices in the same way from the same source.

That's what people want though. What they use on their client sides is mattering less and less and the incompatibilities between devices and platforms is becoming a bigger and bigger hurdle. That means as non-global features go up, so does cost to deployment. Sure if everyone ran just X and just Y it wouldn't be a problem. That might have been feasible 10 years ago but we're not anywhere near that today. Even C level technology haters love their smart phones now. These costs are getting higher as time goes forward.

I'm not talking about development costs either, I'm talking about deployment and use costs. It used to be only enterprises needed to worry about content convergence. Now though it's not that uncommon to find someone walking around with their own personal enterprise. Some sort of media center on TV, a desktop, a laptop, a phone and a tablet.

“Ok” you say, “Need has been established, we get it. Lots of incompatible clients, everyone wants them, lots of people have them. Now what?” Well, that alone isn't quite enough to cause a massive shift. We'll call the need a “pull factor” for now though. Lets look at the push factors and the disruptive technology that's going to make it all happen: HTML5.

We've got developers who are writing code and need to figure out how to get their app to users. Do they write for the tablet, the TV, the latptop, and the phone? Should it be for android, iphone, OSX, Linux and Windows? They could do this but they won't. They'll write it once, with HTML5 as the UI. It will work everywhere, it will be a very vibrant feature rich experience for the user. Most of it will be all cloud based (barf) and they won't have to worry about their 5 year old desktop at home falling apart and losing baby pictures. They won't have to worry about doing something at work and having it be different when they get home. It'll just work every time, from any device they use it from. It will look the same or close to it, it will be convenient, it will be everything our desktops aren't today.

We had our shot at the desktop that competes with Windows. We lost. Man did we lose. Canonical was our best shot and so far has proved unsustainable. Getting a little bit of money from lots of users for a free-ish desktop just isn't profitable. OSX won that battle. They did it pretty late in the game too, 5 more years and they'd have lost as well. But they won. Sure, we compete on price and freedom. Not nearly enough people care about either of those things though. Not if the functionality isn't comparable.

So where does that leave us? Well, right now we (not Fedora, I'm talking about the greater Linux universe) are still sort of fighting a war that doesn't matter anymore. The world is moving on without us. Some groups realize this. Guys like Luis saw it from a mile away. The free software world is poorly positioned for this new software as a service model. Places like Google and Salesforce are very very well positioned for it. If you've seen Google's apps lately, imagine how they'll be when HTML5 is standard in most people's browsers. We can't compete with that, not right now.

If that wasn't bad enough, look at our precious licenses. Some of the real secrets and real powers of Free Software lie in our licenses. Almost all of them are woefully ill equipped to deal with this new “someone else is running it” model.

There is still a place for us. Linux is still best positioned for servers in this cloud eat cloud world. We'll do great there. Also, fighting for open API's, open standards, free code is something in which we will continue to excel. The idea of a feature rich “Desktop” experience, however, is now just a quaint memory of the old days. Just like we now ironically think back on the thin clients and mainframes, someone will think back on our window managers with the same nostalgia.


( 39 comments — Leave a comment )
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Aug. 10th, 2010 07:57 pm (UTC)
optimistic future
For licenses, please see the AGPL → http://www.gnu.org/licenses/agpl-3.0.html

And for “we lost”, please see this clean evaluation of browser stats: http://draketo.de/licht/politik/leserbriefe/gnulinux-gewinnt-marktanteile

With google translate: http://translate.google.com/translate?js=y&prev=_t&hl=de&ie=UTF-8&layout=1&eotf=1&u=http%3A%2F%2Fdraketo.de%2Flicht%2Fpolitik%2Fleserbriefe%2Fgnulinux-gewinnt-marktanteile&sl=auto&tl=de

We gained about 16% desktop share against windows+OSX in 2 years, and on smartphones free software is winning big – just think Qt and qtopia.

And what’s a phone different from a low-power desktop? Though much faster than anything I owned 7 years ago.

And look at KDE’s akonadi framework, which makes it very easy to sync information without the need of a central server.

And look at the counter-movement of open diaspora and gnu social, moving the data back into the desktop, because people realize more and more that it’s a bad idea to trust a company with your personal data.

Please remember: realism is often just disguised pessimism and lack of trust in the things which work.
Re: optimistic future - mmcgrath - Aug. 10th, 2010 08:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: optimistic future - arnebab - Aug. 10th, 2010 10:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: optimistic future - mmcgrath - Aug. 10th, 2010 08:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: optimistic future - arnebab - Aug. 10th, 2010 10:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 10th, 2010 07:59 pm (UTC)
I don't understand
What is a desktop? I know this is silly, but what is a desktop that people are looking for and how did we win/lose it? [I have seen about so many different definitions of a desktop and they rarely have anything in common with each other than a place where I have applications running.] If something can't be defined how can one ever win? [Its like our nerd version of war on terror/drugs... we keep fighting it even if we have no idea what/who we are fighting.]

I have never understood why a desktop can't be define it as the background of your iphone or google droid. It has menus and fires up applications and while some of it is on the web, for the most part you are still running games and fart-noises locally. But even that does not help define how one can 'win' without some sort of line in the sand.

So I wouldn't say we lost as much as we could never win.. [on the other hand one could say that if a desktop is just what is presented on a screen then Linux sort of did win as Droids become more ubiquitous... it just isnt the desktop that people were thinking it would be.]
Aug. 10th, 2010 08:11 pm (UTC)
Re: I don't understand
Not only linux won: since most of Android is Apache licensed and the apache license is compatible with the GPLv3, this is a HUGE win for free software.

And Google uses Gentoo Portage for building the Chrome OS → http://sites.google.com/a/chromium.org/dev/chromium-os/building-chromium-os/portage-based-build

And Android can simply be seen as a mobile desktop.
Aug. 10th, 2010 08:08 pm (UTC)
Content in every device
I'm not entirely sure but one of the great things of KDE Plasma is to be able to delivery content at any device with in the same way, i mean with the same user experience consistently. Akonadi, Nepomuk, Plasma are all technologies that are built with that in mind. Take a look at the proposed Silk Project http://techbase.kde.org/Projects/Silk. If there's something that need to lose importance is the browser, i mean the notion of it. If it's content that you want, then you get it from where you are.
Aug. 10th, 2010 09:00 pm (UTC)
We've not lost, we just need to retarget
> they won't have to worry about their 5 year old desktop at home falling
> apart and losing baby pictures.

Because worrying about their cloud service provider changing terms of service or discovering its "free" storage does not include backup is better?

I don't think at all Fedora has lost it however I *do* think that the Fedora Desktop Team dream of competing with Microsoft by building a Desktop stack that deliberately *ignores* all the fine server software Fedora inherited from RHL has always been a pipe dream.

While they've chased the winning formula of the 90's others constructed successful user experience with the very software they were ignoring. There's no reason a floss desktop could not be insanely successful, if it provided all the services linux-based appliances propose today (network storage, network photo repository, network video center...) instead of the stupid "if it's not in the current user session it needs to be shut down and nothing happens if there is not someone logged at the desktop".

What's won is not the cloud, it's networked services. Users do not want the cloud they want stuff their other network gadgets can access (even if it's stuff running on the local laptop, or on auntie's desktop the other side of the country). Witness skype's success: its not about talking to a central cloud, it's about using remote resources, remote resources have no need to be cloud-hosted to be useful, and they can be provided by a fellow user. There are very few "cloud" services that require the interaction of lots of different users, anything that is used to share data among a dozen people only needs a user-friendly setup, an URL to share, and some peer replication to take care of availability.

The failure has not been to focus on the Desktop, the failure has been to focus on a Desktop defined by Microsoft in an age consumer networking was uncommon, slow and anecdotal.
Aug. 12th, 2010 08:58 am (UTC)
Re: We've not lost, we just need to retarget
"What's won is not the cloud, it's networked services. Users do not want the cloud they want stuff their other network gadgets can access (even if it's stuff running on the local laptop, or on auntie's desktop the other side of the country)."

This sounds like a job for the NetworkManager team ;-)
Aug. 10th, 2010 09:28 pm (UTC)
If you live in a rural area right now The Cloud is not anywhere near the future. For high speed my brother has to use a modem from his cell phone company. Five gig cap is not going to bring The Cloud fast at all.

I think caps by cell phone companies will also keep The Cloud from happening. It did not take long for a cap with the Ipad.

You also have this thing called speed. I do not ever come close to max speed with my dsl.

Call me old fashion but I think even teens prefer apps if they know about them. My nieces and nephews are 9-15 in age. When they saw I was not chatting from FB but using Pidgin they wanted that on their computers.

So imo The Cloud for a lot people is not close. Oh and cable high speed internet in my area is a myth.
Aug. 10th, 2010 09:49 pm (UTC)
Re: Cloud
To me the future is about 5 to 10 years out. My 2005 bandwidth on mobile and cable internet was no where near what it is today. If for some reason rural areas don't get faster network. They'll get left behind and here's why.

Google, netflix and companies like them are the ones making the bandwidth intensive applications. But neither of them (yet) provides you the network to use them. So they can just point fingers at the network providers while saying they're giving the customers what they want. It sucks, it's a crime but rural areas do and might continue to get the short end of the society stick on stuff like this. I just don't see rural communities as having any impact on this movement to remote hosted services at all.
Aug. 10th, 2010 10:40 pm (UTC)
Oh God
I hope you're wrong, and its nothing to do with Linux or even Open Source.

I friggin hate consuming software in that manner.
Aug. 11th, 2010 05:41 am (UTC)
I agree
It's nice to see someone call it like it is.

Also, thanks for pointing out Luis Villa's post, missed that.
Aug. 11th, 2010 07:43 am (UTC)
Desktop won't die, or at least to predict it will is pure speculation. It's like saying movie theaters would die when VHS came around. It didn't happen. in fact the industry grew instead. If there's enough demand to get away from the faux-internet-cloud that verizon-google allude to, it will be provided by somebody somewhere, assuming there is no collapse to the level of a government ban. That is my prediction.
Aug. 12th, 2010 01:05 am (UTC)
Re: Verizon-Google
I agree that Desktop Computing will be around for the foreseeable future.

It also seems to me that if Desktop OS APIs become less of a development target, then users will be less tied to Windows.

I see the reaction of a lot of college faculty and students to Desktop Linux. Generally, I believe that attitudes about Desktop Linux have been improving.
Aug. 11th, 2010 08:07 am (UTC)
You had me 'til the end
You know, I almost bought into this "web clients will sweep away the fat desktop" thing until you finished with "Just like we now ironically think back on the thin clients and mainframes".

Aka all that is old is new again, and we've been here before.

Nothing is lost, nothing is going way, technology just changes. But there is nothing fundamentally changing here: the balance between local power, remote power and network bandwidth moves around a bit, but the balance will tip back again. Meanwhile we can all get on with our lives; the desktop didn't kill the mainframe and the mainframe^Wcloud won't kill the desktop.
Aug. 11th, 2010 10:28 am (UTC)
This is actually very similar to what I've been saying for a year or two now.

I don't think the Linux Desktop was ever really important in the way we thought it was, and even if it was exactly as we imagined, that time is probably a decade or more gone. I agree with you, I think we lost that battle before we even began to fight in earnest. Yet, Linux has won, and won big, in the server market. Everything from the Super Computing 500 lists to the various "Powered By..." icons in the footers of most websites says so. Linux has also won, and continues to win, in the mobile market. Android is the latest and most visible win, but Samsung, Nokia, and many others have been using Linux in their phones for years. Most people are using Linux without ever realizing it.

But that last bit has been both our goal and our curse. The height of usability is something that people can use without it ever being so in their way that they have to think about what they're using and how it works. As the mantra Robert Love and the Gnome folks started using many years ago went, "It Just Works." However, the downside to things just working is that nobody realizes and nobody concerns themselves with the branding and the marketing efforts that are required for the average person to have some concept of how valuable using Brand X over Brand Y really is.

Linux has played second fiddle to larger corporate interests exactly because we are a collective mostly of engineers, not sales people. We would have difficulty selling water to a man dying of thirst pushing his life savings into our hands for one drink because we'd spend hours discussing the merits of hydration and the process by which our water was filtered, bottled, and delivered and forget to actually hand over the bottle.

I believe that open APIs and open standards are both worth fighting for and somewhat of an inevitability. The courts are losing respect for the abuses allowed by software patenting, and it's just not in the interest of most companies to build yet another walled garden. Walled gardens work only when you've got a market share large enough to draw people in, and only as long as the practice is profitable. We can already see the cracks in the seams of Apple's walled garden and the market shifting away from them to more open platforms that offer a wider array of choices.

However, even HTML5 doesn't look like a silver bullet to me. After all, the web is really just another iteration of the old struggle between thin and thick clients. Push the computation to the client, pull it back to the big iron. The cycle has repeated a few times over the last 20-30 years. There are simply some things that native code running locally on decentralized hardware does better than centrally controlled, centrally processed applications. Also, because of miniaturization, it's easy to forget that today's commodity servers are equal or more powerful than the mainframes of 20-30 years ago. Today's mainframe is simply called "the internet", and I believe we'll continue to cycle between thin and thick clients for quite a while to come.
Aug. 11th, 2010 04:56 pm (UTC)
Winners and losers?
See this very compressed video on the "Death of the Desktop" - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQzZVP1mua0

What makes someone a winner and what makes someone a loser? Linux on the desktop has tens of millions of users. While that might not be double-digit market share it is still a significant number of users. Anyone who looks at those numbers and calls them losing must have thought the game was winnable to begin with. It wasn't. FOSS does not spend hundreds of millions on advertising and billions on under-the-table deals with hardware makers... FOSS simply does not operate on the same playing field. The free hand of the market happens to be attached to a twisted arm. :)

In reality there aren't any winners and losers because it isn't a race. While those who are in it for money have certain ways to measure success, in FOSS you just make the best software you can and hope users will appreciate it. Of course the squeaky wheels always make the most noise and there are lots of complainers out there (see discussions on KDE 3.x vs. 4.x as an example) but that doesn't mean that vast majority of us FOSS users aren't very happy.

There seem to have been quite a few "if you can't beat them, join them" type posts on Fedora Planet lately. It all depends on if joining them means I have more freedom or less... and if I can tell the difference. The mobile device world is still a proprietary nightmare full of lock-in. Are they selling well? Yes. Does that mean we should just give up and join them? Definitely not. Same goes for Facebook. Just because Facebook is the new-AOL (a members-only castle of content) with 500M users doesn't mean it is the ideal way. Does that mean the new battle ground should be in FOSS social-networking? Everyone assumes that eyeballs means money so Facebook and Twitter will eventually find a way to make money... in a way that doesn't anger their userbase and make them go somewhere else.

If the Internet has proven anything, it is that it is hard to predict the future... and predicting the future now isn't any easier than it was 10 years ago. Who thought AOL would fall? Backing up a few more years, who thought Netscape would fall? Or Word Perfect? My point is that while the Internet has proven to not to be a fad there are a lot of companies, products and services that seem to have been. Facebook might be in a completely different position 5 years from now. Google could turn into a "has-been"... as well as Microsoft... and Apple too. I know those things are hard to imagine but if the past has shown us anything, it is that the future is hard to get right.

The *ONLY WAY* we lose is to give up or to "join them". Diversity is good... and the FOSS folks have really been a bastion of innovation even if many don't think they have been. Microsoft and Apple definitely need the competition or we'd still be using something close to Windows 98 and Mac OS 9. If we decide to give in and/or join them then not only do we lose but so does everyone else.

Perhaps you think I've ignored your argument about HTML 5 being the backbone of all future app development. If that is true, FOSS can move in that direction. That is natural and to be expected. The analogy that Mr. Torvalds used to give was that Linux is like a liquid that flows with the pull of gravity... to everywhere getting into every nook and cranny and become an endless broadly deployed thing lacking any real direction or intelligible strategy. That is the way it is now with FOSS, the way it has always beenand I'm guessing he way it will always be with FOSS. That isn't a bad thing. It has worked well for the evolution of life on earth. :)

We are way behind in HTML 5, huh? How did Richard Stallman feel when he started the GNU Project? What chances did Linus Torvalds have with his private little project started with a Usenet post? How far behind were they?

If you are frustrated / unhappy in FOSS perhaps it is time for a change. That isn't directed at anyone in particular... just a general statement. Don't worry, someone will fill in your spot.
Aug. 11th, 2010 05:16 pm (UTC)
Re: Winners and losers?
I'm not saying "losing" I'm saying lost. And I wrote the post because people are in complete denial that they're about to get steam rolled. FOSS absolutely will shift that way. But they'll do so way to late. We should be doing it today. Diversity is fine, but us Free Software folks are way too proud about the tiny sliver of desktop share we have. It's been that way for a decade.

That's a lifetime in this field. The more time we spend working towards that goal, the more time is getting wasted. I should also point out that Richard Stallman and Linux Torvalds are the exception to the rule. You didn't list the countless folks that started new projects and ideas that completely failed and got forgotten about.

I'm not saying we give up and join "them" where "them" == apple or microsoft or google or whatever. I'm saying we give up and give users what they actually want. On demand, available everywhere on everything content. We can't compete on the freedom values alone. We need a higher quality product. The freedom is just our best way of getting there but not if so many of our high quality programmers are working towards a goal that is irrelevant now.

FOSS is full of lost leaders too stubborn to realize how far removed they are from reality. I can't blame them, I'd hate to spend years working on something only to have to change it because the world is changing. Music, TV, and movie industries know exactly what I'm talking about. We're next. Server software aside, we haven't lead the way on any major software products in a long time. We're just shadows of our former self. We try to copy OSX and fail, our web products aren't anywhere near Google. We've just lost our way somehow despite our growing developer numbers.
Re: Winners and losers? - dowdle - Aug. 11th, 2010 06:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Winners and losers? - (Anonymous) - Aug. 12th, 2010 01:38 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Winners and losers? - mmcgrath - Aug. 12th, 2010 02:05 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Winners and losers? - (Anonymous) - Aug. 12th, 2010 04:57 am (UTC) - Expand
Freedom and Marketing - (Anonymous) - Aug. 12th, 2010 03:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Winners and losers? - arnebab - Oct. 4th, 2010 11:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Winners and losers? - rcl - Oct. 1st, 2010 07:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Winners and losers? - arnebab - Oct. 4th, 2010 11:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Winners and losers? - rcl - Oct. 5th, 2010 06:22 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Winners and losers? - arnebab - Oct. 22nd, 2010 07:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Winners and losers? - arnebab - Oct. 22nd, 2010 07:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Winners and losers? - arnebab - Oct. 22nd, 2010 07:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 1st, 2010 02:14 am (UTC)
HTML5 might be the new "UI programming language", but will people follow that standard?
Indeed, HTML5 looks like a bright future, but obviously you don't really do the web development or use less popular browsers (like opera). Opera is one of the browsers that strictly follow the W3C standard, yet you may find plenty websites looks horrible or even unusable with it. Why? because quite a great deal of web developers do not follow the standard.

Guess when HTML5 come out, Microsoft will releases their own set of tags, Google also likely to have theirs, and they are not necessary coexistable. :-)

BTW, I am curious about your estimation of when Google chrome OS overtakes Windows. :-)
Oct. 2nd, 2010 11:51 am (UTC)
I think its high time we concentrate our efforts on an open source cloud client.
Oct. 5th, 2010 01:02 am (UTC)
Who cares?
I care enough, to read this. And to know this argument has been made thousands of times. I use linux on all my systems, including those for work, and yes I am a geek. What matters is that there is a viable free alternative. And there is. So we have won, thanks to Stallman, Torvalds, et al. Having market share isn't the point.
Dec. 9th, 2010 01:19 am (UTC)
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