Desktop Linux: why you shouldn't care

Desktop Linux will simply never be popular enough for most people to care about

Recently, the Web site analytics company Net Applications came out with figures that showed that in April, the percentage of "client devices" used to surf the Web that were running Linux crossed the 1% level for the first time ever -- 1.02%, to be exact. The firm enthusiastically noted that "Linux has reached this important milestone on the client as Linux-based systems have become more functional, easier to use, and pre-installed on computers from vendors like Dell."

On the Web, you'd think manna had fallen from heaven. Linux backers touted the 1% breakthrough and prognosticated that Linux could eventually reach 20% market share.

My response: Not in this lifetime. And in any event, you simply shouldn't care about Linux on the desktop.

Let's start off with why Linux will never become an important desktop or notebook operating system. Linux has been around since 1991 -- a full 18 years -- and is available for free. Given that, the recent "milestone" of 1% market share doesn't seem so impressive.

In addition, if you do some digging in the Net Applications numbers, you'll see that from August to March, Linux use was largely flat. Last August, Linux's market share stood at 0.93% and then gradually declined before picking up again and reaching that 1.02% apex in April. So it's not as if Linux is on a skyrocket trajectory.

There's also some evidence that Linux market share won't likely ever get much higher than 1%, and certainly not more than 5%. The primary reason for the growth of Linux is the growing use of netbooks -- inexpensive devices used primarily to surf the Web and send and receive e-mail. When netbooks were first sold, Linux was the desktop operating system on about 30% of them. Netbooks have been the fastest-growing segment of the PC market, which is why Linux finally broke the 1% barrier.

But Linux isn't faring so well on netbooks these days. Analyst firm NPD Group found that, by the beginning of this year, only 10% of all netbooks sold had Linux on them, and that number is likely shrinking. And Windows 7 will run on netbooks -- something that Vista doesn't do -- which means that Linux market share will drop even further when Microsoft launches a big Windows 7 marketing campaign.

How about Linux on desktop or notebook PCs? If you hunt hard enough, you'll be able to buy some from Dell. But apart from that, good luck. You might as well go on a snipe hunt.

Desktop Linux will simply never be popular enough for most people to care about. One big reason is the difficulty of upgrading and installing software. It's true that using the operating system itself is simple and straightforward -- much easier than it was in the days when you had to be a command-line junkie to get anything done with Linux.

But when you try to install new software, or upgrade existing software, you'll be in for trouble. I won't get down and dirty with the details here, but believe me, it's not pretty.

Beyond that, there is no single version of Linux, and so by definition, using it becomes a nonstandard experience. How many versions are there? I'm not sure anyone really knows. But these are just a few variants: Gentoo, Debian, Knoppix, Mandriva, SUSE, Red Hat, Xandros, Ubuntu, Slackware -- and the list goes on.

The upshot? As a desktop operating system, Linux isn't important enough to think about. For servers, it's top-notch, but you likely won't use it on your desktop -- even though it did finally manage to crack the 1% barrier after 18 years.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, includingHow the Internet Works(Que, 2006).

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Preston Gralla

Computerworld (US)
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