The fabled “Year of the Linux Desktop” has never materialized, and it likely never will. Does that mean Linux on a desktop PC is irrelevant? Not at all! Desktop Linux is still awesome.
The Year of the Linux Desktop?
Dirk Hohndel, who was then the chief Linux and open-source technologist at Intel, predicted that in 1999, Linux would penetrate the PC desktop market and displace Windows. He’s credited with coining the phrase “the year of the Linux desktop.”
Two decades later, we’re still waiting. Every year or so, an industry pundit will stick their neck out and declare that year the year of the Linux desktop. It’s just not happening. About two percent of desktop PCs and laptops use Linux, and there were over 2 billion in use in 2015. That’s about 4 million computers running Linux. The figure would be higher now, of course—possibly about 4.5 million, which is, roughly, the population of Kuwait.
Yet, Linux runs the world: over 70 percent of websites run on it, and over 92 percent of the servers running on Amazon’s EC2 platform use Linux. All 500 of the fastest supercomputers in the world run Linux. There’s even a Linux or FreeBSD-derived kernel in your smartphone, whether it runs iOS or Android, and there are over 2.5 billion Android smartphones.
Any smart gadgets in your home almost certainly run embedded Linux and network switches, routers, and wireless access points.
Apart from the desktop PC, Linux dominates—but does that even matter?
Why Only 2 Percent?
I frequently speak at events, and, afterward, I get to talk to a lot of people about technology. I’m no longer surprised that most people haven’t even heard of Linux, nor do they know or care what an operating system is. I’ve met Mac owners who thought their computer was running Windows “the Apple way,” and Chromebook owners who thought they were using Android. Of course, both Android and Chrome OS are built atop a Linux kernel, anyway.
It seems the majority of people—even those at a tech talk—don’t give a moment’s thought to what is inside their computer. They want sleek hardware, fast performance, and long battery life. Above all, they want to be able to run either the same software as their friends or what they use at work.
They either buy a computer or laptop and get Windows by default, or they buy a Mac. People tell me they bought a Mac because they were told it was “simpler to use,” or because they like their iPhone, so they got an Apple computer. People buy computers like they buy microwaves. They don’t care what makes them go, they just want to reheat food.
Of course, there are others who are more familiar with technology. They can make informed decisions about the equipment they buy or self-assemble, but they’re in the minority. People who use Linux desktops are in this category, but we’re the minority of the minority.
When I speak to people who understand a bit more about operating systems, the reasons they give for not running Linux are variations on a set of the following themes:
- Gaming: Gaming on Linux has improved in leaps and bounds over recent years, but there’s still more choice in the Windows world. The perception that it’s easier to run top-end, optimized gaming hardware on Windows also persists.
- Linux won’t run a certain software: Whether it’s Photoshop, AutoCAD, or Microsoft Office, this is a deal-breaker for many people. They’re not interested in alternatives or running things under Wine.
- Fear of the command line: They don’t want to have to learn something new.
- They don’t want to be different: They want to use the same things their friends and family use.
- They don’t have an opinion on personal freedoms: Such as free software and open source.
- They don’t want to tinker: They just want to get on with their work.
Is Hardware the Answer?