GNU/Linux doesn’t deserve to be popular on desktop computers, and it’s OK

Don’t get me wrong: GNU/Linux is a great operating system, I use it daily along with macOS and Windows, there are marvelous distributions out there, and it is widely used by companies of all sizes for mission-critical tasks because it is known for its general stability and openness. It even runs on supercomputers. But when it comes to its popularity for the average, day-to-day users, these are the most frequently encountered problems:

  1. Fragmentation – The strength of GNU/Linux is also its weakness: There are plenty of different distributions of GNU/Linux available. Different kernels, different packaging methods, different user interfaces. When you’re an advanced user, having the liberty of choosing, or maybe even creating, an operating system that fits your needs is wonderful. As an average user, this means that there are too many choices, too many compromises to make. On the other side, that computer you saw at the mall earlier was running Windows 10 Home. Period.
  2. Politic – The GNU/Linux philosophy is not all about software. It is also highly political. As a consumer, the holy war between closed and open sourced software is definitely not your primary concern when you want a computer to download movies, browse Facebook and play games during your after-work time and on rainy weekends.
  3. Compatibility – What is the common point between the latest AAA game with dithyrambic reviews and that nice little indie software you saw on Twitter? Chances are that they won’t work out of the box on GNU/Linux. Software editors are targeting the most installed operating system globally, and it happens to be Windows. Same goes with drivers, hardware manufacturers will target Windows first. Cruel. And macOS is no exception.

These are reasonably easy to solve problems, and the solution would be to unite forces behind a common Linux-based operating system packed with open source software that could be considered as the state-of-the-art product that the open source community can build, with different forks for marginal use cases. IMHO, a distribution like Ubuntu from Canonical could fill that void. Unfortunately, it appears that the open vs closed source war is not enough: there are conflicts inside the open source community itself. Revolving around one major distribution seems impossible. The greater good is not the priority, and it’s a shame.

To me, GNU/Linux does not deserve to be popular on the desktop. They had their chance and now the desktop war is over. But it is not a fatality. There is a new playground coming, and it’s just around the corner.

In the Post-PC era, Linux (as a kernel) is the great winner. It powers Google Android, and Google Android powers the vast majority of the smartphones all over the globe. It even runs on televisions, cars and watches. How did Google do that? They took Linux, built their open source operating system around it (AOSP), added their closed source layer (Google Play Services) and pushed it on the market. Smartphone manufacturers and carriers saw the opportunity of jumping into the Android wagon: engineers could create drivers to make Android compatible with their hardware, add preinstalled apps and customize the user interface to the extreme (and I’m stressing the word extreme here). Have an agreement with Google? Your device can also access the proprietary but important stuff, like the Play Store, that your users will expect to find on their smartphone. And at each iteration, the system is getting better and better. Google built the reference Linux-based operating system for mobile devices, and forks exist for different use cases, like building custom ROMs for unsupported devices, running it on x86 computers or focusing on user privacy. And it worked.

So what’s the next big thing? It’s the Internet of Things. Connected cameras. Connected thermostats. Connected plugs. Connected locks. Connected wearable trackers of all kinds. Connected medical implants. They all are collecting data to be stored and analyzed on cloud computing platforms. Even if Linux is a natural candidate to lead this revolution, considering how well it performed in the Post-PC era and after gaining enough flexibility into supporting many hardware platforms, Microsoft, after their Windows Phone debacle in the smartphone market, is preparing its revenge with Windows 10 for IoT. These new connected objects will have to be easy to use, eco-friendly and highly secure to ensure that the customer’s private life is as safe as possible.

The war just begun.

By Pierre Blazquez

I mess with computers, drink too much coffee and listen to music at max volume.