Why Linux Doesn't Work on the Consumer Desktop

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In my last post, I wrote of Google's apparent intention to put Microsoft out of business. One of the folks posting on the piece asked a question about why Linux isn't more frequently used in the home. Because this actually speaks to why Vista isn't doing better and what it would take to create a real competitor for Windows XP, let's look at this topic today.


Why is the consumer desktop important? Primarily because it more easily moves to new technology and can pull the corporate desktop if it is successful. Historically, most of Microsoft's desktop operating system products were more successful on the consumer side first.


MacOS Lesson


Look at what is surging in the market against Windows Vista and on top of Windows XP; it is the MacOS. Linux isn't moving very well. In fact, in discussions with the OEMs, they are still convinced that most of their Linux-based systems are probably running pirated Windows XP, not Linux.


What makes the MacOS different is that Apple was able to craft a more complete and largely much more proprietary solution than even Microsoft's, with the clear consumer benefit of what appears to be a better experience.


When Apple did the iPhone, it initially closed it to developers. When it eventually opened it, Apple only did so through a filter it applied to the product. You aren't allowed to bypass Apple (under risk of bricking your phone) to install any application you like. This is to ensure that people don't break their phones and because Apple knows that phones that crash are phones that won't sell.


So, for its follow-on platform, the big improvement was getting farther away from open source and Linux than it was.


Linux on the Desktop


For Linux to be successful on the desktop, it must give the user an experience that approaches what Apple is doing with the iPhone. The things that make Linux "Linux" need to be fully concealed. Then the result needs to be marketed on its benefits as a device and platform to the user who wants to do non-technology work.


To be successful on the desktop, in other words, it has to follow a path similar to the path BSD UNIX took to become popular on the desktop -- the path that turned BSD UNIX into the MacOS. The vast majority of folks who use the MacOS have no idea, nor do they care, that it started out as BSD UNIX (some would likely run from the product if Apple tried to market the UNIX part of their offering as UNIX).


Waiting for Desktop Linux


So, what we are waiting for is someone to do the work to build something using Linux that is as, or more, compelling than what Apple did with BSD UNIX. The only company I've seen demonstrate something like that is Lenovo with its mobile Internet device. That interface seems to be in line with what Apple has done with the iPhone. It is clean, simple, and the user experience is both attractive and largely under Lenovo's control.


It is this same kind of focus on the user experience that will be required of anything that successfully replaces Windows XP. Even if it comes from Microsoft.


We won't know if Lenovo's approach is good enough until its devices show up in the market later this year. To be fair, we should probably wait until the second-generation devices due late next year before we assess success or failure. However, Lenovo has demonstrated it can be done and others will likely follow Lenovo's path.


Wrapping Up: Answering the Question


So the reason you don't see more Linux on desktop computers is that the right Linux doesn't exist yet. But it may be coming. We probably won't see the full impact of this until 2010 or later, and by then both Apple and Microsoft will have refreshed their offerings.


Until then, we can enjoy Lenovo and Apple battling each other in videos. It is interesting to note that Lenovo actually beats Apple in some comparisons, and this Lenovo video appears to be a different spin on the whole Mac vs. PC campaign Apple is running.


Regardless, focusing on the user experience is always a good thing.