Why Linux Doesn't Work on the Consumer Desktop

Rob Enderle

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.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
May 7, 2008 10:51 AM Mark Ross Mark Ross  says:
This was a little confusing. To be successful on the desktop, Linux needs to give a similar user experience that Apple gives on the iPhone??? Last time I looked, desktops and phones were somewhat, ahhh, different. Even Apple does not give the same 'user experience' on the desktop that it gives in the iPhone.A better statement might be that Linux needs to give a similar user experience on the DESKTOP to what Apple delivers ON THE DESKTOP.If we're talking about embedding Linux in a phone, then, yes, they need to look at the user experiences out there on PHONES and try to be able to compete with the best of that bunch.None of this has anything to do with whether 'the right Linux' exists, yet. Of course it exists. All that's needed is the right user interface(s) for the devices it is targeted to. The user interface and the operating system are really two distinct and separate pieces. The Apple engineers and programmers seem to have realized this and most of what you 'experience' on a Mac is the user interface, not the operating system. Reply
May 8, 2008 10:16 AM KG Kumar KG Kumar  says:
Great site, do keep up the good work! But you are not quite right in dismissing Linux --- the FLOSS movement has been making inroads in India, as you can see from some of the postings at http://kg-randomwalk.blogspot.com/ Reply
May 8, 2008 11:31 AM Mitch 74 Mitch 74  says:
I agree with Mark here, but I'll go a bit further.What makes the success of Windows? Certainly not its interface! The Motif-like interface of Windows 2000 was butt-ugly (yet practical), Windows XP's theme had it decried as a Fisher-Price(tm) reject often enough, and Vista's is just plain confusing.What's left? Applications. Let's not mince words, application compatibility is what made the deal: you can still now run under XP applications made for Windows 95 or NT4 without too much problems.What made Vista a relative flop (if it weren't for OEM arm twisting, sales would be much lower) is that it doesn't run those same applications and at the same time tries, with lackluster results: slow, bloated, filled with legacy code and unable to present something new enough.The MacOS ecosystem is, as you said, much more tightly controlled: on THAT version of OS X, you can run THESE applications on THIS hardware. The result, is that it's fast, sleek, stable, and runs as expected - at the price of your freedom.A Mac is not a long term investment.What is GNU/Linux? It's the embodiment of freedom, a free for all new market; there is NO control, NO restrictions to what you want to do, and how you want to do it. From the point of view of a power user, it's GREAT.From the point of view of a software firm, it's a nightmare. From the point of view of a Joe Sixpack user, it's bewildering and frightening.And this is known by the FOSS community; the reason why projects like LSB, X.org, FreeDesktop.org and Tango were started, was to try to unify as many software architecture designs, and as many interface designs as possible to get the best compromise between required programmer time, UI innovations and design guidelines as possible.This is, as always with the FOSS community, a work in progress. Said work has brought Compiz Fusion, unified cut'n'pasting, window decorator and manager independance, direct communication between softwares programmed by different teams (dbus), unified look and feel between different apps (Tango icons and guidelines)...What does it mean? Essentially, you can use Enlightenment as a desktop manager with Compiz Fusion to handle your 3D window compositing while running the Gimp and OpenOffice.org in Gtk mode along with Thunderbird and Kopete, and they all look similar and can talk to each other, like Mac OS apps do; and yet, some parts are from Enlighnement crew, others are from Sun, yet others from KDE, others from the Gimp, Mozilla...And it works; making them look the same is what distros do. Reply
May 8, 2008 3:13 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
The reason I use the iPhone rather than the Mac as my example is because with the iPhone Apple appears to have advanced both the interface and their control over the quality of the result substantially. In targeting a competitor it is always better to target, in my view, where they are likely to go and not where they have been. Leopard has had issues; recently ZDNet for instance has been calling it Apples Vista. The iPhone platform appears to address the kinds of problems both Vista and Leopard are experiencing and, I think, represents a better target for user experience that folks would switch to than the Mac alone currently does. Reply
May 13, 2008 6:57 PM Remi Remi  says:
Great site - keep it up.however i tend to disagree with the comments above. I have been running linux on my desktops for close to 4 years now and have experienced the growth and significant changes it has made in that time period.There are a number of distros that will offer the same experience as Mac on the DESKTOP - never thought we would compare phone experience to desktop. The main issue with linux is that is still requires the user to customize and tweak the distro to make a workable and userfriendly system. As i mentioned above i only use linux on my desktops and they are used by my children - the experience to them is transparent and there is very little support to provide them. I can see the progression of the OS and soon it will be an easy install and custom package that will give Mac a run for their money. Until then, we will have to tweak. Reply
May 14, 2008 2:03 PM Jean-Marie Gouarn� Jean-Marie Gouarn�  says:
This article doesn't explain why Windows (which provides a very poor user experience, compared with MacOS) was successful on the consumer desktop.The most up-to-date desktop Linux distros (when properly configured), thanks to KDE/Gnome in combination with the last 3D desktop interfaces, are more user-friendly than XP and Vista. However, a typical end-user is nearly always attracted to Windows.It's a matter of popular habits, vendor support and business model, not of technical features. Reply

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