The „Year of Linux on the desktop“ seems to be kind of a running gag. For years now, people have predicted that „this is going to be the year where Linux will win the desktop“. I (and others) think, this is not gonna happen in 2018. And I also assume that it won’t happen in 2019.
Before I start my rant about the reasons, let me state a few things. When I say „Linux„, I mean any Linux distribution out there. Fedora, Ubuntu, Arch – you name it. Also: I am a big fan of Linux myself. I’ve been using it since the days of Debian 2.something around 1998, and RedHat/Fedora has been my main desktop (and laptop) operating system for more than 15 years now. By all means I am a huge fan of the whole idea of Linus’s work and everything around it. Nevertheless, I don’t see it going anywhere further on the desktop.
Secondly, the reason for me writing about it now is the continuing dissatifaction around Apple and macOS (aka OS X). At work, I use a MacBook Pro with Retina display and I like the combination of hard- and software! But I hear many colleagues complaining about the ever-increasing price tag on the hardware. For their private hardware, quite a few are switching back to non-Apple choices. I for myself bought a Lenovo X1 Carbon instead of a MacBook Pro, only because of the price. And the experiences with Linux on this machine made me realize, why Linux is not working for the masses.
Here is an unsorted list of reasons which I think are at least part of the reason, why not even 2018 will be the year of Linux on the desktop.
Reason #1: There are too many distributions
Diversity is generally a good thing. You do want to have a diverse workforce, you do want to have diverse ideas. But there are too many distributions out there. Fedora, Ubuntu, archlinux, Debian, Suse and many more. Some are more popular in certain countries, others seem to be especially popular for certain purposes. In my opinion, there is no single one „best“ distribution.
And that’s the problem.
If you run into a problem, you start searching for a solution. Usually, you put the error message or a problem description into google. Assume you are using Fedora, you enter a search term and the first result is the link to a discussion in some Ubuntu forum. The solutions described there won’t work on your Fedora system. Maybe the packages are not available, maybe the paths to configuration files are different. In short: the proposed solution is not applicable to your Fedora system.
To be fair, this also happens to Windows users. But only when there is a version upgrade. Like Windows XP to Windows 7. Or Windows 8 to Windows 10. Settings change and old solutions don’t work anymore. But the frequency of these changes is much lower and a found solution is at least applicable to your system (I am not talking about whether the solution works for you, though).
But this diverse landscape of distributions leads to too many different solutions for similar problems which makes using Linux on the desktop quite annoying.
Reason #2: Windows is getting better
As for most people, Windows has been my one (and only) experience with operating systems for decades. I’ve grown up with DOS, Windows 3.0, 3.11, 95, ME, 98, NT, 2000, XP, 7, 8, 10, and all the versions in between. It wasn’t always a smooth ride, it wasn’t always the best you can get (well, easy to see now!). But I have to admit, that the quality of the user experience with regards to stability has increased a lot! The overall design – everything is touch compatible and stuff – may not be to your liking, but that’s a different topic.
Windows 10 is in my experience a stable, reliable system and I haven’t heard from anyone that they experienced instabilities, blue screens or anything else. So why switch to something new? Why sacrifice a stable, working system with something where I have to evaluate by myself whether it will just work?
Reason #3: Breaking innovations
One of the main advantages of active open source software is the speed of innovation. Updates are released often, new versions are published all the time and software is replaced with forked software. This is good for innovation!
And bad for users seeking for support. I know of people who don’t know about LibreOffice and still talk about OpenOffice (not even taking into account that these might consolidate again eventually). Others run into problems with their graphics driver and only find out after quite some time that all the solutions which they found are not applicable because they are using Wayland, not X11 (see Reason #1).
The high speed of innovation requires the user to constantly learn new things. While some might be challenged by this and enjoy it, it annoys many more. Most people simply do want to use their computer, update it regularly and not have to relearn things.
Reason #4: Interoperability of hardware
On the software side, collaborating with others who work on different platforms has gotten a lot better. Thanks to tools like e.g. Google Docs and LibreOffice, it is easy nowadays to create documents which look good on every computer. Many applications (at least of the ones which I use regularly) are web-based and can be used on any computer with a browser, independent of the operating system.
When it comes to hardware, though, the issues are huge. I for myself for example still can’t get our home printer to work with my laptop, although it works fine with my desktop machine. Both are running the same version of Fedora, but I have given up on investigating. Another example which many might relate to, is connecting an external projector to a Linux laptop. That is already a tricky thing when doing it „only“ with Windows laptops, but bringing Linux in the mix makes things even trickier. I even know of companies that removed the „Laptop with Linux“ option as a choice for their developers due to the workload which was introduced by such problems.
My personal takeaway
Linux is a great ecosystem! I love it, it works great – for me. I am willing to invest time when things don’t work, I spend time looking at black terminals, looking for anomalies, googling around. But I don’t think that it will gain shares in the desktop usage. The reasons I listed above are too daunting for most people to not even try out any distribution. If they do, they will run into these problems and eventually return to Windows or Mac.
I also don’t see signs of all of these things improving significantly within the next year. Hence, I am pretty sure that 2018 will not be the year of Linux and the desktop. And I fear, that 2018 won’t be that year, either. At least, we will have a running joke to laugh about.