The thinking seems to go something like this. Linux has to succeed broadly on the desktop as an alternative to Windows because:
- It's a good way to support development of the OS and its attendant applications. People are more likely to invest in an existing success story than one that's struggling.
- Linux is a technologically better system and it deserves to win.
- Someone has to stand up to bully-boy Microsoft.
Maybe the truth is that Linux is already a success, and that talk of "the year of Linux on the desktop" is also misleading. Plain and simple: I don't believe Linux has to eclipse Microsoft on the desktop to be viable. Frankly, I don't think it has to eclipse anything at all.
It's all about what you define as success. From the point of view of the people who wanted to simply provide free alternatives to the existing for-pay software, they've already succeeded. The software is out there, it works decently enough that many people can adopt it for daily work, and you are in no way prevented from using Windows in the future, or even using it now as a dual option, if you have to.
Here's a movie analogy: When Hollywood calls a movie a "success," they mean "it had a $100 million opening weekend and we earned back most of our production cost in that week." When movie fans call a movie a success, they mean "it's touched people's lives for decades and will continue to do so for a long time." I love both types: big Hollywood productions like Terminator 2: Judgment Day -- a huge success worldwide -- and smaller, more personal, and far less commercial films like Why Has Bodhi-dharma Left for the East? There is no reason both movies cannot coexist in different spheres, because they satisfy inherently different audiences.
The reason Linux exists, if you ask me, is not to knock Windows out of the box. It's to provide an alternative. For some people that alternative is not wholly viable; I have a discussion of GIMP vs. Photoshop in this regard that I'll save for its own blog entry. But for others, that alternative is perfectly suitable.
As long as Linux has enough of an audience to justify its own further development -- and from what I can tell, it most certainly does -- then it's a success. Linux doesn't need to displace Microsoft to be "better." It just needs to be good on its own terms. That's a tough enough job to occupy all the people who want to make Linux work, from Linus Torvalds on down.