7 Reasons Why Linux Won't Succeed On The Desktop

The open-source operating system is destined to stay stuck in the shadow of Windows, blogger Alex Wolfe opines. Read why he believes desktop Linux hasn't--and isn't--going to have any significant impact, then join the debate by posting your opinion in the discussion section at the article's end.

Alexander Wolfe, Contributor

September 18, 2007

22 Min Read

It is inarguably accurate to note that, while Linux is a success on the server side--Apache on Linux runs more Web sites than Microsoft's ISS, though the latter is gaining--the open-source operating system has been a dismal failure on the desktop. There are at least seven solid reasons, which I'll detail below, why Linux hasn't moved the needle beyond a single-digit desktop market share since it hit the scene in 1991, and never will.

Desktop Linux's failure to launch is all the more mystifying when you consider that it's hard to think of any technology which has been backed by such an enthusiastic and committed group of supporters. Unfortunately, that boost has largely backfired.

Average PC users haven't been swayed by vehement protestations from Linux supporters that it's so clearly superior to anything and everything from Microsoft. It seems clear that more users have been turned away by the outright distain hurled at them from many open-source initiates, than have been moved to overwrite their Windows installs.

While Ubuntu, the newest and friendliest distro, has done much to reduce the alienation of common folks, desktop Linux remains mired at a market-share of less than 2%. It's likely to remain so, notwithstanding Dell's move to offer pre-installed Ubuntu on a bunch of PCs and laptops. That's the biggest boost desktop Linux has ever received, but it's too little, too late.

One caveat: While I believe all the arguments I lay out below are valid, I don't assert them with the faith-based certainty I see from many Linux supporters about their claims. This article is presented as an entrée to a healthy debate. If you don't agree with me, please leave a comment below, or e-mail me directly at [email protected].

Before I dive into the seven reasons Linux on the desktop will remain an also-ran, let's frame the debate with a quick analysis of the current market share of the open-source operating system.

Pitiful Market Share

Let's face it, in the minds of most professionals, when you're talking Linux, you're talking server. As the oft-cited and sometimes accurate Wikipedia points out: "Historically, Linux has mainly been used as a server operating system, and has risen to prominence in that area; Netcraft reported in September 2006 that eight of the 10 most reliable Internet hosting companies run Linux on their Web servers."

However, when one delves deeper, the data show that Linux is only doing respectably in servers. It isn't eating Microsoft's dust, though one might expect that it would be, since all evidence indicates that Web site admins prefer Linux Apache to IIS on Windows.

According to Gartner's latest figures, 67.1% of servers shipping during the second quarter of 2007 were fitted with a Microsoft OS; 22.8% had Linux. Interestingly, that was down slightly from the 23.1% share Linux had in the year-earlier period.

Okay, so server Linux is solid, regardless of how you parse the figures. Whither its desktop cousin? There, expectations and perceptions seem to trump reality.

According to the W3Counter Web stat site, Linux recently achieved a 1.37% share to inch past Windows 98 (Windows 98!). As Ars Technica pointed out, in reporting this news:

"This is a somewhat empty victory for Linux enthusiasts, who have been predicting the imminent arrival of the mythical 'year of the Linux desktop' for as long as I've been a Linux user. Linux's 1.34% market share falls far short of the rosy 2008 estimates made by Siemens in 2003."

What about the perennial "this'll be the year of Linux" argument? Quoth the Wikipedia:

"Since at least 2001, a meme known as '(year) will be the year of Linux on the Desktop' has been published by a number of tech-related magazines, referring to the prior year's experiences of supposed 'gains' for Linux adoption by business corporations; these gains can vary in reason, such as the installation of a Linux distribution onto the desktops of workers for organizations or companies who may not be immediately or otherwise involved in the computing industry, or the acceleration of development for specific applications which find their greatest usages on desktop Linux distributions, or the pre-installation of specific Linux distributions onto PCs being sold by PC manufacturers such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, or other corporations. The meme, which is used on an annual basis, has been roundly criticized as redundant and overreaching."

Such memes are clearly self-replicating (that's why they're called memes). I know that, in years past, whenever I was ordered by my bosses to do a "state of Linux" article, I'd call the usual suspects and ask them if "this'll be the year." They always told me it would be. Twelve months later, I'd repeat the whole process.

Perhaps the best reality check I found comes via an N.C. State University survey of users of ResNet, the residential network for students, which found that "Windows usage has consistently been over 90%. Linux usage was at its highest in 1998 at 2.47%. It dropped to less than 1% in 2003 and has plateaued [in 2006] around 1.5%."

On now to the seven reasons Linux won't succeed on the desktop:


Prohibitive application porting costs

According to a 2005 report from OSDL, one of the main impediments to the adoption of Linux on the desktop is the lack of support for popular apps. Specifically, the report cited Photoshop, PageMaker, AutoCAD, and Quicken.

Nothing has changed in the intervening two years. Adobe's Photoshop and PageMaker (and its successor, InDesign), as well as Quicken, are still available on Windows and Mac only; AutoCAD only comes in Microsoft flavor. True, you can run Photoshop and Quicken using Codeweavers' Crossover Linux, a shell that sits on top of Linux and enables Windows apps to run. However, by definition, only sophisticated users do this.

One can well understand why garage software shops might avoid Linux and attempt instead to mine the more populated Windows user base. But why does one suppose that major vendors like Adobe and AutoDesk avoid Linux? It's because the payoff isn't worth the trouble.

Even if a company's marketing department can be confident that it'll sell a lot of Linux software, qualifying Linux apps is a logistical nightmare and a costly mess. This will remain a stumbling blog for large and small vendors alike.

The reason is, there's no such thing as a single "Linux." If you want to qualify an app on the open-source OS, you've got to test and verify that it runs on a bunch of specific distributions. Commercially speaking, this means a minimum of four distros -- desktop and enterprise varieties from Red Hat and Novell. Then, a vendor has to decide if it wants to support a popular community distro like Ubuntu.

I contacted Bill Weinberg, a respected Linux pundit who used to be an evangelist at OSDL. Here's how he explained it: "Diversity and choice, hallmarks of Linux and open source, come with a price tag of their own -- fragmentation. Besides the big two, Red Hat and Novell/SUSE, there are distribution divides on lines of commercial versus free, server versus desktop, and regional requirements. "As Linux market share continues to climb, enterprise independent software vendors are highly motivated to target and support Linux as a host, but face return-on-investment challenge. For server and desktop, they typically must support twice as many Linux distributions/versions as they do for Windows, although the XP-to-Vista transition is evening the score."


The Fanboy alienation factor, or how Linux's biggest supporters drive away potential new users

I call this one the "Linux is too cool to live" factor. My contention that the vehemence of the Fanboys is off-putting to the vast majority of people who might otherwise consider trying Linux requires no argument, only a defense. Q.E.D.

Let me explain: We all know that the statement is pretty much self-evident. We also know that posting such a thing in public will bring the attack dogs out of the Web work. However, I'd venture to bet that they'll be far less inclined to discuss my thesis than to engage in an ad hominem attack on the messenger (me).

Accordingly, let me try to head off the expected invectives at the pass. Some people consider fanboys a pejorative. I don't intend it that way. I say it's a fair, descriptive term. I'd define it as an overenthusiastic and myopic techie who brooks no disagreement with his -- let's admit that it's almost always a "he" we're talking about -- views. (Hey, if the Linux or Apple foobar fits...)

Face it, fanboys. You're not cool because you use Linux, distain all things Microsoft, and treat newcomers as if they have to prove something to enter your elite-in-your-own-mind club. You're just reinforcing the geek stereotype which has been the main impediment towards open-source adoption among non-technical computer users.

Fanboys are the unruly children in the Linux living room. They can't be controlled by the adults of the open-source community, who're trying admirably to make a business case for the OS. I'm speaking of course of The Linux Foundation and its predecessors, the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) and the Free Standards Group.

However, a few foundations can't overcome the legendary arrogance (or is it tone-deafness?) of so many Linux supporters. Don't believe me? For one case in point, take a look at Linux Supporters Arrogant? You Be The Judge.


You can't make money on the operating system

As a user, I'm not complaining about the cost of Linux. It's free. However, as a vendor, this is a nightmare scenario. There's a reason Microsoft has pursued anti-piracy enforcement technologies, such as Windows Genuine Advantage, in the face of widespread approbation. It's to ensure a constant revenue stream.

The inability to make money off the OS proper is why there are only two commercial Linux vendors of note -- Novell and Red Hat. It's also why others with good products, such as Mandriva, have faced financial challenges in recent years.

Recognizing that there's no money in the OS itself, many vendors have pursued a strategy where they've attempted to make money off of support. Let's stipulate that this business model doesn't work, either.

Arguably, the biggest one-time boost the support model has ever gotten is the November 2006 deal between Microsoft and Novell. (A pact some open-source supporters have a called a deal with the devil.) Under the deal, Microsoft agreed to make available to its customers 70,000 one-year Linux support subscriptions. (By March 2007, 35,000 had been activated. However, these were all for SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, not desktop Linux.)

Still, it's unlikely Linux supporters will give up the ghost on support revenue. The Web is replete with honest but naïve advice such as this article, which suggests the path of "Commercial support. Charge the customers $200 per hour for it, but make sure you deliver the goods... Next up, provide installation, customization, and enhancement services. This is where the real money is... Finally, you can make money by re-licensing."

Would that it were so.


Resistance from average users

This argument is separate from the fanboy take-down above. Even if Linux supporters were a bunch of friendly geeks who spent most of their waking hours behind a computer without bothering anyone -- oops, they are -- users exposed to years of Microsoft marketing collateral just aren't interested. Indeed, "I want my Microsoft" is the unspoken mantra of the average, computer-using office worker.

Why this should be so isn't exactly clear. Probably, it's that awareness of Linux is far lower than most of us tech types assume. Clearly, though, Microsoft's name recognition is through the roof.

Unfortunately I can't provide quantitative data on this point. There don't seem to be any Linux brand awareness surveys among non-Linux users. Searching on Google for "Linux brand recognition" turned up a CNN article from 1998, titled "Free OS gains groundswell of support." It reported that "Linux is beginning to emerge as a popular alternative to Windows NT." 1998 seems to have been a watershed year for Linux enthusiasts.

Absent hard numbers, I propose the following experiment: Take a poll at Thanksgiving dinner, and ask members of your extended family whether they're heard of Linux. (If someone should say yes, ask him or her what they think Linux is.)


Linux is "simple"; Windows "just works"

For argument's sake, let's temporarily set aside my points about users' awareness of and openness to trying Linux. Instead, let's focus on where the rubber meets the road: What do people perceive they've gotten when they try Linux, as opposed to their experience with Windows.

Here, my argument is that, as is sometimes the case in the conjugal realm, expectations often outpace reality in regard to a new relationship. And make no mistake, a user enters into a relationship with his or her operating system. What else would you call it when you spend upwards of eight hours a day with someone or (in this case) something?

Which brings us to the important, but often unacknowledged, distinction between Linux and Windows. As I found when I attempted to install Ubuntu on a laptop, the experience of any one individual will differ from what all users taken as a group have been led to expect.

I submit that this isn't the case with Windows. Whatever problems Windows has -- and let's stipulate that there are many -- it does work, out of the box. Windows glitches don't involve an inability to boot up. True, Windows is most often pre-, rather than user, installed. Still, to penalize Microsoft is this regard would be to unfairly punish it for success.

On the countervailing side, one can fairly say that Ubuntu, like many Linux distros, is simple, in the good sense. It's nicely designed and isn't encumbered with a lot of overwrought crap. That's a criticism against which Windows isn't totally immune.

However, while most Linux distros work well for some users, few, if any, work well for 99.44% of all the folks who attempt to install them. That's a serious impediment to Linux's progress, if for no other reason than none of the people who have had negative experiences are going to be giving Linux positive word of mouth.

In this sense, many new Linux distros are like movies that do well on their opening weekend, but rapidly peter out. To its credit, Ubuntu has made it well past this barrier. Its challenge now is to become a long-term keeper.


There are way too many Linux distros

I struck a chord with readers this summer, when I argued that too many Linux distros were creating an open-source mess.

I pointed out that DistroWatch.com has pegged the number of distros as 359. That's not exactly a focused way to vie for the attention of users seeking an alternative to Windows.

DistroWatch's stats page had an apt explanation for this unfettered replication:

"A Linux distribution is like a religion. If you've ever tried to suggest to another person that his or her choice of a distro might not be the best, then you know what I mean." [The "I" is probably site founder Ladislav Bodnar.]

I've already argued that Linux is far too like a religion for its own good, so I'll set that one aside for now. Many respondents to my distro post argued that there are only really two (or four, or six, or eight, depending on the reply). The important ones, most argued, are Red Hat and Novell/SUSE/OpenSUSE.

If that's the case, why do we need Ubuntu, which is clearly the flavor of the month? And what about PCLinuxOS, Fedora, and MEPIS, which are on DistroWatch's list of the top five distros?

That's why I closed my blog with the very glib line: "There's no other way to put it: Linux is a forking mess."

Unfortunately, rather than debate my point that the appeal of Linux is dissipated amid the brand confusion created by the very existence of 350+ distros, many respondents chose instead to argue about the definition of a "fork." A new distribution isn't a fork, went the typical argument, as long as it hasn't made any change to the kernel.

Yes, you are correct. I sit before my terminal humbled by your technical superiority. (Not that I didn't know the definition of forking to begin with; I was making a point.) And, yeah, while you were arguing with me, another user who never heard of Puppy Linux, or Gnoppix, or Xandros has opted for Windows.


No powerful evangelist for Linux comparable to Bill Gates or Steve Jobs

The single biggest downside for Linux isn't technical. It's that there's no single public face or advocate to drive adoption on the desktop. True, Linus Torvalds gets the tech industry's all-time good guy award. He's also a poster boy for how to keep an unruly, disparate community focused on maintaining a good technology.

Unfortunately, for all his strong points, Linus is a bust as an evangelist. If you don't agree, just compare Linus to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

In fairness to Linus, he has built up the brand of Linux. However, since its high watermark of 1998, that brand-building has seemingly stalled. Neither Linus, nor anyone else, is doing anything to drive Linux ahead on the desktop. (The only activity on that front has come from Dell.)

Now consider Gates, who's overcome both a grueling anti-trust battle with the U.S. government and a reputation as someone who was tight with charity. Now he's a world-renowned philanthropist and a bona fide celebrity as one of the world's richest men. (Plus, he's pals with U2's Bono.) More importantly, he's created a public persona as a geeky software genius and melded it in the public mind with Microsoft's product line.

I'm not saying Gates's image is accurate -- was he really the chief software architect of Microsoft's products? I'm just saying the public buys into this. (Gates transferred that title to Ray Ozzie in June 2006.)

As for Jobs, he's never met a marketing challenge he couldn't knock out of the park. Here's a guy who beats up on his customers and they're happy to take it and come back for more. Sure, call Jobs arrogant and, er, arrogant. But the guy's clearly a marketing genius.

In the business world, if you don't have a celebrity CEO, you don't have a brand. (IBM and its CEO Sam Palmisano is an exception. His business celebrity makes up for his lack of broader fame.) Linus is simply not known to the general public. (Please don't tell me this has something to do with his personality. If the Google Guys are famous, anyone can be.)

So what do people think of Linus, if they think of him at all? It's fair to say that his public persona is one of a mostly normal but slightly brittle programmer who takes a break from his Linux duties to communicate with the outside world only when something really gets his goat. He's seen as a nice guy who has his head screwed on straight. While those characteristics are commendable and indeed pretty much unparalleled in the annals of tech innovators, they also mean Linus Torvalds is not a big force for change. He's quite happy to spend his days managing updates to the Linux kernel and offering terse responses to the big questions roiling the open-source landscape.

But pushing Linux as an alternative to Windows, as an OS that the desktop masses should convert to immediately? It's not that this kind of evangelism is beneath Linus. It's just that he's never evidenced any interest in getting involved.

While I wouldn't equate the two men in any way, shape, or form, the tech-industry figure most analogous to Linus, in that he doesn't much move the needle in his company's favor, is Steve Ballmer. But whereas Ballmer has achieved negative equity as a reward for all his years of high-profile presence, Torvalds is merely neutral.

What about Richard "Please don't call GNU 'Linux'" Stallman? He'd be the next logical go-to guy to consider, if Torvalds doesn't seem like the evangelist destined to put desktop Linux over the top.

On the plus side, Stallman has carved out a reputation as an obsessive advocate for free software. However, while his commitment to no-cost code is admirable, his philosophy, as laid out in his manifesto, "Why Software Should Not Have Owners," puts him at odds with vendors who are trying to build businesses around Linux.

It's not Stallman-bashing to note that he seems to go out of his way to alienate potential allies. For example, in this recent interview, he criticizes Torvalds for using the term "open source" instead of Stallman's preferred phrase "free software."

Of course Stallman is free to express any political opinions he wishes, but it's interesting to note that, for a man who professes to advocate "freedom" in the software realm, he sure has a long list of things he wants other folks to refrain from doing. For example, on his personal Web page, he asks people to boycott Coca-Cola, refrain from buying Harry Potter books, don't publish papers with the IEEE, boycott Yahoo, and boycott both of the new Blu-ray and HD DVD high-definition formats.

It's safe to say that, while Stallman has many talents (mostly as a software developer), bridge-building is not among them.

Closing Thoughts

Is it possible that I'm wrong, and the Linux will move the desktop needle beyond the single-digit market share in which it's been mired for so long?

The biggest hope for desktop Linux came earlier this year from Dell, which is now offering Linux preinstalled on several desktops and notebooks. Preinstallation is important, because the vast majority of PC users will never load their own systems software onto a bare machine.

A personal story: Dell never came through on their promise to send me a review unit of their Ubuntu laptop. Whether it's because they prefer to publicize the machine on Linux sites, view me as anti-Linux (I'm not), or don't want to shunt attention away from their Windows machines on mainstream IT sites such as this one, I can't say. What I can say is that Dell's Linux desktops will remain a sideline, and a drop in the bucket for the direct-PC powerhouse as compared to Windows.

While Dell's Linux machines are likely to remain on the market for a while, the other big Linux retail hope hasn't caught on either. That was the positioning of Linux as a low-end retail option, which reached its apex in 2004, when Wal-Mart took a stab at selling cheap Linux PCs.

Currently, most of the low-end Linux activity involves Linspire, the distro marketed by Net billionaire Michael Robertson. Linspire comes preinstalled on this $378 Microtel PC at Wal-Mart; other Linspire partners have similar offerings. It's not realistic though, to say that Linspire will be the savior of Linux on the desktop.

What now? Perhaps 2010 will finally be the year of desktop Linux. Unfortunately, I believe that that the seven arguments I've set forth in this piece make an airtight case that this isn't going to happen.

About the Author(s)

Alexander Wolfe


Alexander Wolfe is a former editor for InformationWeek.

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