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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.
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.

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Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
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Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing
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