Predictions about when the year of the Linux desktop might finally arrive are a long-standing joke. They are so widespread that even Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, laughed about them in his keynote at this year's LinuxCon.
However, in the past year, such predictions have been increasingly replaced by more basic questions: Will the Linux desktop -- whatever its actual market share -- survive at all? And, if not, what are the operating system's survival prospects in a post-desktop world?
By "desktop," of course, I mean the traditional workstation or personal computer -- nobody's predicting a mass retreat from graphical interfaces back to the command line. Instead, the questions are a variant of those circulating throughout IT, as phones, tablets, and other mobile devices become the most common computing devices.
But whether in the general or the Linux-specific form, the question has become a common meme among computer journalists. Searches on "is the desktop dead" and "is the desktop dying" return 440,000 and 160,000 results respectively, with everyone from Jason Perlow and Stephen J. Vaughan-Nichols to Mark Shuttleworth answering from the Linux side.
With all this discussion, the questions sound urgent and revolutionary, especially when Shuttleworth quotes Paul Maritz of VMware as predicting that, three years from now, desktop computers will account for only 20% of Internet traffic.
However, a little perspective is in order. If you've been around IT for a while, then you can't help noticing that journalistic headlines and the statements of would-be visionaries always sound more dramatic than they turn out to be in practice. Often, they fail to materialize, or come true in only severely limited forms.
You might notice, too, that one technology almost never replaces another completely. Contrary to countless predictions, radio and movies were not replaced by TV, nor TV by DVD videos. Go back five years, and you find similar predictions being made about the laptop replacing work stations.
That didn't happen, and the workstation isn't likely to disappear completely in an avalanche of phones and tablets, either. The most that will probably happen is that its marketshare diminishes, perhaps maintaining its numbers while becoming a smaller percentage of total computer sales.
What we are currently seeing is a move away from all-purpose computers to specialized ones. The desktop has always been ridiculously over-powered for the needs of casual users. Now, with phone and tablets, those whose computing consists largely of texting and web browsing have tools better scaled to their needs. Because these tools have no need for large screens or fast processors, they have the advantage of being more portable than workstations.
They are also cheaper -- although often not that much cheaper -- than workstations. Where in the past, one person might use a single workstation for all their computing, that same person today may also have a laptop, a phone, a tablet, and several other devices as well, and switch between them as needed or desired. This reality has already shifted the primary case study for interface design from the desktop to the mobile device, and will probably drive other unforeseen changes as well in years to come.
That is the situation that faces the Linux desktop: not a threat of immediate extinction so much as one of shifting priorities and new competitors. And, in facing that reality, Linux has both advantages and challenges that set it apart from other longstanding operating systems.
To start with, while mobile devices will become more important in the future, within the remnants of the desktop market, Linux could have a strong chance of increasing its market share. Although desktop Linux users have become more common in the past decade, Linux almost certainly remains an operating system for high-end users -- precisely the sort for whom a workstation's advantages are likely to matter.
Moreover, the package management systems of distributions are far closer to the app stores of mobile devices than anything that Windows or OS X can boast. In a world dominated by mobile devices, Linux can already deliver the service that users expect on the desktop.
For such reasons, the year of the Linux desktop could arrive precisely when the computer desktop no longer matters much.
However, whether Linux can also gain a share of the new mobile market is another issue altogether.