Ten Tech Blunders: Whoops, We Stepped in It!: Page 7

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7) The Glacial Pace of the Linux Desktop: Sloooooooow

The Blunder:

Even years after the OS earned acceptance in the tech world, a mainstream Linux desktop refuses to gain hold.

What Happened:

There are many things in life we know we have to wait for. Vacation. That fat bonus. A low-priced hybrid car. We know these things are coming – or, we think they’re coming – but we just need to be, well, patient. However, in the case of the Linux desktop, the patience required is epic.

Oh, I know the Linux desktop already exists. You can choose from the likes of Feisty Fawn or GNOME. You can download Xandros or any one of these nifty Linux desktop apps. If you have the technical know-how and real gumption, you can certainly use Linux as your desktop OS.

But what about a Linux desktop in the larger world? Leave the rarefied sphere of card-carrying techies, and the Linux desktop is one very rare bird. A report in April 2007 found that Linux accounted for 0.8% of users. That’s probably too conservative; the real number is probably closer to 3%.

Still, think about it: Linus Torvalds birthed the Linux kernel in 1991. Now, sixteen years later, we’re still waiting for a mass produced, commercially accepted desktop. It didn’t take Steve Jobs 16 years, nor Bill Gates.

At moments, the wait for Linux to break out of the tech ghetto and enter the mainstream gets discouraging. A recent survey by OpenSUSE.org found – surprise – that 98% of Linux desktop users are male. The true test of an OS: if only one gender is using it, it’s still waiting to be discovered.

And here’s a fact that would bruise anyone’s pro-Linux sensibilities. This reporter from DesktopLinux.com, covering the 2006 LinuxWorld show in San Francisco, found that only half the laptop users (based on casual observation) were running Linux. Incredible! At an actual LinuxWorld show – in San Francisco, no less – only half the users were driving Linux. (Does that mean that half were actually running…Windows? At a LinuxWorld show?)

So the question looms larger: after all these years, why is there no mainstream desktop Linux?

There are probably a lot of complicated reasons, but the simple one is this: the big PC makers are highly risk-averse; unless they see a big built-in audience, they won’t pre-install an OS at the retail level. And for 95% of users, if an OS doesn’t come preinstalled, it’ll never be installed at all.

It’s circular logic: A major PC maker will only get behind a Linux desktop when the public clamors for it. But the public isn’t clamoring for it because no big PC maker is promoting it.

Then comes Dell. Responding to thousands and thousands of users who used Dell’s ideaStorm suggestion box, the company made a momentous announcement: it would launch a desktop running the Ubuntu flavor of Linux. The release is slated for late May.

Just day later, however, came the news: Dell joined the Microsoft-Novell pact, with its very proprietary intellectual property restrictions. In the eyes of many Linux adherents, this was heresy. The snarky messages poured into Dell like flaming spears cast by an army of enraged barbarians. Or, as Techworld delicately put it, the deal “appears to have drained much of the goodwill Dell had fostered among Linux enthusiasts.” Hopes for a popularly accepted Linux desktop seemed dim.

But wait – the mood has changed. Check out this message board full of Linux adherents, eagerly discussing the joys of the forthcoming Dell release. They’re ready to give it their full support – unequivocally. “I'll order a Dell for my mom when they're available,” enthused one fellow, who clearly has that old time religion.

So the Linux desktop is really on its way – really. Any day now, it’s going to poke its head shyly into the bright lights of the mainstream PC market. No fooling this time. Just a little bit more patience…

Moral of the story:

A true believer will wait as long as it takes, even if that’s a long, long time.

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