Does Desktop Linux Need a Steve Jobs?

Given the diverse nature of Linux, could a single unifying figure help move it forward?


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Posted November 7, 2011

Matt Hartley

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When you think of Apple, chances are you're also thinking about Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak. Known throughout the world as the founders of the Apple empire, these two had a tremendous impact on the way we look at technology in the 21st century.

Steve Jobs in particular evolved from being seen as the de facto face of Apple to a kind of tech-based rock star.

But why was this? I ask this question not to be snide, rude or disrespectful. Quite the opposite. I’d like to explore the plausibility of some Steve Jobs-like success finding its way into the Linux desktop market.

The larger question, though, is: Would such a feat be worthwhile for the desktop Linux realm?

Great distributions already exist

Even though Linux never really had a rock star icon like Steve Jobs to attribute its successes to, those responsible for the various projects within the Linux space have provided us with a fantastic user experience.

After all, we already have access to some fantastic Linux distributions from which to choose from. Instead, I see the challenges for Linux falling into how people find and utilize Linux when coming from other platforms. I'd love to see a way to focus new energy into something besides mass duplication and further failing within the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) space.

It's painful to watch time and time again as the wrong approach is taken to introducing good Linux distributions to markets that don't fully understand what they're buying. One of the worst examples was with Dell and the Ubuntu PCs here in the States.

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At the time, Dell PCs were poorly marketed. And instead of offering long-term support, the entire section of the Dell site offering Ubuntu receded into nothingness.

Please understand that I may have some grievances with Ubuntu, but even I think Dell didn’t well serve Ubuntu by dropping support so quickly. Dell offered zero promotion, bundled along with an overall half-hearted effort. The whole Dell/Ubuntu situation is a mess.

And as for any recent developments between Ubuntu and Dell China you might have heard about in the news, any sign of success remains to be seen.

Now these failures aren't the fault of the development teams responsible for the distributions or even the great folks out there promoting Linux. Evangelists like Jono Bacon are awesome people doing their very best with what is made available to them. I have nothing but praise for their efforts, as these guys are doing fantastic work in my opinion.

Instead, I see the greater problem taking place further up the leadership ladder. Canonical does really well with appealing to communities. Yet they continue to miss the mark with their in-store efforts.

Big box store disconnect

As I mentioned above, the sales of Linux PCs sold in retail outlets has been pretty awful. However, on the flip side, Linux-centric PC vendors on the Web have done well with their sales figures.

So why is there a disconnect between Linux PCs purchased at Walmart and those off of Linux-specific vendor websites?

I think the main culprit is that those PCs sold at the local big box store are being sold without any clear information about what is being offered to the consumer. One might even call it an education gap. Software/peripheral confusion is a common issue. There's even a disconnect about where one is supposed to seek out tech support when using a store-bought Linux PC.

With Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, however, there's a push to fill this void with Ubuntu's LoCo teams which are reaching out to people interested in learning more about Ubuntu Linux.

It's a fabulous idea, except that any connection made between expert and user tends to be short lived. The problem is that LoCo teams (or Linux user groups for that matter) are great points of first contact. Sadly, though, any additional help is going to rely on the new user seeking help out on their own. Often, this means giving up and going back to the platform they were previously using and familiar with.

No voice vs the wrong voice

Considering the issues I've highlighted above, why isn't there a Linux centric "iconic figure" who rises up and leads all the various Linux distributions in a singular direction forward?

As luck would have it, there seems to be someone who is actually trying to take a Steve Jobs-like approach to the challenges facing the Linux desktop. Mark Shuttleworth, to his credit, is trying to lead Ubuntu (among other distributions) into the future with mirrored release schedules.

Unfortunately though, his efforts are splitting the existing Ubuntu user base down the middle instead of uniting anyone in a common cause.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, steve jobs, Mark Shuttleworth

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