Is the Linux Desktop Dead?: Page 2

The increased importance of mobile computing raises questions about the Linux desktop's future.

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On the one hand, Linux is in a much stronger position from which to enter the mobile market than it was to enter the desktop market fifteen years ago. Significantly, they are no longer starting from scratch. When desktops like KDE and GNOME began development, their first priority was to equal the functionality and aesthetics of existing proprietary interfaces. Nearing that goal took over a decade, and, meanwhile, many incorrectly believed that Linux was primarily run from the command line.

By contrast, today Linux interface design is advanced enough that, if all else were equal, it would be a strong contender in the mobile market. As the speed with which the community has produced alternatives like Ubuntu's Unity or KDE's Plasma Active demonstrates, Linux now has the expertise to develop interfaces that rival Windows or ios 5.

Just as importantly, in distributions like Ubuntu and Jolicloud, it's also embraced cloud computing more than its proprietary rivals have. In general, too, the community's collaborative development model and each project's ability to develop multiple approaches, Linux is vastly better suited to the faster pace of mobile development than any of its competitors are.

On the other hand, the problem is that all else is not equal. Apple's advantages of scale and of being first to market in mobile devices, and the permissive free licenses that allow Android to be competitive means that Linux is, once again at a disadvantage as it tries to enter a market. The fact that in Android, it will be facing its own proprietary bastard, only adds an unpleasant taste of irony.

In addition, Linux also faces the future with other handicaps. For instance, what are the chances of free licenses like the GNU General Public License (GPL) being enforced in app stores with tens of thousands of daily downloads? An unenforceable license could bring the whole idea of free software into disrepute.

True, the GNU Affero GPL is supposed to ensure the software freedom of users of cloud computing. Yet, with the Free Software Foundation expressing deep suspicions about of the whole idea of cloud computing, the Affero GPL has been promoted and used far too little to be as influential in mobile computing as the GPL has been for desktops.

Another self-inflicted problem is that, in the past couple of years, most free software designers have taken to designing all interfaces, including ones for workstations, as though they were intended for the screens of mobile devices. You only have to look at GNOME 3 or Unity to see how widespread this design decision has become.

From some perspectives, the decision makes sense. If mobile devices are going to be the most common computers, then why not give all computers users an interface with which they are familiar? The decision also means that separate code bases no longer need to be maintained for different sized screens.

The problem is, an interface that works with the small screen on a phone becomes torturous on a twenty-inch wide screen monitor.

In addition, while users might endure the restrictions imposed by a mobile device's screen, they don't necessarily enjoy them. Far from appreciating a common interface on all their computers, users might prefer an interface that takes advantage of each device's separate capabilities. Yet, so far, only KDE in Plasma Active has considered this more varied approach.

Admittedly, this approach is easier to code and maintain in KDE than in GNOME or Unity, thanks to the modular structure of the KDE 4 series. But users care only about what they see, and not the back-end. Without such a flexible design, the Linux desktop may gamble heavily on the mobile market, only to fail very messily and thoroughly, increasing existing users' discontent while doing little to appeal to newcomers.

Triumph, Failure, or Death

The shift away from desktop to mobile devices could be either the making or the breaking of Linux. Although it promises a fresh start, it also presents new external and internal challenges, all the more so because most of the community has chosen the one-size-fits-all principle of interface design.

Yet, while a failure of imagination might mean result in Linux's failure to gain market share, an even worse possibility exists. Instead of making Linux more or less popular, the efforts to anticipate the mobile market could result in simply a replay of the desktop market, with Linux remaining a niche player.

If that happens, then Linux will have failed in two major markets to become a major player. And, with two major failures to its discredit, then rumors of its death could become the plain truth rather than an exaggeration.

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Tags: Linux, Linux desktop, Gnome, KDE

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