The Linux Desktop: 2013 in Review

The Linux desktop’s big trends included crowdfunding, the Ubuntu controversy, GNOME, Steam, and more.
Posted December 10, 2013

Bruce Byfield

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The year 2013 had its own distinct developments, but most of what happened in the last twelve months were continuations of events that were already happening. It was a year of continued development, of trends reaching natural conclusions, rather than of new ones beginning.

Whether you are looking at crowdfunding, games, the continued efforts of Ubuntu or GNOME, women in computing, or the new innovations at open hardware, the impression of 2013 remains the same. You could almost call it 2012, Part 2, except that many of the continuing stories began even earlier.


In 2012, projects started turning to crowdfunding. In 2013, they continued to do, but two failed campaigns emphasized the fact that crowdfunding is not always the magic solution that some once hoped.

The first major failed campaign was made by the Yorba Foundation, which was hoping to accelerate the development of Geary, which is likely to become the replacement for Evolution in GNOME and Ubuntu. A post-mortem was conducted by Yorba's executive director Jim Nelson, but I suspect the main reason was a lack of marketing expertise to make the development of Geary seem worth the support.

The other failed campaign was for Ubuntu Edge, a proposed limited edition, cutting edge phone. The campaign reached a record-breaking $13 million, but fell well short of its $32 million goal.

Canonical Software, Ubuntu's commercial division, tried to claim the campaign as a victory, but the logic is impossible to accept. Although the campaign did attract considerable attention, the failure leaves Caonical and Ubuntu with a reputation as unsuccessful small-timers in the phone market. Considering that Canonical's first manufacturing deal was announced four months later, at best the campaign seems to have done nothing for the company.

The Siege of Ubuntu

Speaking of Ubuntu, it remained a leading distribution in 2013, but its popularity may have peaked. During 2013, Canonical continued to be pilloried for continuing to show commercial search results in the dash, and even long-time Ubuntu volunteers began to complain publicly about the amount of control exerted by Canonical over the project.

To make matters worse, Shuttleworth's reference to those who question his decisions as "the Open Source Tea Party" worsened the already touchy relations between Canonical and the rest of the free software community. Referring to those who did not immediately support Canonical's Mir project, Shuttleworth's remarks were specifically interpreted as a reference to KDE, and provoked furious responses from some of KDE's leading developers. Although Shuttleworth apologized, many questioned the sincerity and the lateness of his apology.

Such issues have largely overshadowed Canonical's efforts at convergence across form factors. Even the news of an emulator for its Touch phone interface received less attention than it would have three years ago. Ubuntu and Cannonical are unlikely to disappear, but both need less bad publicity and more solid accomplishments to celebrate.

GNOME and the Road to Recovery

Along with KDE, the GNOME desktop once dominated the Linux community. However, the release of GNOME 3.0, and the project's failure to address complaints immediately caused many users to look for another desktop. To judge from various reader surveys, these events may have cost GNOME as much as twenty-three percent of the user market

In 2012, GNOME finally addressed the complaints by encouraging the development of extensions that could be combined to create a GNOME 2-like desktop. Just as important, the GNOME 3 release series began to mature and started to be based on usability and design expertise that are unrivalled by any other desktop's.

However, despite these changes, 2013 brought no change in popularity. On the recently released Linux Journal Readers' Choice Awards, GNOME scored 14%, approximately the same as last year, and not much above Xfce's 12%.

Perhaps, after settling on alternatives, former GNOME users see no reason to return. It may take a new major release with a few killer features for them to return, assuming that they can be persuaded at all.

The Age of Steam

2013 started with the porting of Steam to Linux. Suddenly, users were able to access games formerly available only on Windows or OS X. In September, that news received a power-up from the announcement of SteamOS, a cross-gaming platform based on Linux.

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Tags: open source, Ubuntu, Linux desktop, Gnome, Canonical, Steam OS

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