The Linux Desktop: 2013 in Review: Page 2

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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As often happens when the computer mainstream notices Linux, many took these events as evidence that Linux was about to become much more popular. Even Linus Torvalds commented on the potential.

However, whether that will happen remains questionable. In May, only 1.36% of Steam users ran Linux, which hardly seems like an incentive for commercial companies to develop for it -- especially since the figure was 2.5% in February.

Nor has anyone commented on the fact that just because SteamOS is based on Linux, that does not mean that it will necessarily support Linux. So far as I have seen, the goal is run Windows and OS X games.

At any rate, the discussion is about proprietary games. While some may feel that anything that boosts Linux's popularity should be accepted, others may question whether popularity is worth having if it requires that Linux's free software orientation is ignored.

Women in Computing

All the signs of progress from 2012 -- the outing of sexism, increased networking and resources, and more women speaking at conferences -- continued to grow in 2013. A new trend appears to be feminist hacker spaces.

By far the biggest success story was GNOME's Outreach Program for Women. Begun as a program within GNOME, its success in attracting and retaining interns has been obvious from the first. In 2013, another nine projects joined it, including Debian, Fedora, Mozilla, and the Linux Kernel, making the program a model of how to change the system while working with it. You may occasionally hear murmurs about reverse sexism, but the practicality of the Outreach Program is so obvious that it seems to have missed much of the usual opposition to free software feminism.

By contrast, The Ada Initiative crippled itself seriously when it forced the cancellation of a talk by Violet Blue in February, then proved evasive in its explanations. The incident left the non-profit with a reputation for being pro-censorship and manipulative, especially in the security community. Since then, it has retreated to talking mostly with other feminists, and, while it has enough support to keep careening along, its lack of judgment threatens to condemn it to obscurity. (Disclaimer: I was an advisor to the Ada Initiative in 2011. I resigned in November 2011.)

Fortunately, enough other women's groups exist that The Ada Initiative's damage to FOSS feminism should not be permanent. Although few attempts at creating a mass movement are being made, the grassroot efforts of dozens of small groups continues to have a growing influence.

Community Free Hardware

KDE's Vivaldi tablet, first announced eighteen months ago as Spark, has yet to appear, although it may do so in the first quarter of 2014. However, the sleeper trend in 2013 was the efforts by community projects to produce commercial software.

For example, MakePlayLive, the co-operative brand behind Vivaldi, announced Improv, a hackable engineering board designed to help small manufacturers produce commercial hardware. Mozilla is working on its own phone, while Jolla released its first phone in late September.

These efforts share a common philosophy of hackable hardware that is as open as possible. They also imply new relationships between the free software community and business -- certainly partnerships, and possibly cooperatives that pool their resources.

Such efforts have never been attempted, and are likely to face criticism from those in the community who remain suspicious of any connection with business. However, if successful, their interests and organization could transform free software in the next few years like nothing before them.

Business as Usual

While some events were making headlines and filling blogs, in other parts of the community, the news was simply non-controversial continuity.

For example, the hackable mini-computer Raspberry Pi, continued its popularity, developing a strong hobbyists community that never fails to come up with another half dozen ingenious uses.

Similarly, as the Linux desktop settled into an era of choice,Xfce continued to gain some much overdue interest simply by offering the combination of speed and usability that it has offered for years.

Linux Mint also benefited from the new era, with its Mate and Cinnamon desktops reaching early maturity. The two desktops have reached the stage where basic functionality has been implemented and the first signs of innovation have started to appear, which suggests that Linux Mint may owe its success to more than nostalgia for GNOME 2. Cinnamon in particular seems a likely project to look for modest innovations in 2014.

As in any year, private successes like these will continue to be the basis of the Linux desktop in 2013. As for 2014, who knows? It should be the year in which Wayland becomes the default install options in major distributions, and, perhaps, when Ubuntu develops Mir enough that we get a clearer idea of whether Wayland, Mir – or both – will become the successor to the X Window System.

No doubt, too, many of the trends in 2013 will continue to make headlines for 2014. Other than that, the possibilities are many. But almost certainly, the next major trends are already out there somewhere, flying under the radar and just waiting for the right time to surprise us.

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

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