The year of the Linux desktop has become a joke, referred to ironically when mentioned at all. Under the circumstances Linus Torvalds showed either courage or naivete when he admitted last week at Linuxcon that he still wants to see Linux become popular on the desktop.
However, neither Torvalds nor anyone else should stay up nights waiting for the event. Most users have no awareness of the possibility, or set impossible standards for it, even though, for a minority, the year of the Linux desktop happened years ago.
The problem is not a technical one, as it was in Linux’s earliest days. Linux desktops like KDE’s Plasma or Linux Mint’s Cinnamon are not only the equal of any proprietary desktop, but in many ways more advanced.
Rather, the problem is one of attitude. Free-licensed desktops have been an alternative now for almost a decade, but many average computer users have no idea that they exist.
True, they complain about Windows 8, and view Microsoft with the same affection usually given to an inconveniently placed wasps’ nest. Yet at the same time, they know so little of any alternatives that many are unaware that it is relatively easy to buy a machine with Windows 7 pre-installed, or order a copy online.
For that matter, most are unaware that at least three commercial packages are available to add a Start menu to Windows 8. If they have heard of free or open source software at all, their knowledge barely extends to Firefox, let alone free operating systems and their ideals or advantages.
The minority who have heard of Linux always have an excuse not to try it. If they fumble through LibreOffice, the features they want must have exactly the same name and position in the menu as in MS Office. Otherwise, they conclude that the feature is missing, and LibreOffice isn’t ready for prime time.
Others insist that they need exactly the same tools that they are using now. Only the Adobe graphic applications, they insist, will do for commercial work — and never mind the hundreds of professionals who already use free software. Alternatively, they focus on some small feature that they prefer and insist that it is absolutely essential.
Either way, they are hardly in the mood to give a free software app a chance, or make more than a token effort to transfer their knowledge to a new interface.
Occasionally, they are right — free software does still have some gaps. More often than not, however, their minds are already made up before they start, and their inevitable conclusion that free software isn’t ready for their use becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What makes these attitudes alternately frustrating and ridiculous is that many of us who have been using free software for several years long ago declared their own private year of the desktop. For me, for instance, that year was 1999, although I admit that doing everything I needed took some determination for several years after that. These days, I don’t even bother dual-booting Windows to play games. Everything I need to do I can either do on Linux, or else via a web app.
Still, even though I have made my own resolution, I recognize that few others are likely to follow my example any time soon. How could they, when they either don’t know that the alternative exist, or else are unwilling to give it a serious chance? Until large numbers of people can be persuaded otherwise, the year of the Linux desktop will remain a wistful improbability.