Should Linux Admit Defeat and Call it Quits?


First of all, I want to make it abundantly clear that we are discussing Linux for the DESKTOP here, not for supercomputers, not for servers, not for smartphones, and not for gaming consoles… just for the Desktop.

desktop os market share

It’s been more than 20 years since Linus Torvalds released his Linux kernel under the GNU General Public License, and today total market share for Linux still hasn’t managed to break the 2% barrier… currently sitting at a measly 1.64%. Even if we look at the time frame since the advent of more popular desktop distros such as Ubuntu and Mint, that still equates to a decade with negligible impact on the desktop consumer market.

Discussing Windows and Linux is akin to comparing a mighty lake with a puddle… sorry, but that’s simply the truth of the matter.

Why Hasn’t Linux Impacted on the Market Place?

linux desktopOne of the main impediments to Linux’s adoption is lack of support from major hardware manufacturers, in terms of both pre-installations on new machines as well as driver support for peripherals. The underlying issue however is the sheer numbers of distros involved. Well known Linux site DistroWatch currently lists a total of 787 Linux flavors, and this extreme fragmentation presents enormous difficulties for manufacturers.

Even eliminating the majority of distros from the equation and working with just the top few doesn’t necessarily improve the situation. For example; if a manufacturer were to elect to pre-install Ubuntu on new machines, they would immediately alienate Mint users, not to mention all the other fanbases. This then is the conundrum; numbers of distros and divided loyalties diminish the potential userbase to a point where any investment is nigh on impossible for manufacturers to justify.


Even Linus Torvalds himself admits that the Linux desktop has been a failure, as exemplified by his recent comment at LinuxCon held in Chicago last August:

I still want the desktop. The challenge on the desktop is not a kernel problem, it’s a whole infrastructure problem. I think we’ll get there one day.

Considering Linux’s negligible market share after all this time, I think Mr. Torvald’s assertion that “we’ll get there one day” is optimistic in the extreme. He also hints at Linux desktop’s underlying problem when he says it concerns the “whole infrastructure” – in other words, the complexities associated with third-party software, drivers, etc. need to be overcome.

Over the years I’ve run various Linux desktop distros for extended periods, including Ubuntu, Kubuntu and Mint, and always managed to “get by”. However, each involved its own share of glitches, admittedly generally nothing that couldn’t be overcome with a little research and fiddling, but your average Mum and Dad home users do not want to be bothered with researching and fiddling, even if they do possess the necessary expertise. They want a desktop operating system that just works, right out of the box.

Bottom Line

Believe it or not I am actually a fan of Linux, I love the free and open ideal. I am in no way criticizing either Linux or its users, merely pointing out that after many years the market share for Linux undeniably reflects that the vast majority of desktop users aren’t interested. As Linus Torvald’s pointed out, the problem is not with Linux per se, it lies within the infrastructure.

Many moons ago I expounded the theory that Linux would never achieve any measure of meaningful success on the desktop until such times as the number of distros is rationalized. Unification rather than fragmentation, the best of the best incorporated into one mighty distro.


Linux fans may view this approach as going against the grain but you can’t have it both ways. Stick to principles and continue down the same cul-de-sac or alter the approach and maybe gain a degree of significance.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know your thoughts.

 

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About the Author

Jim Hillier

Jim is the resident freeware aficionado at DCT. A computer veteran with 30+ years experience who first started writing about computers and tech back in the days when freeware was actually free. His first computer was a TRS-80 in the 1980s, he progressed through the Commodore series of computers before moving to PCs in the 1990s. Now retired (aka an old geezer), Jim retains his passion for all things tech and still enjoys building and repairing computers for a select clientele... as well as writing for DCT, of course.

15 Comments

  1. The number of Linux Distro’s are way to many and very confusing to a first time Linux user. A one unified desktop Linux OS would have made a lot more sense. I still use Linux Mint on my shop computer dual booting with XP and Linux can be used as a tool to extend the use of an old XP computer. For some hardware and software their just isn’t a very decent work around with Linux, like drivers and gaming. I for one would like to see Linux change course and give consumers a viable desktop OS that could really challenge Windows, even if it became a nonfree OS. Daniel.

  2. Another failing is whenever normal users were shown linux they could often appreciate ‘it was better then windows’, but failed with them ‘not the same’. Consider cars, say Subaru may be better then Hyundai, but jump in either to go down to the shops and it doesn’t matter which you use.

    But how did Apple get away with it then?
    1. Apple brought the windows concept (not they didn’t invent it, but they made it popular),
    2. At the same time the shape of say word processors and spreadsheets was also not set (MS Word/Excel were not the defacto “standards”. (And Apple smartly got MS on board to port those apps when it began to matter).
    3. If you own an apple you rarely, if ever, need to ‘look under the hood’, even if fully guided such as on the phone with tech support.

    Linux came later, MS and Apple were setting the yardsticks, and looking deeper at history Linux also actually killed more then a few (many better) alternatives – it lost the people wars, but won the geek wars.)

    Linux doesn’t have to ‘become windows’, but like auto manufacturers from Bugatti to Kia they do need to be the same (and remembering point 3 above – neither of which I should ever need to look under the hood of).

  3. I use Linux on both my desktop and laptop systems (multi-boot with Windows, Ubuntu, elementary OS and Linux Mint) and have been a Linux users since the days of Turbo Linux, Mandrake and SUSE Linux. But it wasn’t until recently that Linux was easy enough to install, maintain and was stable enough for recommending to new users.

    Linux cannot become the “hip” choice of operating systems – Apple OS X already has a devoted following and they’ve been able to maintain their appeal by producing sexy hardware that their base continues to be willing to buy at a premium for. Microsoft Windows has become the choice of the “average” man and for most businesses, although a large number of those users are running older versions of Windows (including Windows XP that still has a user-base of 20-25% even though that OS is not being supported any longer…)

    So how does Linux carve a spot in the market? Well, it can be sold as a more powerful alternative to mobile and tablet operating systems like iOS and Android that is suitable for more capable devices like low-cost laptops with a better screen, built-in keyboards and expansion – you can do far more with a Linux laptop than a Chromebook or a tablet with an add-on keyboard. There are loads of applications that can be used on the Linux platform (like LibreOffice, Google Chrome, VLC, the Gimp, Scribus and Inkscape) that are available for free and far exceed what’s available on those devices. The Linux environment is extremely secure and there’s little issue with viruses.

    But unfortunately the average user thinks of Linux as something for tech geeks and not designed for their use – they almost never see a Linux system in action and when you walk into a retail store there are probably no Linux-based systems on display. They hear things like “disk-partitioning”, “terminal” and “kernel” and think it’s beyond their ability. Most people are like my brothers – they use computers for web-surfing, video viewing, game playing and email, but have NEVER installed or upgraded an operating system and only learn something new when they BUY a new system…

    • I installed Ubuntu a couple of years ago and decided to return to Windows due to:
      Lack of drivers for a broad range of printers. You can get by with generic drivers but the full range of uses such as scanning were not available unless you could find a printer that had drivers for Ubuntu. If available an additional expense and a waste of otherwise good printer.
      It was difficult to obtain information from the much vaunted forums even though you go into them as a newbie you were looked down on as you did not have vthe knowledge and had to ask questions, quite often more than once as the information provided was not in a way it could be understood by a newbie.
      I have continued to entertain moving to a Linux based Os but why bother if you have to dual boot with windows anyway.

      • I’m not sure that you “have to dual boot with windows” – I choose to run Linux on my Windows 7/Windows 8.1 desktop/laptops because I want to be able to show others what Linux CAN do versus Windows.

        I’ve already indicated that most users never get to see Linux desktops in action and only move to a new operating system when they buy a new computer – so it’s unlikely that they would ever get the chance to make a decision based upon anything but what they’ve heard – not what they’ve seen.

        I agree that Linux hasn’t always been the easiest for new users to learn, but many of the most popular distros are just as easy to learn how to use as it would be to move from Windows XP, Vista or 7 to Windows 8. Distros like Ubuntu and Linux Mint are very good at supporting a large variety of hardware and while it certainly doesn’t get the driver support that you find with Windows (which has a much larger installed base) I had no problem getting it to run just as well (if not better) than other operating systems with my system. My Windows 7-based ASUS laptop (bought in 2011) was not supported by the manufacturer when I moved to Windows 8 (then 8.1) but Ubuntu and Linux Mint supported my laptop’s power management features as well as the keyboard function keys without any extra effort.

  4. I wonder what Windows would be offering consumers without that small core of geekie computer users. I don’t consider myself a computer geek if I want to run Linux, just a user willing to learn what a computer can and will do. Daniel.

    • Not all geeks run Linux and not all Linux users are geeks but the public perception is that the vast majority of Linux users are geeks, or at least geekish.

      The comment that always gets me is when someone says something along the lines of… “I just installed Linux for my granny and she loves it”. It’s such a stupid comment to make because “granny” is obviously being schooled by someone who knows and understands Linux. The vast majority of users do not have that luxury.

      • If one has a computer then they have the means to try a Linux distro without even installing the OS. In most cases, like in my own household, it is a case of “I Don’t Have The Want To”. Linux can be learned and it will run on a lot older hardware.

      • Well, I just installed Linux for my general contractor and he loves it. And I DO NOT have time to teach him anything.

  5. I agree with GraveDigger27. I too have dual-boot desktop and laptop currently running Win7 and Ubuntu 14.04. I would hate to see Linux go away for the desktop. Perhaps pushing it on the tablets and phones would lead folks into it easier than the desktop will. I think it’s all matter of getting used to it and that’s the key.

    • Market share statistics for “browsing by device” would suggest otherwise Alan – browsing from Desktop currently sits at 81.91% while browsing from Mobile/Tablet sits at 17.68%.