The Success of Linux: Not the Desktop



2008 was trumpeted as the year of the Linux desktop. It came and went and out of that, came nothing more than a marginal increase in the share of user download, and most of that was because of the media hype and folks wanting to take Linux for a spin. I had my hopes high that perhaps, finally, Linux might get more than 1% or 2% on the desktop, but that hope was quickly dashed.

Since that time, the Linux desktop has taken a turn for the worse. A few months ago, I decided to try and use Linux again on a laptop PC as my primary operating system. I was targeting an HP Elitebook 8440p with an i7 dual-core, 8GB of RAM, and 640GB drive. This isn’t too shabby for hardware in any case. First, I tried Ubuntu’s desktop distro, but found that Unity and the Ubuntu desktop experience was a step backwards. I then downloaded the Ubuntu “alternate installer” because I wanted something that was more “vanilla” in terms of what Linux had to offer. With each different desktop environment, I had a different experience…some OK, some bad, but nothing spectacular.

  • I started with LXDE – LXDE is a lightweight, barebones desktop manager intended for less powerful machine. I installed it, and it is exactly what they claim it is: barebones. In fact it was probably too little. With some tweaking, I made it such that I could do most of the standard stuff we have come to expect from a modern desktop, but at the expense of it being lightweight. So I moved onto the next one.
  • XFCE – XFCE, the next desktop I tried, was certainly my favorite. It is another lightweight desktop. It seems to have assumed the place that Gnome used to occupy: a lighter alternative to KDE that didn’t have all the eye candy. Even so, with some tweaking XFCE can be made to look nice with some effects compliments of Compiz. But by itself, XFCE was pretty minimal but enough.
  • Gnome – I used to use Gnome as my go to desktop environment, but somewhere along the way, Gnome seems to have fallen off the bus and got a few bruises. The new UI in Gnome I found to be counter-intuitive, bulky, slow, and klutzy. It seemed to have ripped off a number of cues from Mac OS X with hot corners and a jacked up multitasking scheme. In any case, I quickly abandoned Gnome.
  • KDE – KDE is the Cadillac of desktop environments on Linux. Its UI is glitzy, smooth and feature rich. But like Cadillacs, it comes with a cost: RAM and CPU, and lots of each. I had a pretty decent machine, but I wanted to use my machine for development, not for running a GUI desktop that consumed al my resources. So in response to that, I moved away from KDE, even though the experience was nice.

So of the aforementioned environments, no single desktop environment seemed to have the right “blend” of usability, features and system resources, but XFCE was probably the closest in my evaluation. It is for this reason I think that Windows, for better or worse rules and will continue to rule the desktop market.

Where Linux has shined is the server and mobile markets. There are number of contributing factors to this I think, probably too many to enumerate here, but ultimately it comes back to flexibility and cost. Linux at the root is a highly customizable OS: it has been tailored to run on a machine with less than 8MB of RAM and now over 95% of the world’s supercomputers, and it runs on everything in between. The virtual private server I host my sites and mail server is a small VPS by comparison with 1 CPU and 512 MB of RAM, nevertheless this is more than enough, as the footprint with everything up and running is around 320MB. My home server is a little beefier, as it runs my backup suite, a media server, and a number of sundry tasks. I even installed LXDE to so I could have a browser available when administering the box locally. Its total footprint is about 1.2 GB installed on a dual-core box with 4GB of RAM. My personal experience with Linux as a server has been favorable, and over the past few years many have adopted it as a server platform too. With about a third of serve installs across the board, Linux has broken into the server marketplace too. Other UNIX varieties have another third, and the Windows servers make up the rest final third.

But the Linux client isn’t down for the count. While Linux failed to capture more than a 1 or 2 percent of the desktop market, it is garnered the lion’s share of the mobile market with Android. Android at the core is customized version of Linux for mobile computing. Android sales globally are north of 70% of smartphones, leaving the remaining 30% to Apple and others. iOS continues to dominate the tablet space with iPads, but it is losing market share to other platforms such as Android. In any case, Android is the second largest player in this arena. The combined market shares of mobile OS still has Android on top.

The success of Linux on the desktop is paltry at best, but with as servers and mobile platforms grow in number, Linux will likely dominate be a major player rather than a tinker toy for geeks and nerds to play with.

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