Linux has won the desktop wars and Tux now represents the dominant desktop operating system. We’ve been in this position for a while now. The reason many of us haven’t recognized it is because this win doesn’t look anything like we thought it would. When wishes come true, they’re rarely what we envisioned.
To make my point, I’ll take us back to 2006.
Just like now, in 2006 the FOSS press was busy at work asking, “Will this be the year for Linux on the desktop?” Let’s start by looking at what we meant by “desktop” in those days, because what we really meant was the personal computer.
Certainly that included the traditional desktop, the cumbersome machine that plugs into a wall and is anchored to a particular location within a home. But we also meant laptops and notebooks, which serve the same function as desktops just somewhat more conveniently. Probably included in the mix would be workstations, which are basically just desktops being used in business environments. What wouldn’t be included would be rack mounted servers, mainframes, supercomputers and other types of computing where Linux already dominated.
From the 1990s through 2006, when we talked about our desire for Linux to get traction, we were talking about increasing the use of Linux on devices used to do word processing, surf the web, read and write email, manipulate images–all of the things we were used to doing on our personal computers. Many of us rightly felt that the elusive “year of Linux” was an inevitability, that eventually Tux would get discovered by John Q. Public. Not only was Linux the best technology, certainly superior to Windows, it’s licensing made it free. I trust I’m preaching to the choir here and don’t need to explain what I mean by software freedom.
Then came 2007 and the introduction of the iPhone, which was really a powerful pocket computer that doubled as a telephone. Soon after that came Android, the Linux based operating system that’s also used on powerful computer phones–the keyword being “computer.”
For some reason, we decided these new uber smart smartphones belonged in a category by themselves. Although Android quickly went to the head of the class, we didn’t count it in our quest for Linux popularity. Indeed, we haven’t considered these devices to be personal computers at all, even though they’re used to do word processing, surf the web, read and write email, manipulate images… Do these uses sound familiar?
We lump phones and tablets into one classification, where Linux and Apple are way ahead of the game, and put desktops and laptops into another class where Windows dominates, although both the Chromebook and Mac are offering credible challenges.
This distinction is artificial. People interact with their smartphones and their tablets in exactly the same way as they do with the tower, keyboard and monitor in their homes. Desktop, laptop, tablet and phone are different versions of what are essentially the same thing.
There are differences, to be sure. As a writer, I’m probably never going to write articles for FOSS Force on my Android phone–although I could, albeit somewhat awkwardly. For the time being, I’m not going to be writing many articles on tablets either. Typing on a screen is too cumbersome.
That’s subject to change, however. Sooner or later some genius at Samsung or HTC will realize that the tablet is just another form factor for the personal computer and start including two or three mini-USB ports on their offerings so they can begin marketing useful peripherals like cute little portable keyboards. That’s happening already with such offerings as “convertible” laptop/tablet combos, tablets with docking stations and Microsoft’s Surface Pro, the latter being available with a keyboard cover.
It’s all personal computing.
The quick growth of mobile devices only means that we want to be wired and connected wherever we go. We don’t want to wait until we get home to use Wikipedia to find an answer to resolve a friendly argument. We don’t want to spend too much at Best Buy because we were unable to check the price on the same item at Walmart. Nor do we want to have to wait until the end of the day to check-in with our friends on Facebook.
We’ve won this war. It just doesn’t feel that way.
That’s because Android and Chrome OS may be Linux, but they’re not the Linux we’re used to using. They’re not as open. They’re not easily modified, except by dedicated geek hackers. As Richard Stallman would remind us, they’re not GNU/Linux. It seems RMS was right all along; not all Linuxes are created equal.
This, too, is about to change. It won’t be long until Ubuntu releases a version of their OS that will run on both traditional desktops and on smartphones–effectively offering GNOME on mobile. I have little doubt that soon afterwards we’ll see Unity on a tablet, although Shuttleworth insists there aren’t any plans for that.
What if you’re like me and prefer using KDE over GNOME? There’s KDE mobile in the works. By the time it’s ready, you should easily be able to switch desktops on a tablet running Ubuntu, just as you can now switch desktops on your home computer.
Microsoft has the right idea with the Surface Pro–they just have the wrong operating system and an implementation that’s not compelling, no matter how cool and hip they try to make things seem with their lame dancing youth commercials. But they do understand, evidently, that the major difference between the tablet and the traditional desktop is in portability.
They’ve done one thing very right. A small, usable and easy to tote keyboard is a perfect pairing for a tablet. It doesn’t have to double as a cover, as Microsoft’s does, or be an expensive Bluetooth device, as we see being marketed for the iPad. All we need is an inexpensive carry-along keyboard that stays in the car until needed, which probably won’t be that often as it’s unnecessary for checking mail, scoping-out Facebook, watching videos or reading.
It’s time for us to pay attention. Linux now owns personal computing in a very real sense. That means it’s ours to lose if we don’t stay ahead of the curve.