Year of the Linux Desktop? For Real this time!

I still really love using Linux, but I don’t follow the Linux press like I used to. I’ve settled into a comfortable zone where I only follow Fedora and KDE news since that’s what I use. But I followed it very closely for nearly 10 years. Every year there’d be multiple articles asking whether this was the year of the Linux desktop, meaning people would finally see the Microsoft hegemony for what it was and throw off the shackles of proprietary software. It never came. Thanks to Ubuntu and Vista, we almost got there. Then there were the Netbooks, but the manufacturers chose horrible versions of Linux and underpowered machines and Microsoft came out with Windows 7 starter edition. And people went to Macs instead of Linux in the biggest tech comeback of … ever.

But then a few interesting things started happening. Although they’d been trying to convince consumers to go back to the Mainframe model since the 90s, broadband penetration finally reached a critical point and Nettops because Cloud Computing. And the bookseller which had turned into the world’s online mall began offering computing resources. And the search engine company came out with a phone and a laptop based on the Linux kernel. And suddenly, Linux was everywhere even if, in a somewhat Pyrrhic victory, no one actually knew they were running Linux.

The rise of Cloud Computing and home networking have converged to create a world in which the OS is slowly mattering less and less. Go back through history and read the forum posts, mailing lists, and Newsgroups and you’ll see two things holding people back even as Linux continued to make strides that made it only marginally harder to run than Windows: Video games and Photoshop.  Valve’s SteamOS finally convinced more than just indie developers to make Linux and Mac ports. So I can install games like Guacamelee on my Linux computer. But there’s also streaming which lets me have but one Windows computer that others can stream to their Linux boxes. I tested this last weekend over wifi and I was even able to get a decent framerate on Saint’s Row The Third. (Though not quite the perfect way to play) So Linux ports for the new stuff and streaming for the old stuff. And today I heard about Streaming Photoshop. Now, I still have reservations about this because I usually shoot gigs of photos and wouldn’t want to wait for it to be uploaded to the net so I could then use Photoshop streaming. However, for those unwilling to use Digikam and using Photoshop only occasionally – this could be a game-changer. From ChromeOS to a traditional Linux desktop – there is now no real reason not to go from the average user’s point of view. (There are still some exceptions and niche software programs)

There are lots of issues we still need to sort out – like the fact that rented software (like rented music a la Spotify) can be removed at any moment; like the fact that US law doesn’t treat your files on a server that same was as files in your house; like the fact that if we lose Net Neutrality, a lot of this may become prohibitively expensive. But the fact that more and more computing is moving to the web (and a Mainframe mentality like early computing) means that it no longer really matters what you’re running as your OS as long as it can access the web. And that means it’s kinda dumb to pay for Windows (and upgrades) when you can get Linux for free. (Plus then you have software freedoms) So we may be closer to the year of the Linux desktop than ever – even if the desktop itself seems to be more irrelevant than ever. At least to the general public – I still think we have a role for desktops (both as in computers: not doing EVERYTHING on tablets and as in running local programs).

Author: Eric Mesa

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