Linux Won’t Win the Desktop

I like Steven Rosenberg’s CLICK blog and have replied to him in the past. He likes to make use of “low-end” hardware (including his famous $15 laptop). That makes him a good guy in my book.

I was just catching up on what he’s been writing about lately and saw him address the Linux desktop issue and why people haven’t migrated to the Linux desktop the way companies have embraced LAMP.

He writes:

With free, open-source applications like Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice, the GIMP and others being ported to Windows and Mac architectures, users who have never worked on anything but a closed, proprietary operating system will be using FOSS for the first time, and that’s a small step over to making the rest of their system FOSS as well.

I think the fact so many open source applications are available for Windows and Mac only insures people will continue using those OSes instead of trying to learn Linux (or BSD). Why should they go through hassles of ditching other software they’ve already bought, storing and/or converting data, installing something new with a very different directory structure and system of permissions, when they can have what’s already familiar to them? No matter how much people grumble about Microsoft Windows and no matter how many Mac-PC ads Apple runs, it’s still the first choice for most computer users when they buy or assemble a system for their own use.

As free as Linux is, it lacks the same appeal Firefox, WinAmp, and other software have. Windows users aren’t averse to free software (never have been: my old modem used to run all night downloading freeware and shareware off BBSes). Most of them don’t give a flip if they can access the source. They’re as happy with Opera as they are with Firefox because it doesn’t cost anything to try. And even after trying, most users are content or so familiar with IE and Outlook that they go back. Why? Because of comfort zones, because of familiarity, because they have investments in time and resources.

Familiarity can’t be underestimated. People take a look at KDE- and Gnome-based systems and are familiar enough with the common aspects of the interfaces. They really couldn’t care less that it’s Linux, BSD, or Cygwin underneath the hood. They can see the familiarity in the interfaces, so they feel comfortable. Improvements in those two (KDE, Gnome) projects have made Linux more accessible to desktop users than earlier attempts that weren’t as familiar or integrated.

Using free software like Firefox doesn’t require repartitioning or learning a new OS. Or wondering if some device — or special software they insist on using or are required to use — will work in Linux. If they can use Firefox and Abiword and GIMP in Windows, they don’t need to mess with Linux. They will continue to use Windows. Best of both worlds.

So, yes, free software is a small step towards OS migration. It’s not clearing the hurdles, though — not even close. I think it will take a lot more to win over the masses, and the platform most likely won’t be desktop. I think it’s much more likely to be a phone, PDA, or similar mobile device. And that’s the future.

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