Death of the Desktop Take II


I wrote a rather long response to a posting I saw on Fedora Planet entitled, "Death of the Year of the Linux Desktop". I'm sharing it here as well.

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The desktop is dead? Some disagree. See this very compressed video on the "Death of the Desktop":

What makes someone a winner and what makes someone a loser? Linux on the desktop has tens of millions of users. While that might not be double-digit market share it is still a significant number of users. Anyone who looks at those numbers and calls them losing must have thought the game was winnable to begin with. It wasn't. FOSS does not spend hundreds of millions on advertising and billions on under-the-table deals with hardware makers... FOSS simply does not operate on the same playing field. The free hand of the market happens to be attached to a twisted arm.

In reality there aren't any winners and losers because it isn't a race. While those who are in it for money have certain ways to measure success, in FOSS you just make the best software you can and hope users will appreciate it. Of course the squeaky wheels always make the most noise and there are lots of complainers out there (see discussions on KDE 3.x vs. 4.x as an example) but that doesn't mean that vast majority of us FOSS users aren't very happy.

There seem to have been quite a few "if you can't beat them, join them" type posts on Fedora Planet lately. It all depends on if joining them means I have more freedom or less... and if I can tell the difference. The mobile device world is still a proprietary nightmare full of lock-in. Are they selling well? Yes. Does that mean we should just give up and join them? Definitely not. Same goes for Facebook. Just because Facebook is the new-AOL (a members-only castle of content) with 500M users doesn't mean it is the ideal way. Does that mean the new battle ground should be in FOSS social-networking? Everyone assumes that eyeballs means money so Facebook and Twitter will eventually find a way to make money... in a way that doesn't anger their userbase and make them go somewhere else.

If the Internet has proven anything, it is that it is hard to predict the future... and predicting the future now isn't any easier than it was 10 years ago. Who thought AOL would fall? Backing up a few more years, who thought Netscape would fall? Or Word Perfect? My point is that while the Internet has proven to not to be a fad there are a lot of companies, products and services that seem to have been. Facebook might be in a completely different position 5 years from now. Google could turn into a "has-been"... as well as Microsoft... and Apple too. I know those things are hard to imagine but if the past has shown us anything, it is that the future is hard to get right.

The *ONLY WAY* we lose is to give up or to "join them". Diversity is good... and the FOSS folks have really been a bastion of innovation even if many don't think they have been. Microsoft and Apple definitely need the competition or we'd still be using something close to Windows 98 and Mac OS 9. If we decide to give in and/or join them then not only do we lose but so does everyone else.

Perhaps you think I've ignored your argument about HTML 5 being the backbone of all future app development. If that is true, FOSS can move in that direction. That is natural and to be expected. The analogy that Mr. Torvalds used to give was that Linux is like a liquid that flows with the pull of gravity... to everywhere getting into every nook and cranny and become an endless broadly deployed thing lacking any real direction or intelligible strategy. That is the way it is now with FOSS, the way it has always beenand I'm guessing he way it will always be with FOSS. That isn't a bad thing. It has worked well for the evolution of life on earth.

We are way behind in HTML 5, huh? How did Richard Stallman feel when he started the GNU Project? What chances did Linus Torvalds have with his private little project started with a Usenet post? How far behind were they?

If you are frustrated / unhappy in FOSS perhaps it is time for a change. That isn't directed at anyone in particular... just a general statement. Don't worry, someone will fill in your spot.

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Scott Dowdle's picture

One world / computer order?

syadnom left the following as a comment to a different blog post ("Why I Use Ubuntu") but I thought the discussion was more appropriate there so I'm responding to it here. First I represent his original and then I respond.

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I think that Linux has a unique opportunity to offer up what Mac offers to Mac users, on the scale of windows.

IMHO Apple would be the major player had they not been so 'apple' if you know what I mean. OSX is miles ahead of Windows7 in usability. It has a 'just works' feel to it that is lacking in Windows(95-7).

To do this, linux distros need to have package management be a secret thing, that only the elitists care about. Installing a package, handling dependancies, everything needs to be a progress bar. When a package breaks, it needs to be handled better. The system needs to be able to hit the bug tracker and find the fix. It needs to tell the user that the issue will be resolved on x date which is the next update cycle or whatever, or it needs to say that there is not a know fix at the moment, would you like to be informed when there is?

Users shouldnt see the BIOS for even a second. They should see a linux logo and then their desktop.

I think that the vast number of distros is a good thing but only for now. I think it allows the 'elite' users to find all the possible ways to do things, to hash them out, and to let the strongest survive. At some point, there will need to be a convergence if linux is ever to challenge Microsoft. Someone has to win, either by total defeat, or merging together. To be a really viable platform, users need it to work and they need it to be consistent between computers at home, at work, at a friends house.

Microsoft does just that. There is just 1 windows, even though there are different versions. Applications that people run pretty much run on all of them, and they are sequential versions so its a simple thing to understand that your copy is too old to run program X. Linux can do this one better by more frequent major releases, or much more frequent minor releases.

Gentoo and other source based distros are just too slow. what I mean is that building packages from source just doesnt make any sense for regular desktop users. Building from source is something like mailorder. Want it now, get it much later. ubuntu can have pretty much any package in seconds. same with fedora. Arch does both, but desktop users dont really care about source packages.

really, computers arent these things that most people really want to know how works. they are like cars. I want a red one, that goes fast but I have $$$ so I need to be a bit thrifty, I cant spend $$$$$$$. The training you got when you were 15 handles every car on the road. The radio knobs, the shifter, the pedals, all in roughly the same place, operated the same way. most people want a computer as a tool not as a toy. they want to walk up and DO something like browse the web. none of the guts matter. They want to play a game, they want to listen to music. The game is the toy, the music is the toy, the computer isnt fun to use, the game is, the music is.

To get the game or get the music, web, chat, etc they need a search to find it and a button to get it. If it came on a disk they need to put the disk in it runs. They shouldnt have to get directx11 runtime, or opengl, or .net, or libXYZ, they shouldnt even know what most of those things are.

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I use Windows, Mac and Linux... and they are all remarkably the same. I don't really think any of them have much of an advantage with regards to being "user friendly" or "just working". Of course there are some distinctive traits that make them different and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. I do NOT want Linux to change and try to be like something else... nor do I think that we need one environment to win. In fact, I'd prefer to see dozens or even a hundred different OSes in use around the world. As long as there are standardized network, protocol, and data / file formats... having many different implementations that use them is good.

Your car example is fine by me... but we don't have one car company making one model of car. There are a handful of companies around the world making a wide range of vehicles. There has been a contraction in the number of car companies that exist and I think that has not been good for the consumer. Cars do not act all the same. There are automatic and manual transmissions. There are large cars and small cars. There are trucks, minivans, and SUVs. Sure they basically all operate the same but yet they are different. From that point of view Linux does not operate that differently than the others but in the ways that it is different, I like it.

When Linus Torvalds first posted to the Minix mailing list announcing his new project he was not asking people to join him on a project to make a user friendly competitor to commercial systems. He was making something for himself... and it was going to be a challenge with one or more things constantly broken. Of course that was almost 20 years ago and things have changed.

I think the command line is a feature to be exploited, not something that needs to be hidden and removed if possible. You don't want people to see the BIOS? Why not? I loath drastic oversimplification that makes something unusable outside of its narrow design scope. I'm a hacker (the proper definition) by nature... or maybe I'm not good enough to be a hacker... but I sure want to be. :) Anyway, I like the devil in the details. I like the challenge of having a diverse and multifaceted environment... with tools that can be put together in different ways to do different things. I like having more than one program to do the same thing... but in slightly different ways.

It is like the ecosystem of life on earth... evolving and changing... hopefully getting better all of the time while weeding out the weaker members. The process of evolution isn't to make a single, perfect species. There is no species that can survive and thrive in the vastly different environments in which life is found. There should be many different OSes just as there are many different users.

I don't care if Linux never "wins". I think it is doing quite well with many tens of millions of users world wide. I have no desire to dumb Linux down so that even an idiot can use it. Some Linux distros are certainly welcome to try, but don't dare make my distro of choice that or I'll have to fork and make my own.

One of Linux's strengths is that you can extract the core pieces and build on top of it whatever you want. That is why it has gone everywhere... from tiny devices to huge ones. All of this concentration on desktop usage is kind of silly. I don't want to see the merger of a pair of skates, a bicycle, a motorcycle, a car, a truck, an 18 wheeler, a boat, a helicopter, and a plane. I want diversity... where each category has been adapted to fit its particular set of needs. That's what Linux is... a lot of different things... not just an alternative to Windows or Mac.

Wow, I sure did ramble.

One World

Well said. I pretty much agree with you on everything.

Command line: Several years ago part of my job was moving a bunch of large text files from the mainframe computer to the Unix system we were setting up. I could open the files and see the first few header lines but I couldn't see the non-printing characters that would cause my part to fail. The problem was that someone else was getting the files from the mainframe and running them through a conversion program but sometimes didn't get them run properly. You may think this could have been handled by one, not two, people and you would be right but there was a good reason. If you want the whole story just email me. I had the time and inclination to write a sed script to find the non printing characters and replace with other non printing characters. Incidentally I was on a NT4 machine with a terminal window in to a Unix box down the hall. As far as I know there was no way that NT4 could do the same with a .bat file or any thing else out of the box. The command line is sdill my weapon of choice for finding lost/misplaced files. I can't say enough about the middle button copy and paste between applications and virtual desktops.

On the other end of the spectrum I use a Palm Pilot and really like it because it does it's jobs quite well and I never miss either a GUI interface or a command line.

I am now waiting for an open source answer to the iPad because there are times I want to sit upstairs in my easy chair or lay in bed while reading an e-book (which I can do with my Pilot) or checking the lattest on sites like this. If the industry can't deliver one without a MS tax then I will probably wind up with an iPad. I would rather stay away from Apple if possible but...anything but Microsoft. And the iPad is just so darn kewl.

I have an Asus Eee PC now running Fedora 12. It worked fine with Ubuntu also. It hasn't replaced my Pilot like I sorta hopped it would but it has pretty much replaced my laptop. The netbook can never be a replacement the dual core Athlon with KVM that is my main workhorse.

Yes, I think there is room for many systems and platforms though my choice is to avoid the megalomaniacs whenever possible.

And thanks Scott for your write ups on Fedora, CentOS and KVM. They have helped me in making up my mind on a few issues.

So much for the rainy Sunday afternoon rant. Thanks for the quarter.

I may be wrong now
but I don't think so.
Theme from Monk

Finally some sensible talk.

That was a good discussion in the video that mirrors my own thinking especially Aaron.

Early on it was argued as a form factor thing based on the idea that people won't want a big heavy hunk of metal and plastic that just sits on their desk any more, they want something small they can carry around. Next thing you know there is some piece of **** that boots directly into a web browser and doesn't provide any place to store your stuff, WTF, even phones let you store music, video, etc...

I'm a little surprised they didn't get more specifically into the appstore situation where someone like, uhm, Apple for example, can decide they don't like an app any more and remove it from the appstore, then because Apple decides they don't like it, this app the you downloaded, maybe paid for, and have been happily using, suddenly stops working on your device.

Later, Seeker

Death of the Desktop Take II

Thought-provoking video, Scott. Thanks!
From the point of view of an aging Baby-Boomer: I see three "Desktops",

1. The one at my office where I see the push to put virtually everything on a corporate server - for security, for ease of backup/restore operations, for 24/7/365 availability, for protection against illicit personal operations, protection against liability. BTW, I see the paranoia about industrial espionage - even international espionage - keeping these data centers in-house. This desktop probably will simply become an appliance as we come full circle to remote terminals accessing a corporate, protected cloud.

2. On the second desktop is my personal "stuff" - financial records, email correspondence, email contacts/all "contacts", even my personal interests. Stuff I don't want open to my employer or possibly hacked through the internet. This desktop will NOT go away as long as personal paranoia exists and as long as that paranoia views the government, the legal system, and the corporate world as potential antagonists - as threats. Maybe, just maybe this will go away as those Baby Boomers who are paranoid die off...

3. The third "desktop" is the FRIVOLOUS personal "stuff" - Facebook, Twitter, and the lot that is trivial enough not to engage either my business or personal paranoia. In this area, I see "terminals" exploding, profits based on volume, and all the "success" that accompanies THE NEXT BIG THING. As the world gets wealthier, these devices themselves are the drivers that market themselves. As computers can be used to make computers, trivial electronics will SELL more trivial electronics through revolutionary advertising and marketing techniques. This will be the bleeding edge where engineers and entrepreneurs attempt new things that are fun AND profitable. Bill Gates and DOS, Steve Jobs and the Mac..some that succeed; many that fail; ALL are fun for those trying them. All these items started as fun and largely frivolous... New, unimagined stuff starts here.


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