Linux Desktop Adoption: Hitting a Brick Wall?

Tuesday Jul 24th 2007 by Matt Hartley
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A look at the various factors holding desktop Linux back – including the group that is ultimately responsible.

Despite fantastic advances with Desktop Linux as a collective whole, there still seems to be some hurdles that this Windows alternative has yet to overcome. In this piece, I’ll examine these from my own perspective, that of a full time Linux user.

For example, this statement:

Desktop Linux is not ready for prime time

Perhaps one of the most inaccurate statements to have ever be committed to the printed word, I have read over and over how desktop Linux is simply not ready for casual desktop use. On the contrary, it is being used everyday by Windows refugees who simply opted out of 'the system.’

From Cypherbios.org:

The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around. What do you see? Business people, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy.

You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

As corny as the above movie quote may be, it remains completely accurate with regard to the Windows OS. Approach a typical Windows user, then ask them: why choose to spend hundreds of dollars on MS Office? They'll respond by explaining that they need a viable office suite for their day-to-day tasks. What's interesting is their reaction when you show them that they can get the same thing for free, without paying Microsoft's high costs, with Open Office. Still others users will claim that Office 2007 provides a better overall feel than its open source counterpart.

So we need to examine the question again: Is Linux for the desktop ready for prime time? When considering the abilities of these distributions, yes, desktop Linux is ready for everyday use. It's adoption however, is something of a different story altogether.

Trouble breaking through the adoption barrier.

If Linux is so fantastic, how come everyone is not using it? I see a few different factors responsible for this. Confusion and dependence on proprietary media formats, FCC headaches over keeping certain aspects of wireless devices “closed off” and of course my favorite – will Microsoft sue us for using this platform? Yet even if we push all of those problems to the side, the end user still is not seeing this Linux alternative advertised anywhere in the mainstream media. Thus, how is Joe Average expected to discover this as an alternative to Windows?

With all of this working against Linux adoption, it's actually amazing that we have seen the progress that has taken place with companies like Dell. While Ubuntu's sponsor, Canonical, has been great at promoting Dell's efforts with Linux, Dell remains uncomfortable with supporting Linux outwardly on their front page. They've even gone so far as to 'recommend' Windows Vista on their Ubuntu web pages.

Corporate paranoia and poor public perception is a dangerous thing for any grassroots effort. Despite good intentions and best efforts from the Linux community, the almighty dollar is always going to come out the winner. Microsoft has already From figured out how to make sure that the only Linux the U.S.-based user will be using is that which has offers their own seal of approval.

Giving Linux legitimacy in the U.S. among other IP friendly regions.

As Linux companies such as From Mandriva have demonstrated, Linux-supporting corporations outside the U.S. are not concerned with Microsoft's IP threats. They know full well that the long arm of the law is not going to reach them, given that the entire patent argument is an American argument. So adoption for Linux users in Europe, among other areas around the world, has already exploded. Yet here in the States, many users are left feeling uneasy. Still others are simply turned off out of confusion with how Linux 'works' in the first place.

How can Linux honestly have a real shot at making a dent here in the U.S., in addition to other areas of the world where Windows is 'the norm'? Nothing short of frustration with the existing closed source alternatives, I suspect. I find myself disgusted with the state of affairs that I see Linux in today. Not by its development, which has done rather well. Rather, the fact that I am witnessing a coming split with our community that is going to get very unpleasant when all is said and done.

For Linux to seriously gain real mainstream acceptance in the U.S., it will require the GPL to become less restricted, a massive boycott of restricted media formats on a very large scale, or for restricted formats to be made available for sale legally for U.S. users to purchase. The first two options will never happen, however the latter is supposed to with Linspire's CNR product.

How deep does the restricted format issue go?

As the battle for computer-viewable media control rages on, we now have new formats that have alienated Linux, Blue-ray and HD-DVD. What's interesting is that, recently it was discovered that through a proprietary program called Nero, the end user could create their own Blue-ray and HD-DVD content. Yet Linux users can forget about a legal means of playing these media formats when purchased from a store, thanks to DRM. Speaking as a U.S.-based Linux user, it sure would be nice to not having to resort to feeling like a crook just to view a movie that you rented.

I firmly believe the single biggest reason that we do not have the same access to restricted formats as Apple's OS X is because the license that Linux uses makes their bundled inclusion impossible, and makes any sort of 'store-front' very limiting and unattractive to potential licenses. Not knocking the GPL, mind you, rather pointing out the economic facts of the situation.

Dell Linux TV commercials will never happen in the U.S.

Despite all of the hassles and restrictions Linux has surrounding it, we'll continue to see growth in user base among various technologists and hobbyists looking to try something new. Even more interesting is the fact that many American Linux users honestly could care less about the 'legalities' behind using restricted formats to listen to their music and watch their videos.

On the flip side, Dell has broken the myth that you must provide restricted formats in order to get users to purchase Linux PCs. And even if the user base remains small on the percentage scale here in the U.S., on the international front we are seeing what will become an explosion within the next five years. It's simply a matter of software freedom, and the fact that they are not as restricted with IP concerns as we are here in the United States.

And still, the question remains. Who is to blame for all of this? Is there one group this is totally right while the other is totally wrong? In my opinion, each of us have created this beast called the ‘operating system.’ And because of our collective choices early on, we gave this to the likes of corporations such as Microsoft and Apple. If anyone is to be held accountable to the headaches involved with the Linux desktop, it is us – all of us.

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