Do Linux Novelty Desktops Threaten Linux Adoption?

Monday Feb 13th 2012 by Matt Hartley
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Recent moves by Canonical may not be beneficial for growing Linux market share.

By now, most of you have likely heard about Canonical pulling official support for Kubuntu. It's hardly surprising, considering Canonical's push to get Unity not only on the desktop, but on tablets and TVs as well.

Any past desire to contribute officially to KDE has fallen by the wayside for Canonical. It's simply not a priority for them any longer. Instead, Canonical has decided that their efforts are best spent on the Unity desktop, which some have described as a novelty desktop environment for Ubuntu Linux.

Canonical's Ubuntu is hardly alone on this front. Linux Mint, with its Cinnamon desktop environment, is also spreading its wings using the Gnome shell as its base. It seems that some desktop Linux distributions are potentially "jumping the shark." Then again, perhaps both distributions are making a brilliant decision that will become more apparent in the near future. It remains to be seen which this situation will actually turn out.

Novelty desktop environments

The idea of distribution-specific desktop environments was bound to happen eventually. While most non-Ubuntu based distributions allow their users to select from a myriad of desktop choices, the increasing push for tighter desktop controls seems to be winning the hearts of some developers.

I'm finding the desire by Ubuntu and Linux Mint developers to break from the established desktop environments indicates a dissatisfaction with the status quo. In other words, what was working for the newbie friendly distributions a year ago is evolving. The old-school desktop environments apparently aren't keeping in step with the vision these distributions have in mind.

Another possible component might also be the idea of preventing existing desktop environments from taking problematic paths such as KDE 4 and Gnome 3. Both of these updated desktop environments have been met with substantial criticism. So there is logic behind the desire to compartmentalize the desktop experience for newer users.

Besides, unlike failed attempts at bringing Unity to distros such as Fedora, Cinnamon is actually installable on a multitude of non-Mint Linux distributions. Which means Linux Mint, unlike Ubuntu, has already prevented their newest desktop environment from being limited to a single Linux distribution.

Different strokes for different folks

As I mentioned previously, no single desktop environment is going to be a match for every user out there. But at the same time, the desire for a unified user experience has been seen as overdue by an increasingly large number of users.

My own view of this is that it's important to offer a unified experience out of the box for newbies. Yet at the same time make darn sure that other desktop environments aren't ignored completely. For the most part, both Ubuntu and Linux Mint have managed to dance around this. The obvious exception, of course, is that Ubuntu is now less involved in non-Unity desktop environments than they once were.

Bundle my statement above with the fact that anyone can install KDE/Gnome applications on today's popular desktop environments and one has to ask themselves what all the fuss is about?

If the software you rely on works, and you’re able to settle on the desktop environment you want while utilizing a distribution you love, how can there possibly be a problem? The truth of the matter is for most of the world, compartmentalizing desktop environments only hurts its creator. Other than that, it hurts no one.

Desktop politics

No one likes meaningless bickering. If there was a single thing I could point to that isn't making the Linux desktop as attractive as it could be, it would have to be the endless "hot air exchanges" between users of various computing platforms. While I have no problem with someone talking about areas where a platform needs improvement, blind OS bashing is a waste of time. I see this happening a lot between users of Gnome and KDE.

Now imagine how this looks to Linux newbies, who are just trying to figure out why their Windows software doesn't work! They have enough learning to get through without needing to fall into software politics.

My point is that we need to place greater importance in getting folks excited about using Linux on the desktop, while letting them decide for themselves which desktop environment is best suited for their needs.

One size doesn't fit all...or does it?

We see basically the same desktop layout on Windows working fine for both the enterprise user and home user alike. Why is it then that we need so many desktop environments in Linux?

Perhaps the more accurate question isn't about need, instead it might be about want. Generally speaking, home-based Linux users are seeking choice on their desktops. They have the option to customize within their comfort zone, perhaps even jumping from one desktop environment to another.

So when we see distributions such as Ubuntu, pushing Unity, it's easy to see why. They want to provide the same consistent experience from work to home. It's a sound idea, unfortunately I don't think Unity is going to be the success Canonical envisioned.

I think it's possible that those who like Unity will continue to use it. However I find it unlikely that Unity is going to offer Canonical any sort of foothold in the enterprise space. The idea of offering a stable, duplicable experience for enterprise users is a good idea. But what Canonical and others are missing on the desktop is less about the UX/UI experience and more about compatibility and hardware buying options.

The entire experience matters

Before I go any further, I want to clarify something. I love using Linux. I enjoy the challenges on the desktop and on the server. It's been a fun ride over the years.

Unfortunately there are still issues that are not only being ignored, they're being superseded by concerns that are of much less importance. Quite frankly, the desktop environment issue shouldn't even be an issue until basic wireless networking bugs are hammered out first.

Add to that, Dell has dropped Linux computers and other alternative large, in-store Linux options are nowhere to be seen. Now OEM options only amount to a handful of terrific vendors doing everything possible to make their PCs available to the masses. Unfortunately, you won't find any of these PCs on Amazon.com or in most big box shopping establishments.

Will a new desktop fix this enormous issue? Of course it won't! Canonical alone has done a terrible job at promoting the fact that there are great vendors out there willing to sell their OS pre-installed. Their partner links are a joke, only highlighting consultants and varied server offerings.

The most mind blowing part is that when you go to Ubuntu.com's shopping area, you only find T-Shirts and hoodies. Seriously? Yes, because this is exactly what I'm looking for when I'm on a website researching an operating system!

But wait, it gets better. Canonical even goes the extra mile to promote their OEM partners like Dell. You know, the same company that stopped selling Ubuntu PCs in the first place! The entire situation is just sad and avoidable.

And while Ubuntu is featuring certified hardware from some of these vendors, you still have to dig for it because it's not actively being promoted. Worse, much of the certified hardware is dated.

Linux distributions looking to attract new users don't need to spend their time reinventing desktop environments. Instead, these distributions need to work hard at promoting the vendors that are already using these distributions in the first place!

This provides the community and the enterprise space alike proof that Linux is just as capable as proprietary operating systems on the desktop. Best of all, it's also supporting worthwhile smaller businesses trying to do what so many of us fail to do – put our money where our mouth is.

So enough with the concern over which desktop experience is better. Let's focus on making sure we are getting as many pre-installed PCs out the door as possible. It's this, not a new desktop environment, that will keep desktop Linux adoption growing.

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