Does Desktop Linux Need a Steve Jobs?

Monday Nov 7th 2011 by Matt Hartley
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Given the diverse nature of Linux, could a single unifying figure help move it forward?

When you think of Apple, chances are you're also thinking about Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak. Known throughout the world as the founders of the Apple empire, these two had a tremendous impact on the way we look at technology in the 21st century.

Steve Jobs in particular evolved from being seen as the de facto face of Apple to a kind of tech-based rock star.

But why was this? I ask this question not to be snide, rude or disrespectful. Quite the opposite. I’d like to explore the plausibility of some Steve Jobs-like success finding its way into the Linux desktop market.

The larger question, though, is: Would such a feat be worthwhile for the desktop Linux realm?

Great distributions already exist

Even though Linux never really had a rock star icon like Steve Jobs to attribute its successes to, those responsible for the various projects within the Linux space have provided us with a fantastic user experience.

After all, we already have access to some fantastic Linux distributions from which to choose from. Instead, I see the challenges for Linux falling into how people find and utilize Linux when coming from other platforms. I'd love to see a way to focus new energy into something besides mass duplication and further failing within the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) space.

It's painful to watch time and time again as the wrong approach is taken to introducing good Linux distributions to markets that don't fully understand what they're buying. One of the worst examples was with Dell and the Ubuntu PCs here in the States.

At the time, Dell PCs were poorly marketed. And instead of offering long-term support, the entire section of the Dell site offering Ubuntu receded into nothingness.

Please understand that I may have some grievances with Ubuntu, but even I think Dell didn’t well serve Ubuntu by dropping support so quickly. Dell offered zero promotion, bundled along with an overall half-hearted effort. The whole Dell/Ubuntu situation is a mess.

And as for any recent developments between Ubuntu and Dell China you might have heard about in the news, any sign of success remains to be seen.

Now these failures aren't the fault of the development teams responsible for the distributions or even the great folks out there promoting Linux. Evangelists like Jono Bacon are awesome people doing their very best with what is made available to them. I have nothing but praise for their efforts, as these guys are doing fantastic work in my opinion.

Instead, I see the greater problem taking place further up the leadership ladder. Canonical does really well with appealing to communities. Yet they continue to miss the mark with their in-store efforts.

Big box store disconnect

As I mentioned above, the sales of Linux PCs sold in retail outlets has been pretty awful. However, on the flip side, Linux-centric PC vendors on the Web have done well with their sales figures.

So why is there a disconnect between Linux PCs purchased at Walmart and those off of Linux-specific vendor websites?

I think the main culprit is that those PCs sold at the local big box store are being sold without any clear information about what is being offered to the consumer. One might even call it an education gap. Software/peripheral confusion is a common issue. There's even a disconnect about where one is supposed to seek out tech support when using a store-bought Linux PC.

With Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, however, there's a push to fill this void with Ubuntu's LoCo teams which are reaching out to people interested in learning more about Ubuntu Linux.

It's a fabulous idea, except that any connection made between expert and user tends to be short lived. The problem is that LoCo teams (or Linux user groups for that matter) are great points of first contact. Sadly, though, any additional help is going to rely on the new user seeking help out on their own. Often, this means giving up and going back to the platform they were previously using and familiar with.

No voice vs the wrong voice

Considering the issues I've highlighted above, why isn't there a Linux centric "iconic figure" who rises up and leads all the various Linux distributions in a singular direction forward?

As luck would have it, there seems to be someone who is actually trying to take a Steve Jobs-like approach to the challenges facing the Linux desktop. Mark Shuttleworth, to his credit, is trying to lead Ubuntu (among other distributions) into the future with mirrored release schedules.

Unfortunately though, his efforts are splitting the existing Ubuntu user base down the middle instead of uniting anyone in a common cause.

Currently Linux Mint is exploding with new users. This indicates to me that Ubuntu is not improving anything with their current direction. Rather we're seeing a mass exodus to Mint by frustrated Ubuntu users.

Even though both Mint and Ubuntu share some similarities, their overall approaches to the Linux desktop vary greatly as the two user camps begin to split further apart. Remember, Unity is only one of the differences between Mint and Ubuntu.

Now despite the gloom of the news above, it's worth noting that there are Ubuntu users who are thrilled about Ubuntu's current direction. But for everyone else outside of this group, our wishes are a bit less gratified.

A community speaking as one

Due to the diverse nature of the Linux community, I don't see much agreement on any one person speaking for the Linux community as a whole. Despite recent efforts from Mark Shuttleworth, most non-Ubuntu users are really quite content not drinking his "Koolaid" on how Linux needs to run from his playbook.

I think that instead of looking for a Steve Jobs-like persona to fill in any perceived void in Linux leadership, instead we need to continue relying on what has worked thus far. We have some strong voices within the Linux community already, with the greatest voice of all being that of each one of us.

While it can be frustrating tryiing to get heard if we're not part of the development of a specific Linux distribution, the fact remains that we can make our voices heard clearly by choosing one Linux distribution over another. Think of it as voting based on distribution preference.

No Steve Jobs, no problem

There are a few takeaways I'd like to leave you with. The first one is that waiting for a single person to make Linux on the desktop more approachable is likely going to be a waste of time.

While efforts to make Linux on the desktop more appealing will undoubtedly continue, in the end those who want to switch will do so on their own. And those people who don't like what Linux has to offer will stick with what they're already using for their OS.

The reason Steve Jobs was able to take his enthusiasm and make it work so well was because he was working with a single vision of what he wanted with his company. By contrast, the strength powering Linux is the complete opposite: There is no single controlling group.

Instead, Linux on the desktop is "contributed to" by many different people and is not controlled by a single visionary. So what worked well for Apple would not be right for something as diverse as Linux on the desktop. And considering that the Linux desktop isn't dependent on maintaining a market share or hitting preset numbers to be considered successful, this maybe a good thing.

Maybe, just maybe, what makes the Linux desktop successful is that we don't need any one person to make us popular.

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