Open Source Desktop: Good News and Bad News

Wednesday Feb 10th 2016 by Bruce Byfield

In at least one sense, open Source is dominant on the desktop. But is that a consolation prize for missing what matters?

The good news is that open source has become the leader on the desktop. The bad news is that a single desktop is not the leader, and that leadership on the desktop may no longer matter.

Obviously, the first statement needs qualifications. It clearly does not refer to the number of users, since officially Linux has yet to break 2%, although, depending on your logic, the actual figure might be several times higher.

Rather, the statement refers to development and innovation on the desktop. For years, open source desktops struggled to equal Windows and OS X, but today that is no more true than the belief that Linux requires ordinary users to use of the command line extensively.

The truth is, some time between 2005-2008, the open source desktop caught up to its proprietary counterparts. Since then, it has been the major source of innovation and excellence on the desktop. However, neither of these transformations has attracted much notice, and many people continue to talk as though the conditions of fifteen years ago still applied.

The Decline of Windows and OS X

Still, the evidence is there if you bother to look. Windows 8 has at least eight features that an open source desktop had first, including ISO mounting, the creation of bootable flash drives, and a filesystem similar to ZFS and Btrfs.

Similarly, Windows 10 also borrows heavily from open source desktops. Among the borrowed features are virtual desktops, a task view, and convergance of mobile and desktop operating systems.

Such borrowings are sometimes excused by claims that Windows 10 implements them better -- which, in many cases is dubious. However, no matter how you judge implementation, the fact remains that, without the features that Linux had first, Windows 10 would have little to recommend it. Windows 10 is so bereft of new ideas that it even borrows features that many Linux users consider a mistake, such as Unity's combined desktop and Internet search.

Nor are examples of Microsoft borrowing from open source the whole story. KDE's Plasma Desktop, for one, has over a dozen features that either have no Windows counterpart, or else are available only with a third party icons. These features include Activities, swapable icon sets, and more customized features for widgets and window behavior than a single person is likely to need.

As for OS X, the time was when Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu, challenged open source developers to build a desktop to rival Apple's. Whether he succeeded in Unity in answering his own challenge is debatable, but today the challenge would make sense.

Many continue to praise OS X as the ultimate in usability. However, in recent years, critics have suggested that OS X is concentrating on aesthetics at the expense of usability, or else abandoning simplicity altogether. Either way, the idea that the quality of Apple software is declining has become increasingly widespread in the last year or so. In 2014, Forbes Magazine went so far as to blame declining software quality as the reason for the decline in Apple's growth.

In these respects, Apple's recent efforts compare poorly with the interface design of GNOME, which in recent releases has combined aesthetics with usability so well that many reviewers and users who rejected GNOME 3 when it first appeared are giving it a second glance. With the release of Plasma 5, KDE, too, is showing a more polished design than ever before.

These trends, as different as they are, are increasingly making open source the center of desktop innovation and design. The user revolts of 2008-12, caused by GNOME, KDE, and Unity all trying to introduce too many changes too quickly may have made open source developers cautious, but at least they are continuing to innovate. In particular, Linux Mint's Cinnamon has managed to elbow its way into popularity by consulting users and implementing the features that people actually want.

None of this is to say that conventional or unaesthetic open source desktops do not exist. But the point is that open source as a whole continues to improve, while Windows has become increasing bereft of ideas and Apple's recent designs have become so flawed that they no longer inspire the uncritical awe they once did. Alone on the desktop, open source efforts continue to improve -- and what one Linux desktop introduces, the others can also implement thanks to the availability of the code.

Reasons for the Transition

The reason for these reversals might be very simple. To start with, thanks partly to the rising popularity of open source, the value of operating systems in general and desktops in particular has plummeted. Almost anyone with a registered copy of Windows, for example, can get a free upgrade to Windows 10, while a new copy costs less than half what a new version of Windows did two decades ago.

Under these circumstances, both Apple and Microsoft are diversifying, and no doubt reluctant to fund research and development on the desktop any more than necessary. However, with the possible exception of Unity, which is designed to fit with Canonical Software's business plans, open source desktops are not developed as economic concerns. While they may respond to user feedback, they can continue to develop the desktop at the same rate as a decade ago.

At the same time, both Apple and Microsoft have been far quicker than open source to move to phones and tablets, a market that has expanded in the last five years as sales of workstations and laptops has declined. Admittedly, the desktop has made something of a comeback in the last few years, but the possibility remains that open source's dominance in desktop development may have been by default as much as merit.

If so, then open source's leadership on the desktop may be no more than a consolation prize. While open source developers have kept their heads down and improved the desktop, they have missed their chance to establish their values as a major force in mobile operating systems. Android, after all, may be based on Linux, and use an Apache license, but it remains a commercial operating system, differing from others only in origin. If open source has become the dominate force on the desktop, it may have done so only by being slow to respond new markets.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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