Should Windows Be Linux's Design Model?

Wednesday Sep 9th 2015 by Bruce Byfield

A Windows-like Linux only offers what Microsoft's customers already have.

Every ten months or so, a small distribution starts with the goal of making Linux look more like Windows. Among the latest are ChaletOS and Apricity OS, which if nothing else look like thoughtful exercises in design. Yet after so many similar efforts, I have to wonder whether a Windows-like desktop will do a thing to encourage users to try Linux. Maybe the goal should be something different.

I can see the logic, of course. Windows is the leading desktop, so why argue with popularity?

For years, Linux software labored to catch up with Windows. But not only did GNOME and KDE passed that goal in terms of features over a decade ago, but modern distros can match OS X in terms of eye-candy as well. Yet, like an ex- colony that still looks to the mother country for its culture, some developers still seem to have a reflexive cringe, an automatic assumption that Linux desktops still lag behind Windows. In reality, it is the Linux desktop which is setting the pace for customization and innovation -- which is why Windows 10 borrowed so many features -- but apparently not everybody has noticed.

A Classic for a Classic

When distributions talk about borrowing from Windows, they are not suggesting borrowing Windows 8's interface, or Vista's stability. Rather they are thinking more along the lines of Windows 7 -- a classic desktop with panel, menu, and workspace, with a few imitative widgets and themes thrown in.

So far as the idea goes, it's not a bad one. The classical desktop remains popular because it is basically an application launcher, and likely to suit most users.

The only trouble is, except for Unity, the half dozen leading desktops already have an option for a classical desktop, and none of them are luring Windows users. Not in any significant numbers, anyway.

Nor should that be surprising. Windows users already have a classical desktop, or, if stuck on Windows 8 for some reason, can get one. So why should they switch operating systems to get what they already have? As a strategy for attracting users, Windows-inspired designed seems flawed from the start.

Linux users may change operating systems as easily as they do wallpapers -- although the percentage who have tried one of the BSDs seems small. However, for Windows Users, changing operating systems must seem a momentous step. The chances are, few are ever going to undertake it just so they can exchange one classical desktop for another.

It's really as simple as that. Look at any saturated market, and you'll never see a company competing by saying that they have the same features as their competitors. Instead, they will talk about the features they have and their competitors lack. If they have no major differences, they will try to create an alluring image, like Apple does when faced with Windows. Anything else is largely a waste of time.

Grounds for Competition

So how should Linux compete with Windows? Two obvious answers spring to mind, although there may be others.

First, although distributions like Linspire have tried offering Windows-like Linux, none have seriously tried to talk in terms of consumer rights and privacy. Although distributions exist that emphasize software freedom, they are aimed at free software advocates, and few -- if any -- attempt to show Windows users how these issues might apply to their choice of operating systems.

A few years ago, Peter Brown, then executive director of the Free Software Foundation, tried this pitch to social activists, who were already concerned about such issues. The effort was discontinued when he moved on, but today the potential audience is wider than ever. Dislike of monopoly is widespread, and large companies and social media sites are regularly being criticized for privacy violations. In this atmosphere, promoting Linux as a guarantor of consumer rights should be an easy sell, especially if supported by features such as easy email encryption.

Second, instead of offering Windows users what they already have, perhaps developers should be offering what they already have, plus a little more. KDE in particular, with its Activities, tabbed windows, and customization, would be easy to promote as the classical desktop with modern innovations. So, too, to a lesser extent, could Linux Mint's Cinnamon.

Unfortunately, this is a perspective that few desktop developers would care to promote. After the user revolts against KDE, Unity, and GNOME in 2008-2012, few developers seem willing to innovate. They will perfect and rewrite for speed or usability, but just now they are avoiding major visible changes, apparently afraid of another backlash.

The position is understandable, given the recent history of the desktop. Yet unless Linux developers actively offer something that Windows cannot, the dream of attracting new users seeking a refuge from Windows is going to remain just a dream -- and, considering the number of times it has failed, a singularly naive dream at that.

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