The Linux Desktop: 2013 in Review

Tuesday Dec 10th 2013 by Bruce Byfield
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The Linux desktop’s big trends included crowdfunding, the Ubuntu controversy, GNOME, Steam, and more.

The year 2013 had its own distinct developments, but most of what happened in the last twelve months were continuations of events that were already happening. It was a year of continued development, of trends reaching natural conclusions, rather than of new ones beginning.

Whether you are looking at crowdfunding, games, the continued efforts of Ubuntu or GNOME, women in computing, or the new innovations at open hardware, the impression of 2013 remains the same. You could almost call it 2012, Part 2, except that many of the continuing stories began even earlier.

Crowdfunding

In 2012, projects started turning to crowdfunding. In 2013, they continued to do, but two failed campaigns emphasized the fact that crowdfunding is not always the magic solution that some once hoped.

The first major failed campaign was made by the Yorba Foundation, which was hoping to accelerate the development of Geary, which is likely to become the replacement for Evolution in GNOME and Ubuntu. A post-mortem was conducted by Yorba's executive director Jim Nelson, but I suspect the main reason was a lack of marketing expertise to make the development of Geary seem worth the support.

The other failed campaign was for Ubuntu Edge, a proposed limited edition, cutting edge phone. The campaign reached a record-breaking $13 million, but fell well short of its $32 million goal.

Canonical Software, Ubuntu's commercial division, tried to claim the campaign as a victory, but the logic is impossible to accept. Although the campaign did attract considerable attention, the failure leaves Caonical and Ubuntu with a reputation as unsuccessful small-timers in the phone market. Considering that Canonical's first manufacturing deal was announced four months later, at best the campaign seems to have done nothing for the company.

The Siege of Ubuntu

Speaking of Ubuntu, it remained a leading distribution in 2013, but its popularity may have peaked. During 2013, Canonical continued to be pilloried for continuing to show commercial search results in the dash, and even long-time Ubuntu volunteers began to complain publicly about the amount of control exerted by Canonical over the project.

To make matters worse, Shuttleworth's reference to those who question his decisions as "the Open Source Tea Party" worsened the already touchy relations between Canonical and the rest of the free software community. Referring to those who did not immediately support Canonical's Mir project, Shuttleworth's remarks were specifically interpreted as a reference to KDE, and provoked furious responses from some of KDE's leading developers. Although Shuttleworth apologized, many questioned the sincerity and the lateness of his apology.

Such issues have largely overshadowed Canonical's efforts at convergence across form factors. Even the news of an emulator for its Touch phone interface received less attention than it would have three years ago. Ubuntu and Cannonical are unlikely to disappear, but both need less bad publicity and more solid accomplishments to celebrate.

GNOME and the Road to Recovery

Along with KDE, the GNOME desktop once dominated the Linux community. However, the release of GNOME 3.0, and the project's failure to address complaints immediately caused many users to look for another desktop. To judge from various reader surveys, these events may have cost GNOME as much as twenty-three percent of the user market

In 2012, GNOME finally addressed the complaints by encouraging the development of extensions that could be combined to create a GNOME 2-like desktop. Just as important, the GNOME 3 release series began to mature and started to be based on usability and design expertise that are unrivalled by any other desktop's.

However, despite these changes, 2013 brought no change in popularity. On the recently released Linux Journal Readers' Choice Awards, GNOME scored 14%, approximately the same as last year, and not much above Xfce's 12%.

Perhaps, after settling on alternatives, former GNOME users see no reason to return. It may take a new major release with a few killer features for them to return, assuming that they can be persuaded at all.

The Age of Steam

2013 started with the porting of Steam to Linux. Suddenly, users were able to access games formerly available only on Windows or OS X. In September, that news received a power-up from the announcement of SteamOS, a cross-gaming platform based on Linux.

As often happens when the computer mainstream notices Linux, many took these events as evidence that Linux was about to become much more popular. Even Linus Torvalds commented on the potential.

However, whether that will happen remains questionable. In May, only 1.36% of Steam users ran Linux, which hardly seems like an incentive for commercial companies to develop for it -- especially since the figure was 2.5% in February.

Nor has anyone commented on the fact that just because SteamOS is based on Linux, that does not mean that it will necessarily support Linux. So far as I have seen, the goal is run Windows and OS X games.

At any rate, the discussion is about proprietary games. While some may feel that anything that boosts Linux's popularity should be accepted, others may question whether popularity is worth having if it requires that Linux's free software orientation is ignored.

Women in Computing

All the signs of progress from 2012 -- the outing of sexism, increased networking and resources, and more women speaking at conferences -- continued to grow in 2013. A new trend appears to be feminist hacker spaces.

By far the biggest success story was GNOME's Outreach Program for Women. Begun as a program within GNOME, its success in attracting and retaining interns has been obvious from the first. In 2013, another nine projects joined it, including Debian, Fedora, Mozilla, and the Linux Kernel, making the program a model of how to change the system while working with it. You may occasionally hear murmurs about reverse sexism, but the practicality of the Outreach Program is so obvious that it seems to have missed much of the usual opposition to free software feminism.

By contrast, The Ada Initiative crippled itself seriously when it forced the cancellation of a talk by Violet Blue in February, then proved evasive in its explanations. The incident left the non-profit with a reputation for being pro-censorship and manipulative, especially in the security community. Since then, it has retreated to talking mostly with other feminists, and, while it has enough support to keep careening along, its lack of judgment threatens to condemn it to obscurity. (Disclaimer: I was an advisor to the Ada Initiative in 2011. I resigned in November 2011.)

Fortunately, enough other women's groups exist that The Ada Initiative's damage to FOSS feminism should not be permanent. Although few attempts at creating a mass movement are being made, the grassroot efforts of dozens of small groups continues to have a growing influence.

Community Free Hardware

KDE's Vivaldi tablet, first announced eighteen months ago as Spark, has yet to appear, although it may do so in the first quarter of 2014. However, the sleeper trend in 2013 was the efforts by community projects to produce commercial software.

For example, MakePlayLive, the co-operative brand behind Vivaldi, announced Improv, a hackable engineering board designed to help small manufacturers produce commercial hardware. Mozilla is working on its own phone, while Jolla released its first phone in late September.

These efforts share a common philosophy of hackable hardware that is as open as possible. They also imply new relationships between the free software community and business -- certainly partnerships, and possibly cooperatives that pool their resources.

Such efforts have never been attempted, and are likely to face criticism from those in the community who remain suspicious of any connection with business. However, if successful, their interests and organization could transform free software in the next few years like nothing before them.

Business as Usual

While some events were making headlines and filling blogs, in other parts of the community, the news was simply non-controversial continuity.

For example, the hackable mini-computer Raspberry Pi, continued its popularity, developing a strong hobbyists community that never fails to come up with another half dozen ingenious uses.

Similarly, as the Linux desktop settled into an era of choice,Xfce continued to gain some much overdue interest simply by offering the combination of speed and usability that it has offered for years.

Linux Mint also benefited from the new era, with its Mate and Cinnamon desktops reaching early maturity. The two desktops have reached the stage where basic functionality has been implemented and the first signs of innovation have started to appear, which suggests that Linux Mint may owe its success to more than nostalgia for GNOME 2. Cinnamon in particular seems a likely project to look for modest innovations in 2014.

As in any year, private successes like these will continue to be the basis of the Linux desktop in 2013. As for 2014, who knows? It should be the year in which Wayland becomes the default install options in major distributions, and, perhaps, when Ubuntu develops Mir enough that we get a clearer idea of whether Wayland, Mir – or both – will become the successor to the X Window System.

No doubt, too, many of the trends in 2013 will continue to make headlines for 2014. Other than that, the possibilities are many. But almost certainly, the next major trends are already out there somewhere, flying under the radar and just waiting for the right time to surprise us.

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