Will 2013 Be the Year of the Ubuntu Desktop?

Monday Nov 12th 2012 by Matt Hartley
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Linux continues to attract new desktop users, but significant challenges remain.

As I came up with the title for this article, I did so fully realizing that many of you will likely groan at the thought of yet another "tis the year of the Linux desktop" article. However unlike other articles, I have actual concrete examples of why I think that it's fair to suggest that 2013 could be a huge year for Linux on the desktop.

But before we dive into what 2013 has in store for Linux, Ubuntu, and Linux desktop adoption, let's take a look back at previous instances where year of the Linux desktop was proclaimed.

Every year is the year of the Linux desktop

Dating back to roughly 2001 onward, it seems that every single year has been proclaimed as the year of the Linux desktop for one reason or another. New adoption numbers surface showing how compelling using Linux is, or maybe a new crop of OEM vendors offer made-for-Linux solutions. Whatever the reason may be, in nearly each case the catalyst for any given "year of the Linux desktop" has been pushed forth by some sort of a compelling development.

The fact is, the statement or idea of any particular year being more significant for the Linux desktop is mired in opinion and speculation. One person's revelation or desktop discovery is another person's disappointment.

To me, the only way one can make the claim with any level of accuracy that any given year is the year of the Linux desktop is by providing compelling examples where Linux on the desktop has overcome significant hurdles or garnered impressive user adoption. And as we already know, measuring the latter is extremely difficult as the numbers vary greatly depending on whom you ask.

2012 successes

Thus far, the year 2012 has seen some impressive successes. ARM support is gaining a ton of traction, Valve has introduced Steam to Ubuntu Linux users under their beta program, Lightworks is alpha testing their studio-quality video editor with Ubuntu, and there have been other related accomplishments.

On the adoption front, news that developing countries like India are seeing rapid growth in Linux users also shows a ton of promise. But I tend to be wary of any adoption numbers tied to hard vendors like Dell, considering how flaky their Ubuntu desktop support has been here in the States. Should Dell opt to repeat their last decision where they all but discontinued Ubuntu support to their U.S. userbase, any perceived growth could fall short in the long term. Still, my own skepticism aside, I hope that Ubuntu pre-installed options continue to see tremendous growth.

The obvious missing pieces continue to be battling legacy software needs, the familiarity of other platforms, plus the brick-and-mortar solutions sponsored by Microsoft/Apple. Clearly, as grand as 2012 has been, isn't really the year of the Linux desktop. There are still missing components that would need to be met in order to make this tired phrase into something more substantial. And with that realization, one must ask will Ubuntu be the distribution of choice for making the biggest waves?

Year of the Ubuntu desktop

Love it or hate it, Ubuntu is the target distribution for Valve, Lightworks and many other Linux newcomers. Because Ubuntu dominates the Linux news and appears to be the biggest usage target among users, claiming that the geekier distributions are going to lead the way would be plain silly. For most newbies, Ubuntu is the first stop in their individual Linux adventures.

Accepting this, it would then be rational to state that if 2013 were indeed to be the year of the Linux desktop, the proper adaptation of this would then be "2013 is the year of the Ubuntu desktop" instead. That's not because Ubuntu is the only distribution out there, but rather because it's the one attracting the new users. And within news circles, this is what is considered the big story within the desktop Linux space.

As things stand now, most new-to-Ubuntu users appear to be coming from word of mouth, school, user forums, or other related sources. No one is trying Ubuntu because they found it at Amazon or some big box store. And in my mind, this is a problem that needs to be addressed. While others out there are looking to pull in as many big named software titles as possible, I would counter that with where things stand now. Ubuntu on the desktop would explode if it was offered within a kiosk environment. The key focus needs to be a proper introduction for the Ubuntu newcomer.

In years past, distributions such as Mandrake (Mandriva), Linspire and Xandros launched in-store attempts that bombed horribly because there was a lack of explanation as to what the purchaser was getting themselves into. Bundle this with terrible vendors selling substandard PCs, and the entire effort merely became cannon fodder for Linux naysayers. The keys are education, hands-on experience and the ability to have access to knowledgeable staff to answer questions. No one but computer geeks are heading over to a forum to get their tech questions answered. Sadly, forums are the go-to place for support for the non-enterprise user. Casual PC users aren't wired for this type of support venue, especially if their primary PC is the one experiencing the issues.

For 2013 to be the year of Ubuntu, we need to stop living in denial and get serious about non-geek, mainstream, kiosk-oriented solutions. If you think I'm wrong, ask ten random people in your community about their thoughts on Linux or Ubuntu Linux and then behold their bewilderment. And good luck trying to get your big box store to allow you to host on their property a kiosk with which you're promoting software that they don't receive revenue from.

Money – is it the key to adoption?

In the enterprise space, Linux adoption has been successful because it relates to money for the companies who choose to embrace Linux. In other words, using Linux is saving companies money while allowing certain tasks to be completed. In the consumer desktop space, however, there aren't any IT managers seeking out cheaper alternatives. This chore falls squarely on whomever is making the PC purchasing decision for any given household. And unfortunately, this often means falling prey to whatever the latest "sale of the week" happens to be in the purchaser's locale.

So even though more savvy consumers will do their homework and check out who has the best prices on PCs and notebooks, in the end the results end up the same – Windows or OS X. Sadly, Ubuntu-based systems are not as prevalent as I would like when folks do these types of comparisons. And to make matters worse, it's going to take money and influence to bring Ubuntu to center stage. As things stand now, Ubuntu remains a geeks' operating system not because it's difficult to use, rather because it's not found in place regular people frequent.

Final thoughts

I've given it a lot of thought, and I think that the best approach to making 2013 the year of the Ubuntu desktop is in this article from October, which recommends taking Linux to the people and attracting corporate sponsors. Address these issues, allow graphics support to mature a little more, and we will begin to see more "mom and pop" user adoption in the Linux space. With Ubuntu offering awesome support with Ubuntu One for backing up one's home directory, and mainstream applications beginning to show themselves in the ranks of Ubuntu's choice of software options, it's clearly a great time to be a Linux user.

With everything above taken into consideration, I still don't think that 2013 is going to be the year of the Ubuntu desktop. No, I think it's better to look at it the issue incrementally, noting each user who finds success in using Ubuntu. I, with countless others, have made it a personal mission to make every year an Ubuntu celebration instead.

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