June 17, 2013

Reality Check: Defining The True Success of Linux

Editor's Note: This is the second article in a new series by SUSE community marketing manager Brian Proffitt for Linux.com called "Reality Check" that will take a look at Linux in the real world. The first, 5 Linux Features You Want in Your Company, was published in May.

Brian-ProffittLet's talk about a touchy subject: the Linux desktop.

It's touchy because, by any reasonable measure, Linux on the desktop has yet to capture a significant market share of the desktop and portable PC platform.

This has to be said, right up front. It does not make me particularly happy to point this out, given all the great work being done on the desktop by openSUSE, Fedora, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and all of the environment and application projects out there.

But the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have a problem, so here we are.

It is a common mistake to hear or read such statements and claim that they are the final word for the topic at hand: Linux on the desktop is not working now, so therefore that will always be the case.

Given the way things change on a daily basis, and not just in technology, drawing that line in the sand seems very premature. Already there are signs of progressing success in the marketplace for Linux-based devices like the Chromebook. Consumers in the marketplace are realizing that they don't need an over-powered PC device if all they want to do is consume content, thus the shift to tablet devices and systems like the Chromebook, which affords users some productivity tools that tablets can lack. Jim Zemlin himself blogged about this phenomenon, noting that the rise of Android and tablet computing has created the “Post-Desktop World,” after the release of Windows 8 last October.

In the face of this kind of user shift, there is clear evidence that the state of the Linux desktop is changing, adapting to use cases that don't have the same requirements as the old Linux desktop had.

Ah, but that's a cop-out, some would argue: Linux didn't win on the desktop, so you're changing the definition of what the desktop is. Putting aside for a moment that it's the market that's establishing the definition of the desktop, I can still admit that Linux has not established itself as a desktop contender… yet.

What is bothersome is that in light of this shortcoming, desktop Linux becomes the poster child for the overall failure of Linux everywhere in the marketplace.

This is, categorically, the dumbest assumption ever.

The success of Linux cannot be simply measured by its performance on the desktop. Linux is everywhere, running a majority of the servers on the Internet, powering integrated systems everywhere, being the platform for big data implementations, be it commodity Hadoop servers or in-memory databases like SAP HANA. Linux is, without hyperbole, one of the most successful software implementations in history.

So, if you want to label "desktop Linux" a "failure"--and we can argue about that narrow definition--then maybe we can live with that. Linux on the desktop has not succeeded--yet--but that in no way limits the overall success of Linux everywhere else.