What Killed the Linux Desktop

True story.

The hard disk that hosted my /home directory on my Linux machine failed so I had to replace it with a new one. Since this machine lives under my desk, I had to unplug all the cables, get it out, swap the hard drives and plug everything back again.

Pretty standard stuff. Plug AC, plug keyboard, plug mouse but when I got to the speakers cable, I just skipped it.

Why bother setting up the audio?

It will likely break again and will force me to go on a hunting expedition to find out more than I ever wanted to know about the new audio system and the drivers technology we are using.

A few days ago I spoke to Klint Finley from Wired who wrote the article titled OSX Killed Linux. The original line of questioning was about my opinion between Gnome 3's shell, vs Ubuntu's Unity vs Xfte as competing shells.

Personally, I am quite happy with Gnome Shell, I think the team that put it together did a great job, and I love how it enabled the Gnome designers -which historically only design, barely hack- to actually extend the shell, tune the UI and prototype things without having to beg a hacker to implement things for them. It certainly could use some fixes and tuning, but I am sure they will address those eventually.

What went wrong with Linux on the Desktop

In my opinion, the problem with Linux on the Desktop is rooted in the developer culture that was created around it.

Linus, despite being a low-level kernel guy, set the tone for our community years ago when he dismissed binary compatibility for device drivers. The kernel people might have some valid reasons for it, and might have forced the industry to play by their rules, but the Desktop people did not have the power that the kernel people did. But we did keep the attitude.

The attitude of our community was one of engineering excellence: we do not want deprecated code in our source trees, we do not want to keep broken designs around, we want pure and beautiful designs and we want to eliminate all traces of bad or poorly implemented ideas from our source code trees.

And we did.

We deprecated APIs, because there was a better way. We removed functionality because "that approach is broken", for degrees of broken from "it is a security hole" all the way to "it does not conform to the new style we are using".

We replaced core subsystems in the operating system, with poor transitions paths. We introduced compatibility layers that were not really compatible, nor were they maintained. When faced with "this does not work", the community response was usually "you are doing it wrong".

As long as you had an operating system that was 100% free, and you could patch and upgrade every component of your operating system to keep up with the system updates, you were fine and it was merely an inconvenience that lasted a few months while the kinks were sorted out.

The second dimension to the problem is that no two Linux distributions agreed on which core components the system should use. Either they did not agree, the schedule of the transitions were out of sync or there were competing implementations for the same functionality.

The efforts to standardize on a kernel and a set of core libraries were undermined by the Distro of the Day that held the position of power. If you are the top dog, you did not want to make any concessions that would help other distributions catch up with you. Being incompatible became a way of gaining market share. A strategy that continues to be employed by the 800 pound gorillas in the Linux world.

To sum up: (a) First dimension: things change too quickly, breaking both open source and proprietary software alike; (b) incompatibility across Linux distributions.

This killed the ecosystem for third party developers trying to target Linux on the desktop. You would try once, do your best effort to support the "top" distro or if you were feeling generous "the top three" distros. Only to find out that your software no longer worked six months later.

Supporting Linux on the desktop became a burden for independent developers.

But at this point, those of us in the Linux world still believed that we could build everything as open source software. The software industry as a whole had a few home runs, and we were convinced we could implement those ourselves: spreadsheets, word processors, design programs. And we did a fine job at that.

Linux pioneered solid package management and the most advance software updating systems. We did a good job, considering our goals and our culture.

But we missed the big picture. We alienated every third party developer in the process. The ecosystem that has sprung to life with Apple's OSX AppStore is just impossible to achieve with Linux today.

The Rise of OSX

When OSX was launched it was by no means a very sophisticated Unix system. It had an old kernel, an old userland, poor compatibility with modern Unix, primitive development tools and a very pretty UI.

Over time Apple addressed the majority of the problems with its Unix stack: they improved compatibility, improved their kernel, more open source software started working and things worked out of the box.

The most pragmatic contributors to Linux and open source gradually changed their goals from "an world run by open source" to "the open web". Others found that messing around with their audio card every six months to play music and the hardships of watching video on Linux were not worth that much. People started moving to OSX.

Many hackers moved to OSX. It was a good looking Unix, with working audio, PDF viewers, working video drivers, codecs for watching movies and at the end of the day, a very pleasant system to use. Many exchanged absolute configurability of their system for a stable system.

As for myself, I had fallen in love with the iPhone, so using a Mac on a day-to-day basis was a must. Having been part of the Linux Desktop efforts, I felt a deep guilt for liking OSX and moving a lot of my work to it.

What we did wrong

Backwards compatibility, and compatibility across Linux distributions is not a sexy problem. It is not even remotely an interesting problem to solve. Nobody wants to do that work, everyone wants to innovate, and be responsible for the next big feature in Linux.

So Linux was left with idealists that wanted to design the best possible system without having to worry about boring details like support and backwards compatibility.

Meanwhile, you can still run the 2001 Photoshop that came when XP was launched on Windows 8. And you can still run your old OSX apps on Mountain Lion.

Back in February I attended FOSDEM and two of my very dear friends were giggling out of excitement at their plans to roll out a new system that will force many apps to be modified to continue running. They have a beautiful vision to solve a problem that I never knew we had, and that no end user probably cares about, but every Linux desktop user will pay the price.

That day I stopped feeling guilty about my new found love for OSX.

Update September 2nd, 2012

Clearly there is some confusion over the title of this blog post, so I wanted to post a quick follow-up.

What I mean with the title is that Linux on the Desktop lost the race for a consumer operating system. It will continue to be a great engineering workstation (that is why I am replacing the hard disk in my system at home) and yes, I am aware that many of my friends use Linux on the desktop and love it.

But we lost the chance of becoming a mainstream consumer OS. What this means is that nobody is recommending a non-technical person go get a computer with Linux on it for their desktop needs (unless you are doing it so for idelogical reasons).

We had our share of chances. The best one was when Vista bombed in the marketplace. But we had our own internal battles and struggles to deal with. Some of you have written your own takes of our struggled in that period.

Today, the various Linux on the desktops are the best they have ever been. Ubuntu and Unity, Fedora and GnomeShell, RHEL and Gnome 2, Debian and Xfce plus the KDE distros. And yet, we still have four major desktop APIs, and about half a dozen popular and slightly incompatible versions of Linux on the desktop: each with its own curated OS subsystems, with different packaging systems, with different dependencies and slightly different versions of the core libraries. Which works great for pure open source, but not so much for proprietary code.

Shipping and maintaining apps for these rapidly evolving platforms is a big challenge.

Linux succeeded in other areas: servers and mobile devices. But on the desktop, our major feature and our major differentiator is price, but comes at the expense of having a timid selection of native apps and frequent breakage. The Linux Hater blog parodied this on a series of posts called the Greatest Hates.

The only way to fix Linux is to take one distro, one set of components as a baseline, abadone everything else and everyone should just contribute to this single Linux. Whether this is Canonical's Ubutu, or Red Hat's Fedora or Debian's system or a new joint effort is something that intelligent people will disagree until the end of the days.

Posted on 29 Aug 2012 by Miguel de Icaza
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