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 Post subject: Linux Format - February Issue: Death of the (Linux) Desktop?
PostPosted: Sat Jan 05, 2013 2:28 am 
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Joined: Wed Sep 19, 2012 4:30 pm
Posts: 137
Location: suffolk, uk
Thought this might interest someone.


From: Linux Format of February 2013
Author: Mayank Sharma

The death of the desktop?
A major desktop architect is predicting the end of the Linux desktop. MayankSharma wonders if it's time to give up.

After a decade of looking for the "year
of the Linux desktop" many Linux
columnists have given up. Some say it
isn't coming, while others claim that Linux
has simply failed on the desktop. If we responded
to everyone who has ever criticised the Linux
desktop, we wouldn't get any work done.

But Miguel de Icaza isn't just anybody. He's
well respected in the open source community
as the founding developer of one of the two
main Linux desktop environments, the Gnome
desktop. To our utter amazement, even he now
thinks the Linux desktop is dead!

In a recent post on his personal blog, Icaza
shares his reasons why Linux couldn't pitch
itself as a viable consumer desktop operating
system. His comments are a follow-up to
a Wired article that claimed that Apple OS X
has far outpaced the Linux desktop.

In the post, titled "What killed the Linux
desktop?" Icaza, from his experience with
Gnome, collates the various reasons for the
Linux desktop's dire predicament. The crux of
his argument is that in their bid for technical
excellence, the Gnome developers tweaked the
software interfaces so often that it became
a nightmare for third-party developers
to support.

But what started off as a moment of
introspection turned ugly when Icaza blamed
the all-father Linus Torvalds for inadvertently
misleading the larger Linux development
community: "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."

He argues that "the problem with Linux on
the desktop is rooted in the developer culture
that was created around it."

Icaza then writes about how this attitude
affected their development efforts. He explains
that in their bid to eliminate poorly
implemented features, the Gnome developers
mercilessly deprecated APIs for better ones:
"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.'"

This attribution' obviously didn't go down
well with Torvalds, who dismisses Icaza's claim
that he set the attitude which causes problems
on the desktop.

In a Google+ thread discussing the post,
Torvalds reflects on his own development style
for the Linux kernel by pointing out that "one of
the core kernel rules has always been that we
never, ever break any external interfaces.

That rule has been there since day one,
although it's gotten much more explicit only in
the last few years. The fact that we break
internal interfaces that are not visible to
userland is totally irrelevant, and a total
red herring."

One of his top lieutenants, Theodore Ts'o,
also affirms Torvalds' stance, saying that the
desktop developers have only paid attention to
the kernel developers' attitude towards "internal
interfaces" and have completely ignored their
attitude towards "external interfaces".

He reiterates Torvalds' position that if
a tweak to the kernel causes an application to
break it should be considered a bug, and the
only fix is to revert the change. "Things inside
the kernel can be changed with impunity, but
things which applications depend upon must
not be changed. Unfortunately, the desktop
developers never understood this lesson,"
writes Ts'o.

Torvalds agrees, adding that "some Gnome
people seem to be in total denial about what
their problem really is. They'll wildly blame
everybody except themselves."

Incompatible components
Moving on, the next item on Icaza's list is the
lack of coordination between the various Linux
distros: "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

He illustrates this by again bringing up the
kernel. "The efforts to standardise 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."

Although there is merit in Icaza's argument,
the kernel developers couldn't help but note the
irony here. Alan Cox, one of the most respected
Linux developers, replies: "That made me
laugh. There was KDE, and Miguel then came
along and created the very confusion he's
ranting about."

Broken Gnome
Cox goes further and blames Gnome for
breaking compatibility on the desktop, saying
Icaza is "dead right about the way the Gnome
people keep breaking their compatibility every
time, not just with the apps but with the UI, with
the config (which is still worse now than in
Gnome 1.x !) and so on. However, it's not an
open source disease, it's certain projects, like
Gnome, disease."

Cox and another kernel developer, Ingo
Molnar, then point to the kernel's excellent
backward compatibility. Molnar writes that
"the Linux kernel project was always very strict
about keeping its external ABIs, intended ABIs
and even accidental ABIs. This is how it's
possible that Alan Cox's 20-years-old Rogue
game binary, built in 1992, is still compatible
with and working on today's latest Linux kernel
unmodified and will still work 50 years in
the future."

An ABI (Application Binary Interface) is the
interface between a computer program and the
operating system and defines, among other
things, how an application should make system
calls to the operating system.

Although both his claims were challenged
and overruled by respected and knowledgeable
members of the open source fraternity, Icaza, in
his original post, concludes that together they
created an ecosystem that didn't appear to be
very welcoming to third-party desktop
app developers.

"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."

Again, he blames the developer-focused
approach, which he acknowledges helped
pioneer things such as package management.
But in the process, they missed "the bigger
picture" and alienated third-party developers.

In an update to his post, Icaza clarifies his
position and praises the desktop distros, saying
that "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," but
adds that this still leaves us with "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."

On the Google+ thread, he adds:
"supporting Linux desktop for proprietary
software developers is just too expensive and
the market is both small and deeply

Icaza's views were endorsed by Christian
Hammond, a VMware developer who works on
the Workstation and Player apps for Linux.
Responding to Icaza's post, Hammond, on
Twitter, writes that at VMware they spent
a considerable amount of time handling the
"compatibility crap".

Icaza's post, and the subsequent
discussions on various networks, prompted
a much more detailed post from prolific open
source hacker and Linux Format contributor
Michael Meeks, who reasonses that turning
away third-party developers is only one of the
reasons for Linux's poor show on the desktop.
While Meeks mostly agreed with Icaza's
conclusion that "we're still facing a huge uphill
struggle" to make Linux an attractive desktop,
offering, he thinks there are more reasons
behind it than those highlighted by Icaza:
"My punchline is that the Linux desktop faces a
huge and multi-factored ecosystem challenge,
there is no single simple issue to fix."

Pre-installs are key
In fact, Meeks argues that the "Linux desktop
stack (with existing frozen/back-compatible
API/ABIs) is not profoundly different from other
operating systems" He goes on to add that.
"arguably it is better for ISVs, since we have
access to open the lid on the box and work with
each other."

Although Meeks thinks that this makes the
Linux desktop preferable to independent
developers, he reasons that we fail to attract
developers because the competition, despite its
lack of technological superiority, has "large,
addressable markets".

But this seems to be changing as third-party
developers are warming up to the Linux
desktop. Meeks points to video game
development and distribution company
Valve Software, which is working with Intel to
improve open source drivers to better support
its wares.

However, Meeks believes that even more
important than encouraging app developers is
attracting OEMs to ship computers with Linux

Torvalds agrees. In an interaction in June
2012 with students at Aalto University, Finland,
he said that a major reason for the lack of Linux
on the desktop is that the average desktop user
doesn't want to install an operating system:
"You can't get a desktop unless you have preinstalls,
and that hasn't happened."

Furthermore, he added that the reason
behind Linux's success on the mobile platform
"is not because people are downloading and
installing disc images on their cell phone.
No, it's because it comes on the cell phone

If you look hard enough, you'll find some
vendors, including major ones like Dell, that sell
machines with Linux pre-installed. There's also
System76, ZaReason, the Linux Emporium, and
Tiny Green PC, which sells its brand of small,
fanless computers. Some distros, such as
Debian, also maintain a list of OEMs that sell
hardware pre-installed with its distro
There's also a list of Linux-friendly hardware
vendors at

But since the OEMs don't need to dig in to
their wallets to ship Linux on their hardware,
shouldn't the stores be overflowing with Linux
machines? According to Meeks, obtaining the
OS is just one part of the OS pre-install process.
"One of the major business problems of
hardware enablement is that it takes a constant
investment of real cash to pay excellent
engineers to make (brand new) hardware work
reliably," writes Meeks. What he means by that
is that despite it not costing anything to
download and install Linux, there are additional
costs to get the OS working on specific
hardware configurations.

Again, one would assume that Linux has an
upper hand here. After all, Meeks says, it has
more drivers working out of the box than any
other OS. But our advantage is negated by the
Windows ecosystem, which distributes this cost
among hardware vendors who write their own
drivers, and by the Mac ecosystem, which ships
a very limited set of hardware.

Furthermore, Meeks points out that "even if
hardware can be perfectly enabled, fully
translated, with accurate manuals, support and
update plans, integrated with OEM's imaging
infrastructure, etc, and at near-zero cost, this is
still too expensive."

He explains that this is because OEMs who
build Windows machines in fact earn revenue
from co-marketing, advertising cuts, and
bundling antivirus and trial versions of software.
These avenues just don't exist on the Linux

So while Linux might not cost OEMs any
money to download and install, Windows,
despite its licensing cost, in fact brings in
revenue for the OEMs.

Where's the marketing?
Both Meeks and Torvalds agree that even in
cases when a Linux pre-installed desktop is
available with a vendor, it'll miss the cursory
glance of a buyer because of virtually nonexistent marketing efforts.
The average desktop user barely knows
what Linux is, let alone the different distros
beyond Ubuntu, Mint and Fedora. There has to
be a concerted effort on the part of the desktop
distros to make people aware of the alternatives
at their disposal.

"It is, of course, possible for an excellent
product to spread virally by word of mouth,
clever volunteer marketing, and more but it is
hard work," writes Meeks.

That said, word of mouth has got us as
many users as it could, but to break through
the mainstream and seize public
consciousness, we need to exploit mainstream
marketing avenues.

Meeks believes that "we may well already be
more secure, more manageable, more easy to
upgrade, and lower cost, but unless consumers
know about us with the best will in the world,
they can't choose us."

And we aren't just talking about throwing
money at flashy advertising on the high street.
Marketing desktop Linux is also about creating
awareness. One way of doing so is by changing
the IT curriculum in schools, which in many
countries is still biased towards specific
applications. So, instead of producing
discerning desktop users, the system keeps
churning out ones who are unaware of the
other alternatives.

Linux as a framework
Arguably the biggest reason for the laggard
pace of the Linux desktop is that there is no
one' Linux desktop. Beyond Windows and Mac
OS X, there's Ubuntu Linux, Fedora Linux, Linux
Mint and hundreds of other options. The
equation is complicated further by the choice of
desktops and other components that one can
run on top of them. Linux, it seems, has an
identity crisis.

For a long time, we have relished the
diversity and choice available on the Linux
desktop, and counted it as a strength of the
platform. But it's important to realise that when
it comes to mainstream adoption, the lack of
a unified front is actually a hindrance.
In fact, this is something Torvalds agrees
with, and he says as much in our interview in
LXF163: "Well, yes, some things would be
easier if there was no choice" As he explains in
that interview, Torvalds was never interested in
using the Linux trademark to create a default
Linux environment. Nor was the Linux Standard
Base (LSB).

But if you look at Android, it uses Linux as
a framework, on top of which it assembles
a standardised set of components that make
up its releases. The purists may cringe all they
want, but Google's strategy seems to have
worked on mobile gadgets, such as
smartphones and tablets.

Now it seems Canonical is trying to replicate
this arrangement on the desktop and other
devices with Ubuntu. The distro has its own
desktop (Unity), its own app store (Ubuntu
Software Center), its own cloud-based storage
and music service (Ubuntu One), and only
supports its own Ubuntu-branded kernel.
In fact, some of the features for its upcoming
Ubuntu 13.04 release will be developed behind
closed doors and later released as open source,
much like Android releases.

Traditionalists and geeky Linux users have
bickered about this, but Canonical's strategy
seems to be working. They are the officially
supported distro by almost every third-party
developer porting their wares to Linux, such as
the recently-announced move by Valve
Software, that is porting Steam to Linux.
Another thing that has worked in Ubuntu's
favour is the familiarity of its Unity desktop,
especially to Windows and Mac users. As things
stand, the average desktop user sees Linux as
a replacement for Windows, while the
experienced users crib about its similarities
with proprietary OSes.

The Enterprise desktop
While the issues for the consumer desktop are
being sorted, Meeks suggests we should focus
our energy on the Enterprise desktop. "In my
view, the most hopeful strategy for the Linux
desktop is to make it ideal for an enterprise,
while not crippling it for consumers and very
early adopters," he writes.

Citing his experience with Novell's
commercial Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop
(SLED), Meeks writes that the current
economics of Linux desktops are more
attractive to business users, who prefer
systems that are secure, and integrate well with
the existing network infrastructure.
He says that enterprises tend to purchase
new PCs in batches, typically prefer lockeddown
environments with a limited number of
apps, and have technically literate support
IT staff.

To attract the business desktop users,
Meeks advises Linux desktop developers to
spend less time tweaking things such as fancy
desktop effects, which might be fun to work
on but don't add any extra value to the
business desktop.

"It is perhaps not glorious enterprises care
little for the bling that doesn't have a direct,
inarguable business benefit and bling is fun to
hack on," Meeks writes, "but surely creating real
value, that allows people to work more
efficiently, reliably, and speedily has to be a
satisfying thing to do as well."

The desktop is evolving
Despite the dropping sales figures of traditional
PCs, we aren't saying that netbooks,
smartphones or tablets will replace the
traditional desktop. The desktop space is
completely different. For one, it has to support
every piece of hardware. On the other hand, the
mobile gadgets have a fairly limited usage
space. Even though a tablet can have hundreds
of apps, you still don't connect it to a lot of
different devices.

Rather, what we are getting at is that this
new class of devices will have a major impact
on how we interact with and use technology.

You can notice the change already. For
example, how many of you still print photos at
home with a photo printer? Chances are that,
like many, you just snap a picture with your
smart phone, upload it to a photo sharing
service such as Flickr, and then select the ones
you want printed and send them to a printer,
who delivers physical copies, all without ever
coming into contact with a traditional desktop.

People should see a desktop operating
system for what it really is, an application
launcher. That said, an average desktop user's
dependence on a particular app is over-rated.
For example, LibreOffice can satisfy all the word
processing needs of an average desktop user.
Sure, we won't try to push Gimp down the
throats of Photoshop users, but how many
Photoshop users do you know of in real life?

The problem is a bit more complex on the
commercial deployments, with all sorts of
custom apps, as well as industry-specific apps,
almost all of which are developed exclusively for
the Windows desktop.

But here, too, many applications have been
pushed on to the cloud and are being served
on a browser. Furthermore, thanks to an
increasing number of establishments
embracing the Bring Your Own Device policy,
and extending it to portable devices, such as
tablets, the Linux desktop has a lot of room
to expand.

So is the Linux desktop dead? Not by a long
shot. It continues to thrive on the Enterprise
desktop, and with a bit more vendor
involvement could really break through on the
consumer desktop as well. LXF

February 2013 LXF167 57

Dunc's Political Philosophy:

"--- only man is vile!"
From Greenland's Icy Mountains
Reginald Heber: 1783–1826
"A plague on all your houses!"
Misquote from: Romeo And Juliet
William Shakespeare: 1564-1616

 Post subject: Re: Linux Format - February Issue: Death of the (Linux) Desk
PostPosted: Mon May 25, 2015 8:14 am 

Joined: Fri May 15, 2015 1:11 am
Posts: 35
This is absolutely, one of the best discussions of what is going on with Linux / Windblows today....

won't get into specifics because they are off the farm, but I had.......a few weeks ago....... a young lady submit a "research paper" online to me, for my physics .odt. !!! WHAT!!! ??

She did it to "compliment me" because I "espouse" open source stuff in my physics classes....

"Stuff" about "open source" and "Linux" is "seeping" into "the mass culture"........ I now, regularly have people with a Linux lappy, always Ubuntu, in my classes......

THE WHOLE DISCUSSION in the OP is LONG and INVOLVED........but viewed from a person who has to deal with "OS" as a user and watching other people using an OS.........

It is HIGHLY pregnant with information........

As an aside........the college sent an e-mail out to all the professors AND students.............that Internet Explorer is NOT compatible with the colleges, DOMINANT, intra-net.......Blackboard........ and to use FF, Chrome, or Leopard(whatever)...

The OP is worth a read if one has not so done.


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