Does the Linux desktop matter?

Mobile and Web services are becoming far more important for Linux

When it all boils down, does Linux on the desktop really matter? Last week, I touched on the problems counting the number of Linux desktops, but the real question is does it really matter?

Over the weekend I made my annual pilgrimage to Columbus, Ohio for the Ohio LinuxFest (OLF). While I'm skeptical that the Linux desktop has more than 5% of the market (all desktops in use) in the general population, the Linux desktop had about 95% of the OLF-attending population. Yet at least two of the talks, including Stormy Peters' keynote, asked the question "does the Linux desktop even matter?"

Peters, the executive director of the GNOME Foundation, talked about GNOME and the future of the free software desktop. Many of the applications that Linux users are working with today are Web-based, so it doesn't really matter what desktop the user is working with. Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux, it's all the same to Google Docs if you're running Firefox or Google Chrome.

What's not the same, of course, is that Google Docs (and most of the Web apps) isn't free software. It's "Free as in Beer," which is good enough for most users — but a problem for those who care about user and developer freedoms. While GNOME, KDE, and other projects are trying to make Linux desktop applications ready for the "average" user, things have shifted significantly.

Peters talked about the need for more free Web services that integrate well with the free desktop. GNOME, for example, is starting to trend in this direction with Tomboy Online, but there's still quite a bit of effort needed.

Phil Robb, who works at HP, took it a step further with his talk, "This is the year of the irrelevance of the desktop." According to Robb, Linux has "won" in so many places, the Linux desktop is irrelevant. Or is it? Robb noted that the technology has won — Linux is almost omnipresent in consumer devices like the Tivo, Android phones, and many others — but the actual user freedom hasn't really carried over. Millions of people are using Linux to record and watch TV, great! But they don't really have any more choice or freedom as a result than they would if the machines were running a flavor of BSD or WindowsCE.

The companies are reaping the benefits of Linux and software freedom, but end users just see an appliance that is essentially a black box.

Which is why Linux advocates may want to stop worrying so much about "the desktop" as it exists today and start thinking about the the computers in their pockets and the Web services that power them.

The Linux desktop does matter, of course, but it may not matter as much or to as many people. It matters to me because that's what I use, but as Robb discussed this weekend, it's generally difficult to displace entrenched players like Microsoft by competing on the same platforms. Mainframe OSes were displaced by mini-computer OSes, which were displaced by workstation OSes, which were displaced by desktop OSes — and it's looking a lot like desktop OSes will be displaced by mobile OSes.

Whether Linux has 1%, 5%, or 10% of the desktop market isn't going to be that important in five years. Linux already has a larger share of the smartphone market, and is growing steadily thanks to Android. But just because many people are using Linux, it doesn't mean that they know they're using Linux or getting any more freedom from Linux than another mobile OS. That's much more worrying than whether the Linux desktop has 1% or 10% of the market. In winning the new frontier, it's important not to forget what the battle was about in the first place.

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