The year of Linux on the desktop?

KDE 4 Current version: 4.7 Older versions: 4.0...
KDE 4 Current version: 4.7 Older versions: 4.0 beta 2, 4.0 beta 3, 4.0 beta 4, 4.0 RC2, 4.0 final, 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 4.4, 4.5, 4.6 (see file history) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many who work or research in the industry, desktop computers have an “end of history” feel about them.

The improvements in technology that allow chip makers to double the number of transistors in a given area of silicon every 18 – 24 months are still there but “Moore’s Law” as we understand it – ie., that computers will get twice as fast every 18 – 24 months – has broken down. We simply cannot power the chips (or rather keep them cool while supplying them with the power they need) and while parallelisation (ie “manycore”) means manufacturers can lower power demands and, to some extent, keep the speed of machines rising, it too is hitting a fundamental barrier – the inability of commodity hardware to supply instructions and data from memory fast enough to serve many more than 4 – 8 cores.

All this suggests that we might be close to “peak desktop” or to put it another way, the desktop computer you have now is not much slower than the one you will have in ten years time (unless, that is, you shell out quite a lot more for some fancy memory architecture or some other technological advance changes the rules.)

But what I think is clear is that you will have a desktop computer in a decade’s time, though it may look a bit more like today’s laptops: smaller, lighter, devices are going to be easier to deliver than faster ones. Tablets and other small form factor devices are useful for browsing the internet or writing a 140 character message, but who they are not the ideal devices for writing a 5, 10 or 100 page document on.

But if we are only going to buy one or at most two new desktop devices in the next decade then the business model of Microsoft – which still utterly dominates this space – is broken. No new desktops means no new sales of Office, the big money spinner for Microsoft.  Their response has been to compete for tablet and phone sales with Apple, though they start from a long way behind and, now, to lever their near-monopoly on general-use operating systems to seize control of all of the software on desktop.

Their plan to demand complete control over the desktop may yet fall foul of the regulators – it is difficult to see the European Commission nodding this one through, for instance. But there are other responses available.

Microsoft got clobbered in two ways when they previously tried to lock up one aspect of the software ecosystem – the browser. For sure, regulators put the squeeze on, but long before then users developed a far more effective way of breaking free – they switched to Mozilla Firefox.

Now the battle is much bigger. Microsoft are not just trying to control your browser, but all the other software on your machine. They will say they will still let others manufacture software and they are just supplying quality control – but would you really agree to the only books being available for sale those that were approved by Amazon (sadly, the evidence from the ebook market suggests that many of you would!)?

And what if Windows 9 removes all support for non-approved software (no doubt in the name of virus suppression or trojan elimination?) The behaviour of Apple fanatics shows there are plenty willing to welcome their new all-controlling overlords. But there is an alternative – whisper it – Linux on the desktop.

Now that very phrase – “Linux on the desktop” – has an internet meme-like jokey feel to it. It’s the gallows humour phrase of the free software world. If Linus Torvalds were ever to be led to the scaffold for crimes against intellectual property robber barons his last words would no doubt be “this is the year of Linux on the desktop” – but maybe the moment has come to find a generation of “second adopters” who are willing to break out of Microsoft’s jail?

The pace of development of the Linux kernel has not slowed, but there is a less excited feel to it all these days: Thermidor came to this revolution some time ago, but that is also a sign of its maturity.

After all, there is still no stopping an idea whose time has come.


One response to “The year of Linux on the desktop?”

  1. Interesting post. Reports I’ve read about Windows 8 seem to suggest that Microsoft is tailoring it to tablets (recognizing that tablets will be where the volume is in the near future?) and, in the process, possibly compromising the user experience for desktop users. That alone will not likely lead to a mass conversion to Linux desktops, but it should add some impetus. (I’ve been using Linux as my primary OS for several years now, and I’m not going back.)

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