Why The Linux Desktop Doesn't Matter Anymore

The Linux desktop crew is a hardy bunch. Despite it being abundantly evident that the Linux desktop has lost whatever slim chance it once had to be relevant, Linux advocates continue to wring their hands and say, "We kinda already won!... Sort of."

While it's true to say—and I've been saying it for years—that Linux qua Android now reigns as the "desktop" champion, it's equally true that Linux has completely failed as a desktop operating system.

The reason is pretty simple: Linux has never been easy or useful enough for Valerie.

The Best OS For Valerie

Valerie is the lady who cuts my hair, and has done so every six weeks or so for the past 25 years. She's not an early adopter. She's very much part of the mainstream, and if Valerie is using a technology, it's pretty clear that everyone else is, too. 

Valerie recently tried to switch from a Windows machine to a MacBook. Given her interests (photography, primarily), I would have thought a Mac would be a great choice. But she was struggling to figure out how to transfer photos from her Seagate external hard drive to her Mac for editing purposes, and the Mac wasn't recognizing her external drive (apparently a common issue). The Best Buy employee told her she just needed to format the Seagate drive to make it Mac OS X compatible, and if she did that, everything would go swimmingly.

Valerie panicked. She didn't like the idea of 32,000 photos being inaccessible, or worse—gone. 

After my hair cut, I tried to help her get set up on her new MacBook. I noticed she had a Netflix app on her Windows laptop, but not on the Mac. On her Mac laptop, she just couldn't figure out how to transfer files, delete applications or do other things that had become natural to her on her Windows machine.

Now, I'm a hardcore Mac fan with a house full of MacBook Airs and Pros, yet watching her struggle, I ultimately told her to just buy an Asus laptop with a one terabyte hard drive that could allow her to forego using the external hard drive. 

It wasn't a question of which OS was better. It was a question of which OS was better for Valerie.

But My Grandmother Can Use Linux!

For most people, most of the time, the answer is Windows or, given the prevalence of iPhones and iPads that seamlessly sync with the Mac OS X experience, the answer is increasingly Mac OS X. The answer is rarely, if ever, Linux.

Dan Kusnetzky offers a variety of reasons that Linux never took off in the enterprise, but for me, the real audience to analyze is the Valeries of the world.

Had Valerie been using an iPad or iPhone, she would've had a compelling reason to use a Mac. But she doesn't own any of those things; for cost reasons, Valerie owns an Android smartphone and an Android tablet, which, for her, is mostly used as a glorified movie player. Linux doesn't help Valerie with any of this. It's irrelevant for her needs.

This is why I find it so baffling when people argue that Linux is good enough:

It was never necessary for Linux to "beat Windows" on the desktop to be successful. What Linux needed to do was provide a viable alternative to Windows and other operating systems on the desktop. And it has done that over and over again for years. Any Windows user who wants to dump Microsoft can do so today, and can move to Linux for his or her computing needs.

This is so patently untrue that it's breathtaking. Yes, people can get basic computer functions from Linux, and even advanced functionality. What they can't get is an experience that easily blends with other devices or computing experiences they already own. 

The Web Is The New Linux

Rather than Linux, I suspect the new "desktop" winner will be Google. Not Android, per se, but Google. As Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols notes, Google's Chromebooks have been flying off the shelves as they offer a great, low-cost complement to Google services. I can see Valerie using a Chromebook, because it extends the the Google experience that she already loves into a new (but actually old) form factor. Thanks to Picasa, where she already keeps copies of her photos, she should be all set.

Linux is irrelevant to Valerie's needs. Not because it can't fill them, but because it forces her to conform to Linux, rather than having it conform to her needs. And guess what? There are billions of Valeries on this earth, people for whom the choice of desktop OS is not a matter of politics but rather of convenience. The Linux desktop is long on the former, and falls short of the latter.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.