Sunday, November 15, 2020

State of the Linux Desktop (2009)

Editor's Note: this is a post from my old Serendipity weblog, "Pawprints of the Mind," which was originally posted nearly 12 years ago, on 2009-05-18.  History since then has unfolded differently in some details, but the broad strokes seem to be accurate.  The text below is reproduced verbatim from the original post.

The Linux desktop is a curious thing. Years ago, the annual prediction was that that year was finally going to be the Year of the Linux Desktop, and Windows would be kicked out of market dominance for good. World domination by open source, and all that.

Linux has come a long way since then. Monitors can be largely auto-configured, fonts can be anti-aliased, CDs can be burned without fiddling with ide-scsi, USB works without having to care about your kernel version, and even media keyboards and mice with tilt-wheels seem to work these days.

But the "desktop" has come a long way since then, too. Various OS X versions introduced technologies like Display PDF, Quartz Extreme, Exposé, and other things that Windows Vista copied with WPF and Aero. Linux eventually duplicated them in Compiz, Beryl, Compiz-Fusion, or something. Somewhere in there. It kinda-sorta works now, if you don't want thumbnails of minimized windows.

Now that Linux has joined the current decade, Microsoft is readying Windows 7, with features like thumbnails of windows on the taskbar (with Aero), the 'recent documents' of an application available from the taskbar button, and so forth. Apple certainly has their own plans. And both of them have decent sound and MIDI support, where starting up one audio application is actually not likely to silence another's sound.

So, the "Linux Desktop" is still behind, and always has been. One problem here seems to be that it's not about innovation. It's about copying everyone else's modern technology with ancient components. It's about solving problems again that already have better solutions in other systems, just to see how closely Linux can approximate them with its decades-old core design.

And then someone, or maybe a few people, whine about the solution and come up with an alternative. The alternatives vie for dominance, and the rest of the desktop world moves on while the Linux landscape settles into one predominant choice, if they're lucky. If they're unlucky, you get things like the KDE/Gnome situation.

Due to Linux's philosophy about neither inventing wheels nor including batteries, there's a large number of components with their own maintenance and release schedules, and most of them target "current" versions of other components. For any given complex program, there's a relatively small window of time between the components it uses being released, and becoming obsolete with future releases. Every time components break compatibility, a new version of all programs dependent on them have to be released to deal with the changes. The more changes dealt with, the more complex the program becomes, so compatibility with older versions also gets cut out after a time.

And sometimes, a sweeping change comes through, and no compatibility is maintained between the two versions: App 2.0 will run on Foo 3.0 and newer, and App 1.4 will only run on Foo 2.5 and below.

From a software developer's point of view, then, supporting Linux is a risky proposition. You have to either watch the work in progress on the entire stack, and guess what will be completed and be important to your application, or you end up being taken by surprise when one of your components updates and your application doesn't run on an ever-growing range of Linux systems until you have time to update it.

Apple and Microsoft may have their own problems, but they have the clout and the guts to say, "We need to migrate to doing things this way, and it'll be good for at least 5 years." Look at Windows 95–Me, or NT4–XP. Whereas the rate of change in Linux effectively limits compatibility to about a year at the most. So most serious software gets developed for other platforms, and most serious users are on those platforms as well. Then familiarity begets desire for those platforms over Linux.

In short, Linux is sort of the Perl of operating systems: messy and aging. People working on Linux desktop technologies seem to be doing it to prove that they can. And secretly, they hope to get horses fast enough to put that Ford guy out of business.

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