Thursday, 16 July 2009

2010 - The Year of Linux on the Desktop?

Every year for at least the last decade has been jokingly associated with being the "year of the Linux desktop". Optimism surely is strong in the Open Source world and it's only in hindsight do we realize how far short of the goal we have been. Even now, on new years day Linux geeks think to themselves, maybe this year will be the one. But of course it won't be, I mean, for a start to have a "year of Linux on the desktop" (YOLOTD) you need to actually quantify what that means.

The year of Linux on my desktop was back in 2005, when I installed Ubuntu Breezy and never looked back. But obviously that's not what the YOLOTD actually means, what it means is the year that a large percentage of desktops run a Linux based operating system. But what percentage? I guess enough to be noticed. Enough that the big developers start writing software for Linux because the audience they would be missing out on is just too large to ignore.

It's widely circulated that OSX market share is around 10% yet most developers are still developing for Windows only, with only certain products making it to the Mac desktop. That seems to imply that Linux needs more than that. I'd hazard a guess that Linux and OSX market share combined would need to hit 20% before people start really taking notice. At that point if you develop only for Windows, you are ignoring 1 in 5 potential customers.

If you were a developer in that situation, what would you do next? If you were smart you'd see which had the next highest market share after Windows and port to that platform. Aha, so to actually get a YOLOTD we don't need to compete with Windows, we need to compete with OSX. If Linux can get a higher market share on the desktop than Mac, then two things happen:

  1. The magical 20% margin for non-Windows desktops is broken

  2. Linux becomes the next target for developers

Nobody knows what Linux desktop market share is, I've heard figures vary from 1% to 8%, but for now, let's stick with a conservative 2%. So Linux desktops need an 8% increase to even "start" the YOLOTD. I believe that this will happen before the end of 2010 and here's my reasoning...

Ubuntu has become the largest desktop Linux distro in the world in a very short time. Each release adding more and more features, many for technical reasons (improved X server, Pulseaudio, automatic proprietary driver installation) but still many new users see it as too complicated, or confusing. But the last release of Ubuntu - somthing changed. A new feature was added which wasn't technical in nature, it wasn't to get something working, it was to make the experience more pleasant - the notification system.

The new notification system in Jaunty has set the ball rolling. Already for the Karmic release cycle we've already seen the 100 Paper Cuts project which in the first month or so has made real changes. The notification system is seeing lots of commits, the DX team is organized and getting work done, Canonical seem to actually have a plan. They definitely seem to be focused on a goal, and reading between the lines of Mark Shuttleworth's interviews that goal is set for completion in 10.10. A new sleek desktop that will just be pure class from boot onwards. If slicker than Mac doesn't win audience I don't know what will.

Then there is ChromeOS, Google's entry to the OS market, due out next year. Google has a habit of excelling in every venture - Picasa, Google Earth, Desktop Search, Android, Gmail I can't see this trend changing. ChromeOS will be based on Linux, so yes it counts and with Google's brand power, I believe they'll easily win 1-2% of the desktop market within a year, albeit likely via Netbooks.

Now, Linux's debut in the Netbook market was completely sabotaged by the limited crappy Xandros based OS of the eeePC which inevitably resulted in even worse copycat distros from other manufacturers meaning that by the time Ubuntu Netbook Remix came along, the Linux Netbook world was a barren wasteland with XP sitting over the bridge in green fields of victory. Things will change though, there is a place where Windows just can't go: ARM.

ARM Netbooks with long battery life and good performance will be out over the next year, with ChromeOS and UNR splitting the marketshare between them.

So here's my prediction; 2010 will be the YOLOTD, 2011 cementing it. Hopefully by 2012 balance will restored to the IT industry. It's good to be optimistic :)

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