I'm just going to say it: screw design, Linux needs apps.
We dance around the topic of what the Linux desktop needs to succeed all the time, and usually it comes down to this argument: the Linux desktop needs to have a better design. That is the core thread of almost every argument I hear lately.
For example, it was the first topic listed by Canonical's Jonathan Riddell, who (up until recently) was Canonical's lead developer of Kubuntu, the company's KDE-flavored release when he stepped through a list of answers to the question "So how can KDE remain relevant?"
"App shop" was fourth on the list. And to be fair, though it's a bit masked, Riddell addressed the problem a bit earlier in the third item on his list:
"Fill in the gaps! There is a common meme that 'we've achieved what we wanted 15 years ago,' well free software in general has but KDE is really nowhere near a usable desktop. We miss a decent web browser, our office suite is looking promising but still isn't much used, the plasma media centre has never got past an alpha stage, Kontact is losing popularity due to a bumpy transition to Akonadi. There's lots to be working on!"
In a roundabout way, that sounds like a call for apps to me. I don't want to presume to speak for Riddell, because maybe this was an off-the-top-of-his-head list and I shouldn't read too much into the prioritization, but I would argue that on any list that is prioritized, app development should be Job #1.
I don't want to spend too much time on this one, because it's a song I've sung before. But take a look at Android. You think it's adopted so much because of the OS design? Seriously? There's nothing wrong with the design, per se, but there's hardly anything to it: it's icons, full-screen apps, and a three-control toolbar. Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) adds some more bells and whistles, but honestly I don't think the OS design the biggest driver why people buy Android devices.
I use my Android phone because it has apps. If it didn't, I wouldn't use it. That may be shocking from a FLOSS advocate, but at the end of the day I need tools to help me do my job. Android, thankfully, meets my needs very well, so I don't have to ponder the alternatives.
Linux, for the most part, meets the same needs, but it still irks me that I have to fire up a Windows VM just to run something like Tableau or Quicken.
Why so cranky about this, you ask? Because I am increasingly looking at projects like Boot to Gecko, LibreOffice mobile, and Unity and I wonder: in their quest to capture mobile users, can the open source development community keep any sort of focus on the desktop?
I don't doubt their intentions when any of these projects say "of course we're not abandoning the Linux desktop." I believe they are genuinely sincere when they say this. But there is such a thing as bandwidth in developer meatspace, and unless there's a significant cultural and commercial shift, I think mobile is looking a lot more attractive to developers.
Somehow, some way, Linux distributions needs to make desktop app development more attractive again. App stores are a start, because they introduce a new dev-to-market revenue stream. But a store needs something to stock the shelves. And, to make this a lucrative venture, app developers will probably want to start charging for their wares, something with which the FLOSS community will have to come to terms.
I like a cool desktop design just as much as any other bonafide user… but I think that focusing on design as the most important aspect of the Linux desktop is just rearranging deck chairs. The only question is, are those deck chairs on the Queen Elizabeth II or the Titanic?
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