November 04, 2011, 7:42 AM — As I was reading yet another article about the problems people are having with Unity, I was thinking about how we may be focused on the wrong thing when we fret about how the desktop interface works.
Shouldn't we, as a community, be focused on the application ecosystem? Or has the rise of software as a service caused the community to essentially declare this space "done"?
The article in question was Bruce Byfield's Linux Magazine blog entry that highlighted a Launchpad bug discussion about one Ubuntu developer's concern that Canonical was basically disconnected from the Ubuntu community with their constant insistence that the Unity interface not be as configurable as prior interfaces.
I'll let you read Byfield's article, since it keenly illustrates the division of thought between the old and the new Linux community. But this division, and all of the trouble it's caused, suddenly has me wondering if we're not all looking at the wrong thing.
The Unity argument intrigues me on several levels. On the most personal level, it interests me because, well, I'm not the biggest Unity fan, either. I like the interface as a concept, but like most Linux users, I miss the capability to configure the interface more to my liking.
On a broader level, the problem people have with Unity seems to be this lack of configuration, which reflects the new trend in interfaces: light, fast, pretty containers for what's really important in a mobile interface world that's increasingly dependent on SaaS--the browser.
But here's my question: we seem to be focused so much on the interface, and yet Linux is still not perceived as a strong contender in the other half of the what-makes-a-good-desktop-operating-system equation: applications. And that's being a bit generous.
On the very basic level, Linux has what it takes: strong office suites, file managers, browsers, text editors, music library systems. But anything much beyond that, and you've got to either run a virtual machine or get online.
I've been nervous about this before. Last week, as I Twittered a link to a story about Canonical's new focus on the business desktop, Twitter reader André Koot came back with an interesting reply that seemed to sum up every commercial Linux vendor's feeling about applications:
"Who needs (corporate) apps when there's saas? Biggest problem is current vendor lock-in - proprietary non-standards…"
A lot of people, including me, have seen SaaS as the savior of the Linux desktop. SaaS neatly allows Linux to skirt around the elephant in the room: Linux on the desktop hasn't been successful because of a pretty interface; it hasn't been successful because there is a perceived lack of applications. A perception, I should add, which is basically right, at least as far as the average user is concerned.
SaaS, however, changes all that. Cloud-based applications will let anyone with a browser access the same applications, no matter what operating system they are using. Clearly, this is what everyone is shooting for, not just Linux. Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 and Apple's current OS X Lion show clear signs of what's been called "appification." Canonical's Unity is just their way of approaching this paradigm. Heck, even the aforementioned LibreOffice is working on an online version.
My concern here is that in the rush to shift to SaaS, we have seemingly abandoned any pretense that the native Linux application space is worth working on. I cannot remember the last time there was a major new innovation in Linux application space. (LibreOffice doesn't count; it's a fork of a pre-existing office suite.) Before that, what was it? Chrome (another browser)? Amarok and Banshee (both great music players, with a decidedly iTunes bent)?
In all of the kerfuffle about the interface, has Linux development just up and abandoned this side of the desktop equation? If so, if Linux has really truly pinned all of its hopes to SaaS, then the desktop Linux community should admit it to themselves and freely accept the fact that SaaS is the target for which Linux is now aiming.
Is this so wrong? If you read my entry yesterday, then you will know that I am becoming increasingly nervous about this. Better, I think, to keep working on native solutions and aim Linux at a business and general consumer market that doesn't want or need every single piece of their data out in the cloud.
Don't ignore SaaS, to be sure… but don't ignore native Linux application development, either.
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