Although Asus managed to spark a massive trend with cheap, simple netbook PCs, it opted to ship systems preinstalled with a Xandros distribution that left a lot to be desired. Other vendors moved just as clumsily with a host of bad options that gave Microsoft room to sweep the market by extending the life of Windows XP. In that one gesture, all hope was lost for Linux's netbook revolution. Meanwhile, desktop users who fled Windows Vista mostly just switched to Macs or reverted to Windows XP.
By the time Microsoft released the Windows 7 beta in January 2009, Linux had clearly lost its chance at desktop glory.
Why Linux Failed on the Desktop
The failure of Linux to catch on with mainstream PC users will come as no great surprise to most observers, but the reasons for its failure are often misunderstood or, at the very least, grossly misstated. Linux didn't fail on the desktop because it's "too geeky," "too hard to use," or "too obscure," as casual detractors so often claim in online forums. On the contrary, the best-known distribution--Ubuntu--has received high marks for usability from every major player in the technology press, and it features a menu layout nearly identical to that of Mac OS X.
Ultimately, Linux is doomed on the desktop because of a critical lack of content. And that lack of content owes its existence to two key factors: the fragmentation of the Linux platform, and the fierce ideology of the open-source community at large.
User expectations have shifted dramatically in the past few years, and it's no longer acceptable for any PC to fail at basic media viewing. DVD playback and video streaming from premium sites such as Netflix are now fundamental capabilities that any computer should have. But the politics of the open-source world make that a nearly hopeless dream for Linux.
"I share the hope with everyone that free and open-source software will rise to meet the requirements of content delivery," says longtime Linux developer Jeff Whatcott, senior vice president of marketing for Brightcove, a company that specializes in online video streaming. "But that's not happening."
"DRM is not popular with the open-source crowd," says Whatcott, lamenting that the open-source community at large remains so steadfastly opposed to digital rights management technologies. Without those systems, commercial content providers have no incentive to embrace Linux. And Whatcott points out that even if the open-source community were willing to go along, the DRM arena is dominated by "deep, deep patent pools," making a free, open-source alternative unlikely anyway.