Will Linux miss its big desktop shot?

Old arguments, lack of urgency, may hold Linux back

I read an interesting article this morning on Canonical's usability testing of offline e-mail readers Evolution and Thunderbird and wondered "who cares?"

The thrust of the article was whether or not Canonical is considering shifting from its default Evolution client to Thunderbird, speculation that seems a little dated, given that Alpha 3 of Ubuntu 11.10 features Thunderbird instead as the default client.

[Linux by the numbers and Passing on the Linux dream]

But when I voice the slightly apathetic groan of "who cares?," I'm not talking about the timeliness of this particular article, so much as the idea that we should care what e-mail client Linux has in the first place.

Like many of my colleagues and friends (and indeed the author of the VAR Guy article), I haven't used an offline e-mail reader in years, preferring instead to use web-based mail instead. Web-based mail like Gmail, WebMail, or any of the offerings provided by smaller managed services providers afford me a portability and ease of use that offline readers don't. To me, Evolution is that annoying app that tries to start up when I accidentally click "Mail" in the Empathy menu.

This is not said to disparage the developers on these two products, and there is surely still a need for offline clients like these in quite a few situations. But, as Software as a Service reliability increases, what tools will be left on the Linux desktop when all is said and done?

Really, think about it. We can compare LibreOffice to OpenOffice.org to Office till the cows come home, but what happens when Google Docs gets truly robust enough for business and high-end document production? Or Prezi gets enough mindshare to start an upwards trajectory of user numbers?

It's a song we've heard before: all the apps will live in the browser, so who cares what the OS will be? Observers of Linux--including me--have raised this up as the one big chance to capture desktop share, because Linux will have the same access to apps as all the other operating systems. OEMs, the sales pitch will go, why pay Microsoft all that money when you can just load up Linux to give your customers what they need!

But increasingly I have some doubts that any Linux distribution is going to be able to get its collective act together in time.

Communities are still fighting over GNOME3 vs. Unity vs. KDE vs. everything else, and the split between LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org may have delayed any chance for either office suite to be ported to the cloud in time.

Meanwhile, it takes nearly two years for a community as robust as openSUSE to finally come up with a community strategic plan thanks to a corporate acquisition and some healthy mistrust between openSUSE and Novell, then Attachmate. Extenuating circumstances aside, two years is an awfully long time to act, and I fear openSUSE is rapidly becoming as slow on their feet as the Debian Project. I hope I'm wrong.

Then there was the news of an Evans Data Survey showing that more developers are coding on OS X than Linux. The news wasn't all bad: twice as many developers still code for Linux than OS X. But if the conventional wisdom that developers will usually code for the platform on which they're working is true, how long will this last?

Linux, as a community, needs to get itself in gear and think about what it truly needs to succeed. The old arguments about desktops and application superiority aren't going to matter if all the other platforms have moved on.

You can argue that Linux can still get in front of more users with a "cloud-top" offering, but the counter argument is also strong: if a user is on a Windows-, Android-, iOS- or OS X-based cloud-top machine already and it seems to be working fine, why would they bother moving to a Linux-based device? What unique flavor or advantages will Linux bring?

We know what these advantages will be, and that message needs to be honed and broadcasted loudly instead of getting lost in the cacophony of noise within the Linux ecosystem.

Otherwise, when given a choice to use Linux, a user's response will be: "who cares?"

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