Time to Move On From The Desktop?

The idea of open source on the desktop may no longer be viable.

It's a good thing I'm not a conspiracy theorist.

Even though I don't think they meant to do it, no less than three noteworthy open source community members came out this week with separate calls to leave the desktop software model and move open source development to something they felt more relevant: the cloud.

The timing may have some common thread: the announcement this week of the formation of The Document Foundation and the launch of the LibreOffice application suite has made a lot of people in the community turn their attention towards the desktop. It was only natural, then, for pundits and luminaries to venture their opinion on how far we've come and where the desktop is going.

Basically, amongst this group, they are not liking what they see.

The whole theme started with Canonical COO Matt Asay's direct response to the LibreOffice announcement:

"The big news in Open Source Land this week is that the OpenOffice community has kissed goodbye to its project owner, Oracle, so it can set up The Document Foundation and a new spin on the OpenOffice code called LibreOffice. The bigger news is that anyone cares."

Asay, it must be noted, was speaking only for himself and not in his role as Canonical's COO. This is important because Canonical itself is supporting the Document Foundation and LibreOffice, despite what Mr. Grumpy-Puss says.

Kidding aside, Asay's premise is that the time for a strong desktop office suite has already past, particularly in the face of platforms like Google Docs. He chides the DF for cloning OpenOffice.org and continuing on a path that's ultimately a plan for failure.

For Asay, "the future belongs to the web, and The Document Foundation’s very name suggests a backward-looking focus, not the future focus that will keep it relevant."

Asay has a point, though I think he was a little harsh, since one can't just wave a magic wand and Web-enable a suite of apps overnight. The DF had to start somewhere, and who's to say they won't head in the direction Asay (and others) would like to see? The point of LibreOffice, was to get the code out from under Oracle before they could do something crazy.

I almost wrote a note to Asay to this effect, laced with colorful metaphors, because of the aforementioned point and the perception (at least to me) that Google Docs is still pretty far away from being a workable application--at least in a production sense. The idea is there, but the implementation is lacking.

But I may not be thinking far enough ahead. Since I'm not a developer, I don't work with new tools and languages, and therefore can't fully see the potential of cloud apps, Developers like Mike McGrath from the Fedora Project can, and just yesterday McGrath made a call to move the Fedora Project entirely away from the desktop.

No, seriously.

McGrath points out tech like JavaScript (not new, but much better) and HTML5 (very much new) and what companies like Google (them again) are doing with it. In this context, there's only one conclusion McGrath can draw:

"If you do a little research you'll see Google employees are tipping their hand. Many are releasing YouTube videos of the work they're doing. Google has a great deal of institutional knowledge about HTML5. Very interesting since the standard isn't even complete yet. When it is, they'll be ready and those applications won't look anything like what the web apps today look like. They'll look like native desktop apps.

"Imagine that technology applied to actual applications... That run anywhere HTML5 does. Our idea of the desktop is gone," McGrath wrote to the Fedora Project Advisory Board.

McGrath lays out an interesting and well-thought-out plan for transitioning the Fedora Project to something completely different than it's current mission, so you can't say he isn't very serious about his proposal. The question is, are McGrath and developers like him seeing the writing on the wall for the deskop?

No less an observer than James Gosling, inventor of Java, sees that same writing. InfoWorld's Neil McAllister cited a recent interview with Gosling where the Java creator lauds the open source model except in one critical area:

"[I]n the enterprise world open source is working really well. The place where it falls apart, though, is for desktop software. On the one hand, I really love Gimp and Blender. On the other, the hand, it's total volunteerism. With desktop software, my personal view is that if desktop software requires a support call, you have failed," Gosling stated in the interview.

McAllister himself goes on to highlight what he believes are the failures of the desktop, including arguments based on a numbers game: desktop open source has failed because it hasn't succeeded in the mainstream (save for Firefox).

Gosling (and McAllister) argues that desktop open source applications just can't cut it anymore, because they've never been able to succeed. Asay and McGrath are making the point that the end of the desktop as we know it neigh upon us, and it's time to move on.

Whichever argument you buy into, or don't, the perception of the desktop as the ultimate goal for Linux and open source software is definitely being re-evaluated.

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