The “Year of the Linux Desktop” is a fabled time when Linux finally rises up and becomes the dominant desktop operating system, supplanting Windows.
Now, that might sound ridiculous, but the notion has been fueled over the years by Linux’s rise to dominance in every other market. The vast majority of servers run Linux. Just about every supercomputer runs on Linux. If you have an Android phone, it’s running the Linux kernel. Even the Internet of Things and automotive computers are primarily running some variation of Linux.
So it’s not too hard to see why Linux fans would keep hope alive that their favorite operating system would someday claim the mainstream desktop market too.
Defining the Year of the Linux Desktop
If you really think about it, this concept of the “Year of the Linux Desktop” is harder to pin down than it seems. Does it mean that Linux will be more common than Windows overall? Does it mean that Linux takes the majority of the desktop market? Or does it just mean that Linux moves into the mainstream and gets respect as a first class citizen? It’s really hard to say.
To make matters worse, the desktop market itself is changing. How many people still use a traditional desktop? Laptops and tablets are becoming the same thing. In that case, does Android count?
For this article the “Year of the Linux Desktop” is going to be considered the year that traditional desktop GNU/Linux (Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, etc.) moves into the mainstream and becomes a serious choice for non-technical users. That seems like a fair balance.
One of the main reasons that Windows rose to such dominance in the 90s was the fact that it shipped with nearly every computer sold. When you bought a computer, it had Windows, and it had key Microsoft products like the Office suite. Microsoft was brilliant with this, engineering dependence on their products. It was so effective that the US government had to step in and treat Microsoft as a monopoly.
To some degree, that’s still the case today. The vast majority of computers still come with Windows installed. Now, though, there are clearly other choices. Macs are more popular than they were in the past, and Google’s Chromebooks (running modified Linux) provide a great low cost alternative. So where does Linux fit in?
To be perfectly honest, the outlook for Linux still isn’t very good. Dell does offer a handful of Ubuntu laptops geared towards developers, and there are a couple of smaller specialty PC manufacturers catering to Linux, but the chances of walking into your local electronics store and picking up a computer running Linux are still very slim.
Is Linux ready for mainstream daily use? Absolutely. There is no reason at all why even the most technologically challenged can’t use Linux.
While it’s still possible to use Linux in the most obscure and arcane ways imaginable, the majority of Linux installations give you a complete, functional, and user-friendly experience. If you set up a distribution like Ubuntu on your computer, you’ll probably find yourself with most things that you’d want from your PC without needing to install any extras.
The main desktop environments like KDE, GNOME, Cinnamon, and XFCE are all very complete, with GNOME and KDE Plasma being the top contenders. Not only do they have all of the features that most users would want and expect, they look really nice, too. Plasma, in particular, easily looks just as good, if not better, than anything Microsoft or Apple have put out.
Installing software packages isn’t exactly perfect. Graphical app installers have most of the functionality that users would want, but they’re still a little clunky and don’t always show accurate search results. They’re getting better, though, and all provide a simple way to keep the computer updated.
Most installers are very easy to use now too. Ubuntu’s is probably the best, and almost all Ubuntu derivatives, like Mint, use it. In reality, if you can install a program using a wizard on Windows, you can install Linux.
Gaming on Linux is an unfortunately complex topic. There isn’t exactly one way to play games. Is it a native Linux game? Is it a game for Windows? Is that Windows game supported by Wine? Would you rather have a launcher like Lutris? There’s a lot more consideration that goes into things than just inserting the disk and installing.
There are actually a surprising amount of games available natively for Linux. Services like Steam, Humble Bundle, and GoG all support Linux very well. Steam even has over 2000 titles available for Linux. However, the games available for Linux tend to be indie titles with a few bigger name ports coming from studios like Feral Interactive.
Then, there’s Wine and the launchers like PlayOnLinux and Lutris that use it. Wine is a compatibility layer that translates Windows code to something that Linux can use. It’s not perfect, though. There is a performance cost, and not every game will work. Even still, there are plenty of games that you can play through Wine.
Linux gaming isn’t perfect, but as long as you don’t need the latest games as soon as they come out, you can definitely get by and have a great time gaming on Linux.
Third Party Support
Third-party support for Linux is a big topic. There’s a lot to cover. Both hardware and software support have been gradually improving for a long time, though.
Hardware support was a big problem in Linux’s past. New devices were simply not supported, and even more were really poorly supported. Now, though, that’s not the case. The vast majority of devices work immediately on Linux systems.
There are two sore spots here: wireless adapters and gaming hardware. Some wireless adapters are still poorly supported. Most are fine, but it’s something you should check before switching. Most “gaming” peripherals aren’t supported at all, meaning all of the special gaming functionality won’t work, and the device will behave like a standard USB keyboard or mouse. That said, there have been plenty of third-party community efforts to get these devices working, so some do. Again, it just requires that you look into it before making a purchase.
Obviously, software is a different story. There aren’t nearly as many companies developing commercial software for Linux. A lot of commercial software doesn’t support Linux at all. It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds, though. The open-source community has created a rich ecosystem around Linux that provides just about everything you could ever need. The open-source alternatives to many commercial products are not only just as good, they’re completely free of cost.
The Desktop Market
When considering the “Year of the Linux Desktop,” it’s important to consider the current desktop market. It’s bad. The sobering truth is that desktop computing isn’t nearly as big a deal as it once was, and the majority of people don’t care.
Desktop and laptop computer sales have plummeted over recent years. Microsoft even saw the proverbial writing on the wall and has shifted a lot of its focus into the cloud. Apple went so far as to suggest that tablets would make the computer as we know it obsolete in a recent ad campaign.
So, if it does arrive, what will the “Year of the Linux Desktop” even look like?
So, Is It?
Is 2018 going to be the “Year of the Linux Desktop?” No. In fact, the idea is a little ridiculous. There’s not going to be a year where a switch gets flipped, and suddenly everyone starts using Linux. It currently is and will continue to be a gradual move.
As bugs, security issues, and invasions of privacy that come from commercial operating systems continue to be a problem, people, mostly younger people, will seek out an alternative. Meanwhile, desktop computing will become more and more of a specialized professional practice. Somewhere along the line those things will intersect and create the climate for Linux to overtake Windows. And, by that point, Microsoft won’t care. There simply won’t be enough money in it for them to care.
Actually, there is a remote, but still somewhat logical, scenario where Microsoft themselves will usher in the “Year of the Linux Desktop.” They’ve already thrown their weight behind supporting Linux on their Azure platform because it makes sense from a business standpoint. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that a future Windows release may use the Linux kernel because it’s more economical to develop that way.
In any case, 2018 won’t be the “Year of the Linux Desktop,” but it is a great time to give Linux a try. It’s a modern operating system, and it’s absolutely mature and stable enough for daily desktop use. Give it a shot, and see for yourself. You may just find yourself falling in love.