LXer Feature: 23-May-2011
A whole lot of things, actually, among them the fact that Linux has become the engine that runs somewhat over 90% of the world's supercomputers, Linux servers now handle a large fraction of all traffic on the Internet, Linux powers major stock markets all over the globe, and the Android surge is currently swamping iDevices of all sorts. But then there's the desktop...
When it comes to desktop usage, Linux has been scarcely more than a blip on the public radar. Its market share has hovered, optimistically calculated, at around one percent, occasionally showing a pulse when some courageous mainstream computer manufacturer offers a pre-installed version of Linux on one of its desktops for the home-and-office market.
Mark Shuttleworth seems resolved to correct that state of affairs. His time, his effort, and a big chunk of his considerable fortune has gone toward making a product that is as easy as possible for the mythical Average User to set up and operate. In the past few years his Ubuntu has been a gateway to Linux for a great many people, myself included, and each semi-annual edition seems to have been geared toward still easier functionality. That initiative has inspired even more development by others in the form of countless Ubuntu respins aimed at universal usability.
The more closely you look at the idea, the more you realize that the mythical Average User simply does not exist. It would be more accurate to refer to two distinct groups, other than IT professionals, who use desktop computers. One group consists of those who use computers passively, following established company practices at work and running a limited range of processes at home, using their machines for email, entertainment, photos, and music. The other group uses them actively and is more interested in the process and performance involved in computer operation. That group tends to take an active role in setting up a computer, downloading software, or even building a machine. To date, virtually all current Linux users have come from that second group, or were already IT pros.
Bear in mind that practically every Linux home-desktop user up to now has been, in some sense, a Linux administrator, if only to the extent of administering a personal system on a home computer. For those self-administrators, it has always been a conscious choice to accept the responsibility of maintaining a self-service system. They regard it as a personal achievement involving study, effort, and patience that pays off not only in a smoothly working, versatile system but also in a well-earned sense of pride in the accomplishment.
There has recently arisen a huge and growing population that uses Linux personally without knowing what it is or how to service it. They are the multitudes who have been eagerly snapping up Android smartphones and tablets. They have willingly and eagerly learned to navigate though the pure GUI interfaces that offer a choice of specific preset actions, like viewing news and entertainment or communicating with friends. The devices they use were not designed to create content, but to access pre-formed web-based material. For that use, selecting from a limited array of icons is an efficient mode of navigation. (Before someone makes the obvious comment: yes, you CAN create a document on a smartphone. You can also drive a screw with a chisel.)
The Unity form of Ubuntu 11.04 is in all respects a desktop-sized version of one of those hand-held touch-screen devices. It was apparently intended to be easily learned and used primarily by someone familiar with the concept of one established icon for each possible action. The trouble is, the desktop computer can perform all the actions available to hand held devices, and beyond them offers a rich array of utilities for content creation and manipulation in the form of text, music, photos, and video. For each of those there must be a separate icon, added to all those of the hand held devices.
The result is a vast panoply of hieroglyphics occupying the entire screen at any one moment, so vast that for identification each icon has to be accompanied by a word or two of explanation beneath it. Why not remove the little pictures, line up all the explanations in alphabetical order, and become a sensible navigation tool? Oh, that's right: that was the old way of doing things.
But there's another question, somewhat more fundamental: if the Iconified Desktop indeed draws throngs of new users to Linux, just what kind of Linux would they be coming to? The principal distinction between Linux and proprietary operating systems has always been the openness of Linux, the option all users are offered to modify their system to their heart's content, at their own risk.
Users may crash the system, wipe the partitions, even blitz the BIOS, but they will never incur the wrath of corporate lawyers insisting that it is a felony to meddle with the system they purchased. Any form of Linux a typical semi-passive user can operate safely could not permit such options. Microsoft, for all its faults, has been meticulous in at least trying to protect its users from themselves, and I suspect that is a good part of its appeal.
If the Shuttleworth initiative finally does achieve the level of desktop success its creator hopes, it might do so in a still different form than Natty Narwhal, a form even less similar to the Linux most of us have known in the past. Linux, we have to admit, actually is the kernel of the system, whereas the superstructure that is visible to the user is whatever the developer chooses to built atop the kernel. New distros with new names seem to be arising on a daily basis, and a great many of them are geared specifically toward attracting a wider audience for desktop Linux.
Already, from the viewpoint of total daily use in any and all forms, Linux has achieved a commanding role in global computational activity. Its success is most notable at the level of function rather than fame: on the global stage its triumph has been won, though its name is seldom spoken. I suspect that will continue if and when desktop Linux becomes widely used: it will be called by some name we perhaps haven't yet heard. Apparently Linux is well on its way toward World Domination Through Anonymity!