Linux Magazine has a profile of Daniel Fore and the Elementary project. Elementary is a Linux distro that’s committed to a clean and simple user experience, but it’s more than a distro – it’s actually a multi-pronged effort to make improvements to the user experience for a whole ecosystem of components, including icons, a GTK theme, Midori improvements, Nautilus, and even Firefox. The work that elementary is doing isn’t limited to their own distro, and some of their work is available in current, and perhaps future, Ubuntu releases. The results are really striking, and I think it’s probably the handsomest Linux UI I’ve ever seen.The Linux Magazine article asks, “Do we really need yet another distribution?” It’s a rhetorical question, and of course the answer turns out to be yes, but I don’t think that that’s the salient question. What anyone who’s been in the perpetual holding pattern of “Linux on the desktop” hype has wondered, really, is what’s it going to take to get Linux on the desktop to go mainstream? Is it a question of ease of use, or are ease and aesthetics completely beside the point? Back in the 90s, using Linux wasn’t for the faint of heart, and there was a major ease of use deficit, and let’s just say that the graphical UI choices were rough around the edges. Back then I think a lot of people made the assumption that cleaning all that up would make Linux more appealing to regular folks. And they did clean it up, and they did make it more appealing to regular folks. But that didn’t lead to a huge increase in take-up. Turns out, the ease of use issue was one of the barriers, but it wasn’t the only one.
Interestingly, though, some of those other barriers seem to be falling now, due mostly to the new realities of Software-as-a-Service and mobile computing. Microsoft’s lock on PC applications has been largely bypassed, as the average PC user doesn’t need to run any native apps, and the ones they do need generally have workable analogues on other platforms. Of course, Microsoft recognized the threat to its desktop monopoly from the web a lot time ago, since the Netscape days, and took steps to try to control even web apps, but the proliferation of non-PC platforms such as mobile, netbooks, smartbooks, and tablets has made it unworkable for anyone to try to exclude alternative platforms from full participation, so open standards now rule. Linux on the desktop now has its chance to emerge.
Unfortunately, the same forces that have given Linux this opportunity have also lessened the importance of any potential victory. The personal computer is now just one of many mainstream computing devices, and, interestingly enough, Linux has risen to be a major platform for most of the rest of the device types, which has sort of diluted the idealistic fervor that Linux on the desktop fans used to cultivate. It seems that much of the institutional investment around Linux is now focused on alternative form factors, since that’s where the land grab is happening.
I believe that the rise of non-PC platforms will pay dividends that continue to benefit Linux on the desktop, and as people become more comfortable with a non-Microsoft computing experience on mobile, they’ll be willing to take a chance on the desktop, or their Television, or automobile, or neural implant, or anywhere else that Linux ends up.