Will 2019 be the year of the Linux desktop?

Linux has been my work desktop of choice for about 12 years now. I know quite well what it can do and what it cannot, and Linux is a natural fit for my line of work. It could well be for many others, so why hasn’t the elusive Year of the Linux Desktop happened yet?

Entrenched competition

The most interesting deployments of desktop operating systems are found within large non-IT organizations. It’s here that we find a near-ubiquitous presence of Microsoft products. This situation grew and evolved historically from the early 90’s.

The actual desktop had been Microsoft’s home-turf for at least a decade longer. In the 90’s it started adding the server room with Windows NT tying the network together into a cohesive ‘domain’ management structure.

As it turns out, very little of that was based on original thought. By 1996, the year Windows NT 4.0 was launched, the UNIX world had been using things like Kerberos, a few shades of NIS for years and LDAP was slowly shedding the unfortunate mess that was X.500 at the time. Novell was going strong in the office LAN-space with its NetWare and directory service offerings.

And so it was interesting to see Windows 2000 taking the office LAN by storm when Active Directory was released. This product literally brought nothing new from a technological standpoint. It was, and still is, no more than a combination of LDAP, Kerberos and a few clever sprinklings of DNS and other pre-existing protocols.

Where Windows 2000 succeeded was in its simplicity. I was in the official beta program for this OS. To illustrate simplicity: I was able to set up a fully functioning Windows Domain in only a few clicks back then from my parents’ proverbial basement. To do something similar in the UNIX world requires much more effort even right until this day.

This historic Microsoft stronghold is nearly impossible for any competitor to overthrow. The only way to dethrone Microsoft would be some cataclismic event from the outside. Something like a complete paradigm-shift in the way office-oriented organizations deploy their computing capacity.

Welcome to the 2020’s

As it happens, such a huge paradigm-shift is happening as you read this text and Microsoft sure acts like the proverbial deer in the headlights. It got thoroughly sidewinded by Apple and Google in the mobile space. So much so that it doesn’t even have a current OS offering on the market for mobile endpoints anymore, other than Windows 10 for its semi-laptop Surface line. But who are we kidding? Those are still PC’s.

The mobile revolution in the office space brought with it a radical shift to open-plan setups and the abolishment of personal desks. As the personal desk went out the door, so did the fixed PC which had been planted firmly on top of said desk.

At first laptops would replace these bulky dinosaurs and all was good for Microsoft. Laptops were still PC’s, except they were luggable. The underlying trend, however, doesn’t show signs of stopping. Canonical, creators of Ubuntu Linux, pioneered a workplace concept based around a dockable smartphone almost a decade ago already and we’re now seeing similar initiatives from behemoths like Samsung being backed by Alphabet.

At the same time, at the power-user end of the spectrum I’m seeing Apple making inroads. Their UNIX-based macOS seems to strike a positive chord with IT developers of all colours, if only the hardware weren’t so ridiculously expensive.

Now I’m not saying Microsoft’s game is anywhere near over in the office environment. They’ll still be a huge factor for years to come. The most significant change, however, is that their previously untouchable monopoly is finally broken.

If Microsoft wants to survive in this space, it must play nice with the other big players in town. There’s Alphabet driving Android on the majority of phones and Apple with its strong macBook and iPad offerings. The presence of these two competitors, both too big to bully off the market or neutralize by hostile takeover, creates breathing room for a third factor of significance.

Hi, I’m Linux!

Android, of course, is already Linux under the hood but let’s not go there. Alphabet seems to be moving away from that anyway. What’s more interesting, is that everything that’s not Microsoft nowadays seems to have a UNIX-like core. Even Windows has a Linux subsystem present under the hood these days. This means it can run the plethora of Linux and, more recently, Mac-based development tools natively. But why would one wish to do this in the long term? If these tools are UNIX-based already, why not run the real deal and drop Windows altogether?

Honestly? For my own use case I see little reason to use either Windows or macOS anymore. Linux does everything I need. It does it well. It does so completely for free with no strings attached, and it runs very well on much cheaper hardware than Apple’s. It simply is the best deal of the bunch for me.

As it stands, I’m seeing ever more propellerheads in tech reach the same conclusion. Many of these people are former Mac-users and they rightfully take issue with the rough edges of the Linux GUI. Sure, people have complained about UX before, but these new users also happen to have the skill and the inclination to fix it. Linux GUI usability is improving by leaps and bounds and it won’t be long before the younger generations discover and embrace its idealistic share-alike nature. The freedom-of-code mentality already surrounds all kinds of coding-for-kids projects around the world today. The fact that Linux comes at literally no cost may well be a deciding factor for this demographic to finally make the switch and declare Linux ‘hip’.

Year of the Desktop?

So will 2019 be the fabled Year of the Desktop for Linux? No, it won’t. Such things take time. But based on much broader cultural trends and the direction technology and the Internet are heading, I am predicting a bright future for Linux on computing endpoints for years to come. Linux desktop market share has been steadly increasing for years, and more significantly: the growth is speeding up. I won’t hold my breath for anything, but these sure are interesting times to be in IT.