A recent report from NetMarketShare has made a bit of a stir by claiming that Linux’s userbase has finally broken 1% of the desktop market. Some of the reporting on this news has put a tongue in cheek spin on it, while others have dismissed it as a reporting fluke and point to the data collected by other firms which doesn’t necessarily agree with the assertions of NetMarketShare (though all reports do admit to an upward trend in the Linux userbase).
Diehard Linux fans will tell you this is yet another indicator of the mythical “Year of Desktop Linux”, the long-promised point where desktop Linux finally breaks into the mainstream and starts gaining momentum. Many analysts predicted the rise of the netbook would finally bring Linux to the average user, as at first the only netbooks you could get were running Linux as a way to cut down end user cost. But an aggressive netbook-specific pricing scheme by Microsoft allowed manufacturers to start delivering competitively priced netbooks powered by Windows XP, which combined with some media reports of higher consumer return rates on Linux netbooks versus their Windows counterparts, managed to steal away the best shot Linux had of making it into the average user’s conciousness.
Now in 2012, after being available for 18 years, Linux has just managed to capture its first percent of the desktop OS market. It seems pretty clear that we will never see the “Year of Desktop Linux”; good thing it doesn’t matter anymore.
Death of the Desktop
The desktop computer as we know it is on its last legs. While the power and upgrade paths offered by desktop hardware will always have its place in certain circles, the average user is increasingly abandoning the big beige box in favor of smartphones, tablets, game consoles, set top boxes, Internet TVs, and all other manner of Internet connected devices. As we move away from the concept of the monolithic personal computer and into a more diverse collection of devices, we also move away from the undisputed king of the desktop: Microsoft Windows. Even Microsoft sees the writing on the wall, as Windows 8 is not only going to sport the same touch optimized user interface as Windows Phone 7, but will also be able to run on ARM powered devices (think tablets and smartphones).
But perhaps for the first time in history, Linux isn’t the underdog this time around. In fact, Linux is the market leader. That’s because, whether the end user knows it or not, the majority of this new cornucopia of devices is already running some form of Linux under the hood.
It started with the TiVo, the first major piece of consumer electronics that shipped with a Linux operating system. Linux’s inclusion in the TiVo was a very big deal, and showed the fledgling little operating system had a place outside of servers and the occasional desktop. In fact, TiVo running Linux was so significant that it got the attention of the Free Software Foundation and helped shape future versions of the GPL, though that’s a tale for another day.
The success of the TiVo lead to other similar set top boxes (often branded by individual cable or satellite providers) that also ran Linux. With millions of these devices in the wild, it wasn’t long until other manufacturers started to realize the potential for rapid development that Linux offered, and we started to see our favorite penguin show up in everything from digital picture frames to MP3 players.
Google Takes Charge
While Linux was making excellent headway sneaking into homes through DVRs and smart alarm clocks, they where still all fringe cases. Sure a few one-off devices were running Linux, but it didn’t do much to help the community or drive Linux development. It wasn’t until 2005, when Google purchased a young start-up called Android, that Linux would at long last get the chance to compete in a fair fight.
Android is, interestingly enough, the closest thing there is to a true Linux operating system; as it only uses the Linux kernel and not the GNU userland. What would usually be done with the GNU libraries and tools is done with Android specific software released under the Apache license. So while the traditional Linux distributions (Slackware, Debian, Gentoo, etc, etc) are actually considered a mix of the GNU operating system and the Linux kernel, Android can fairly be called “just Linux”. Beyond the kernel, there is a custom user interface and a Java virtual machine which makes it possible to write one Android application that runs on any of the architectures Android itself runs on. So Android netbooks with Intel or AMD processors can run the same applications as smartphones powered by ARM chips.
As of January 2012, analysts put Android’s total activated device count at roughly 230 million, with an additional 500,000 to 700,000 devices activated daily. That number doesn’t even take into account devices which can’t (officially) access the Android Market, like the Barnes and Noble Nook or the Kindle Fire, so the actual number of Android devices in the hands of users is even higher than that. This makes Android far and away the single most popular Linux operating system in existence, completely eclipsing the accepted market leader in desktop Linux, Ubuntu (recent estimates put total Ubuntu users at around 20 million).
Linux for Everyone
As if the commanding success of Android wasn’t enough, Google is currently working on bringing yet another Linux operating system to the masses through the Chrome OS project. Unlike Android, Chrome OS is better classified as a traditional GNU/Linux distribution, as it includes (more or less) all of the software and libraries you would expect from a standard Linux system, but with a simplified window manager and just one locally installed application: the Chrome browser.
The goal of Chrome OS isn’t to replace the traditional desktop operating system, but rather change how we think of it. Instead of saving files or installing programs on the local computer, Chrome OS devices (known commonly as “Chromebooks”) access everything through the Internet, primarily through Google’s suite of services (GMail, Google Docs, Google Music, Google Docs, etc). Chrome OS is designed to be the easiest to use computing experience available; anyone who can use a mouse can use a Chrome OS computer and remain completely safe via trusted open source software packages, an infallible automatic update system, and novel security measures like only running software cryptographically signed by Google.
While the success of the Chrome OS initiative is still far from certain, Google has very high hopes. Some retailers have predicted that as many as 1 in 10 computers sold in 2012 will be powered by Chrome OS, further extending the reach of Linux and open source software in the household. You could even say that, while Linux was once forced out of the netbook market, it will now be directly competing with it via a device that is uniquely Linux, the Chromebook.
Year of Linux Everywhere
With the computing habits of consumers changing, you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t see much point in celebrating or mocking a 1% market for desktop Linux. Let Mac OS and Windows fight for the scraps of a dieing market, while Linux builds the next generation of secure and reliable devices that will be to the 21st century what the personal computer was to the 20th.
I don’t believe that 2012 will be the “Year of Desktop Linux”, and I don’t think that oft-lauded day is ever coming: Linux has effectively skipped over the desktop, and that’s something the community should be very excited about. If anything, I think 2012 will further the trend of Linux…everywhere.