Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, Ubuntu Linux and its Unity desktop, announced today that Canonical will stop the further development of the Unity desktop and that the next LTS release of Ubuntu for the desktop will ship with GNOME instead.
There a lot of “we told you so” posts on the web about this already, and a lot of folks voice their believe that missing apps and games are the reason why Linux never gained much popularity as a desktop OS.
I now think that there never was much chance for the Linux desktop to succeed to begin with — and that the problem is not as simple as missing games and apps.
Just as my favorite example, after more than 25 years, the Linux community still has not even solved the “problem” of sound, meaning there are many, many sound servers and sound subsystems on Linux, but none of them work properly or are remotely user friendly. I have Xubuntu machines at home which are mostly used for watching videos and web surfing, and it’s mind blowing ridiculous that I have to change the playback device for each application individually – and that I can only do so when the application is running and playing back audio.
Big failures in crucial everyday sub-systems like this are the technical reasons why no Linux distribution ever stood a chance on the desktop – what regular user wants to put up with this crap when macOS and Windows work properly out of the box and come pre-installed on their computers?
Now look at the efforts that Valve has put into persuading/convincing game developers to port their games to Linux/SteamOS. The amount of games for Linux is constantly growing, yes – but the market share of Linux on Steam is not, it’s still negligible.
Things would only get brighter for Linux on the desktop if Microsoft and Adobe started porting their big desktop suites to “the Linux desktop” — which won’t happen before that desktop gains market share beyond a rounding error, because the cost for these ports are economically prohibitive. Microsoft have ported their Office suite to Android, iOS and macOS — which are all “hostile” platforms — so it’s safe to assume that they would also port Office to the Linux desktop if there were such a thing appearing on the market share radar. But it’s not. And what exactly would this “Linux desktop” even be?
Ubuntu is the only distribution that had enough success to even be noticed by the broader public. But since everybody in Linux land has to cook their own soup or follow some weird, business hostile “free software” ideology, too many people refused to join Canonical’s efforts and in some cases even decided to undermine or actively work against those efforts. Well, congratulations — now everybody can say to Canonical “we told you so” — and suffer the consequences nonetheless. Unless you find another guy willing to pump millions into such an unrealistic, big idea, Canonical’s withdrawal from Unity effectively signals the end of “the Linux desktop”, because now it’s really up to uncoordinated volunteers, hobbyists and students to develop a desktop for the masses. And I think we all know where this will lead: Nowhere, and nowhere fast.
Canonical might keep a desktop version of Ubuntu around for simple marketing reasons — but after this announcement, the company won’t put much effort into it anymore.
The desktop itself – regardless of the platform – has become irrelevant with the rise of the Internet. Linux was born on the Internet and quickly became one of the biggest engines powering the back-ends of the Internet.
Software development first moved to the web so that users and businesses could become independent from the desktop platform (or rather: become independent from the Microsoft platform), and then development moved on to focus on mobile platforms, and now the Internet of voice-controlled things is already knocking on the door.
This leads to a very simple realization: Every investment into a Linux desktop is wasted — it’s all about the Android or iOS gadgets, Alexa, Cortana and Siri and their respective server back-ends (aka “cloud”), which run on Linux or Windows servers.
Just look at Apple and their undeniable lack of interest in macOS and the Mac itself. The only reason why Apple keeps Macs and macOS around is Xcode — they need some development machines to write software for their mobile devices. The moment iOS becomes self-hosting (read: can run Xcode natively), they will drop the Mac product line and the rest of the industry will quickly follow their example. The desktop is dead, people now carry the Internet in their pockets or literally talk to it: “Alexa, … ”
Mark Shuttleworth understood all of this a long time ago — and this is why he launched the Unity project and wanted the dream of “convergence” to become a reality. Just watch an episode of the TV show “The Expanse” and look at how everybody in that show use their mobile gadgets: This is exactly where the journey is going.
Microsoft got that memo, too — as usual a bit later, but they definitely got it. They started the development of the Metro interface, because they, too, understood that down the road our interactions with the computer will significantly be different from what we’re doing today, and that mobile devices and desktops will eventually converge.
The only parties on the market who refuse to understand this are Apple – who are trapped in their corporate prison and won’t ever do anything that could hurt their iPhone sales – and the rest of the Linux community that always let their ideologies get in the way of progress and keep fighting a battle that was already lost and over more than 25 years ago, ignoring all the big changes that have happened in the meantime.