It seems like every year is hailed as the Year of the Linux Desktop. It seems a little bit like that, because two or three “pundits” and probably a couple dozen or so advocates of Linux-based OSes say that “next year is the Year of the Linux Desktop!” These people point to minor signs that things are picking up, that awareness and acceptance are growing, and to the major advances (including dubious “advances” such as Ubuntu’s “do it our way so you don’t have to think” philosophy of OS design) made in recent years, and start imagining best-case scenarios where some kind of tipping point is reached and the growth of Linux-based OSes on the desktop becomes a self-reinforcing virtuous circle.
The “every year is the Year of the Linux Desktop” meme is more thoroughly propagated by the fact that every year half a dozen tech opinion writers talk about the deafening roar of people claiming next year is the Year of the Linux Desktop that, strangely enough, only they seem to hear directly. These are people who inflate two articles they’ve read into a report that everybody is predicting the Year of the Linux Desktop. Their reasons for doing so is, of course, because when they dispute that claim they’ll seem more controversial, and attract more attention, if their readers really believe they’re serving as a lone voice of sanity in a howling windstorm of overzealous predictive enthusiasm. It’s ironic, considering it seems like three times as many people are serving as the “lone voice” as are providing the overwhelming volume of craziness they oppose.
What’s even more ironic is the actual fact of the matter — that next year really is the Year of the Linux Desktop, every single year. It’s just not the Year of the Linux Desktop the way people think when they see those words in some tech opinion writer’s article. Linux-based desktop OSes have been improving their appeal for general users, their market penetration, and their visibility even amongst those who don’t use them, every single year. Linux is gaining ground steadily. It’s not doing so all at once, in a sudden cascade of migrations, but it’s making subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) inroads every single year.
Markets don’t generally move in sudden, revolutionary lurches. They move more gradually, especially in hidebound, corporate dominated markets like ours, where the most powerful centers of economic influence oppose such changes. The movements of markets seem to be accelerating over time, but comparing one year to the year preceding it still yields only an apparent slight increase in the speed of the market’s shift. Things are swinging more toward open source software with each passing year, and that movement is accelerating, but it’s doing so steadily. I don’t expect to see it suddenly break that pattern and turn into an overnight explosion of Linux popularity that topples empires and reverses drastic imbalances in market penetration in an instant.
When people say that the Year of the Linux Desktop will never come, they seem to imagine that the only way we can have a Year of the Linux Desktop is by suddenly trading 80% market domination by one vendor with 5% market share by Linux-based OSes, so that the vendor now has 5% market share and Linux-based OSes have 80%, all in the course of a few months. They completely ignore the fact that open source OSes are growing in market share steadily every year. As things progress, we could very well see open source OSes holding 80% of the market. Hell, before we get to that point along the current track, we might even see that currently market dominating vendor start selling support for an open source OS, itself.
I don’t think Linux-based OSes will ever own 80% of the desktop market, though. I think that other, competing open source OSes will start eating into its market share quickly enough that 80% dominance will be a practical impossibility. I rather suspect, in fact, that by the time Linux-based OSes have even 20% of the market, the value of certain other open source OSes will start to become inescapably clear, and they’ll start their own growth cycles comparable to that of Linux-based OSes now. With any luck, copyfree OSes will actually end up outnumbering copyleft OSes in mainstream desktop market share statistics by the time open source OSes achieve a simple majority in those statistics.
Of course, that’s ignoring the fact that open source OSes will actually have a simple majority long before the statistics reflect that fact, but that’s an argument for another day.