GNU/Linux: the desktop that never was

About 6 years ago, I wrote an article about why I felt that installing software in GNU/Linux was broken. It pains me to say that the situation is, sadly, exactly the same:GNU/Linux never made it to personal computers, really, and at this point it looks like it never will. If GNU/Linux had managed to establish itself in the desktop PC market, today we would live in a world where:

  • User software (UI driven, not system software) is available in distribution-agnostic packages
  • User software packages are fully self contained, multi-architecture and installation-less; ideally, copying the package to another machine is all it's needed to "install" it
  • Printer makers always provide a functioning driver, that can always be installed regardless of the distribution
  • Latest hardware is always supported, or there is a clear, centralised path to check if or when a piece of hardware will be supported
  • A sizeable chunk of PC sales have GNU/Linux preinstalled. Since user software is distribution agnostic, it doesn't actually matter which distro is used ...and so on. You get the gist. No, we don't live in that world. While this would have been theoretically possible, in practice none of this actually happened.

However, today it's 2015, not 2009; the world has changed, some of the battles we lost are not even relevant anymore, and some even more important battles are happening as we speak. First of all, user software is essentially dead, whereas the browser is essentially everything. You don't "manage your music" anymore, you listen to it via Spotify, Google Music, etc. you don't manage your photos, you have your phone upload them to the cloud as soon as you take them; you don't create a document on your computer anymore, you create it on the cloud (it could be your own, or Google Documents, or Microsoft Office 365) and work on it interactively with your collaborators; the list goes on and on; the main issue is that people have realised that managing big amounts of data (and yes, thousands of photos, tens of thousands of songs, and a few hundred movies, hundreds of documents) is a lot of work, especially if you want your data to be backed up properly and want to be able to get to it regardless of where you are. The browser has become the operating system. Some dreamed it could happen; some didn't believe this would ever be the case; everybody ended up in a world where the browser is nearly everything.

Also, mobile devices are now small, powerful computers; back in 2008, I wrote an brief history of computers and free software, where I stated:

This is already happening as we speak: users are spending more and more time on their mobile phones and PDAs for email and messaging applications, while laptop and netbook sales are overtaking the ones of desktop computers. As of lately (in fact, this very year), a new class of devices has been created by near-accident by Asus: the netbooks, with the Asus EeePC as the industry's king. The EeePc is an extremely low-cost computer with a small screen and a solid flash drive in place of the traditional hard drive. Netbooks are the second-last step in this convergence between mobile devices and stand alone computers. They are also the evidence that computers have evolved to tiny, portable appliances that will manage the user's communication and data. (If you are wondering, the last step is when there is no difference between your phone and your computer).

Well, the shift as nearly happened: we are on the very verge of the final step, where a mobile phone can be hooked to a keyboard and a screen, and can be used as a desktop computer. Interestingly enough, Ubuntu and Microsoft are the forerunners in this rage, with Apple and Android lagging behind.

So, where did GNU/Linux actually succeed in terms of end-user marker share? The two great victories are, sadly, only pyrrhic ones, namely:

  • Android. You can say that the number of GNU/Linux users has increased to millions and millions thanks to Android; however... well, actually, you can't really say that.

  • Chromebooks. Google's glorified browser is, again, GNU/Linux, but it also isn't. The only real way to run Chrome OS is by buying a Chromebook, even though it's released as free software.

In both cases, there is no sight of a "desktop" as such.

So, do we still have any battles to fight and win? Absolutely. But, the fight has shifted away from the hardware and the software itself:

  • Neither the Apple store nor the Android Play store has a distinction between "no cost", and "released under a free license". While some of the apps are proper free software, released under a free license, most of them aren't and -- worse -- there is no way to tell.

  • Web software means that you are even less in control of what you use; there is not much point in using a free platform (like Chrome) if you then use Google Documents to store and manipulate your data

  • Data/entertainment is a service; paying just $9/month gives you access to millions of songs; however, you end up not owning any of them; the provider can pull the plug whenever they like

  • Hardware lock-ins. When you buy an Android phone, you are nearly always locked into using what the phone maker wants you to use; doing otherwise means "rooting" the phone, which means going against the manufacturer's wish (and warranty). The same applies to normal PCs you buy: with "Secure boot", UEFI etc, it might become (or, should I say, it is becoming) impossible for you to install Ubuntu on a computer you bought.

  • Privacy is harder to achieve. When the music you listen to comes from a centralised server, there is a company out there that knows exactly what you listen to, how often, how loud. The same goes with movies, keywords in your online documents or emails, shopping habits... You can encrypt your hard drive, but what's the use when most of your real data resides on how you interact with remote servers?

These are important battles; the ground is no longer the software and software itself, but copyright laws, intellectual properties, company ethics, DCMA, and privacy.

The desktop battle is now irrelevant. We tried. We lost. With the new battles, I feel there is much more at stake: our very freedom, and sense of ownership, is being taken away from us.

It's time to fight.


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