The web has been abuzz recently with talk about the much-fabled “linux on the desktop”. I think it is going to be a while before you find a non-technical friend making “got root?” jokes and installing linux on their desktop, no matter how cool they think the screenshots of Xgl effects are. But there is a shining example of what is possible, and it comes from Apple’s OSX.
Novell is leading the charge to put linux on desktops (including their own), but is pushing it toward the enterprise, not your sweet, kindly grandmother. As a business strategy this makes sense - soulless corporations likely have more money than your loving nanna. But it is a very different proposition to convince a CIO she can save bags of money by deploying inexpensive linux desktops in her organization than a normal user freely choosing to run linux at home.
Mozilla’s Asa Dotzler posted his thoughts on why linux is not yet ready for the desktop. I think he gets it about right, and I’d second that if the answer to user’s problems involves upgrading libraries then the game is already over. But the technical issues are largely solvable if the will is there. Also, I think linux will have a marketing problem when it comes to the desktop of the “Regular User”. It has a connotation of being complicated and designed for those crazy and evil hackers. Just imagine explaining about all the different distros. Or the steps to getting started doing typical tasks like finding their email program. For the enterprise user, most of those issues don’t apply (i.e. the office worker didn’t choose the distro and they have an IT department to help), but are very relevant for the home user. Even someone as technical as jwz has switched from linux to OSX, in part because hardware configuration can be, um, a bumpy ride.
Some argue that open source mainly copies what has been done before, and rarely innovates on its own. In this case, deep innovation isn’t required. Apple has already shown the way to build a user friendly OS on top of Unix. And we already know that hackers love their Powerbooks and OSX, so there is no need to worry about alienating the hardcore hackers. Desktop linux should follow similar strategy to OSX of swaddling the sharp edges of linux with some huge simplifications for users along with alpha-blended, anti-aliased eye candy. The question is whether the linux desktop developers really want to strive to expand the user community to include folks who never want to learn anything as complicated as “ls”.