Arguably one of the leading lights in the open source community, Miguel de Icaza, announced that he was ditching Linux as an operating system for desktop computing, or rather he ditched it a while ago and forgot to tell the world. To be fair he had dropped a hint a while back and kicked off a flame war amongst über-geeks in the process.
Miguel is co-creator of one of the main Linux desktop environments, GNOME. We could get into the pros and cons of using GNOME as a Linux desktop environment as opposed to one of the major alternatives such as KDE, Xfce or LXDE but to cut to the chase: nobody cares. Apart from a tiny percentage of hardcore computer users there are few people who know, let alone care, what a desktop environment is; for the majority of computer users the desktop environment and operating system are one and the same. In fact, most computer users don’t even consider the operating system as separate from their computer.
To be discussing whether GNOME, KDE, Xfce or LXDE is best is pretty moot when they all suck compared to the Microsoft experience, never mind the Apple experience.
I’ve never really understood how Apple managed to put a beautiful user experience on top of their essentially Unix operating system and yet Linux desktop environments always seem slightly shaky, as though they’re just a few mouse clicks away from collapsing into a heap of pixels.
The dichotomy that faces Linux desktop advocacy is that on the one hand Linux is open source, offers an alternative to closed operating systems and allows fresh ideas into its eco-system, on the other hand the homogenous user experiences fostered by Apple and Microsoft (and loathed by open source advocates) make it easy for the non-technical user to get started, be productive and not have to consider the desktop environment, except for changing desktop wallpaper occasionally.
So what now for Linux as a desktop operating system? Probably the big hope rests with Canonical, producers of the most-mainstream version of Linux, Ubuntu. Canonical has gradually eased other desktop environments out of Ubuntu in favour of its own user interface, Unity. In itself this is unlikely to pre-empt a mass switch to Ubuntu but it does represent a manifestation of what must be Canonical’s long held understanding that the desktop environment and the end-user experience are the real hindrance toward mass-acceptance of Linux as a desktop operating system.
Couple this with Canonical’s recent announcement that Ubuntu is to become practically the de facto operating system in China and we could be witnessing the accumulation of a critical mass of users demanding a slick end-user experience coupled with a large enough pool of developers eager to meet that challenge.