Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The "Year of Desktop Linux" Chimera

For most of the last decade, a variety of tech industry pundits have touted the "Year of Desktop Linux", which is usually met with articles from the opposition claiming "Linux Not Ready for Prime-time". Both arguments are specious attempts to attract readers and flame-wars at the expense of observable fact. Meanwhile, those less cognizant of matters digital are left pondering, "Linux? Uh, they make air-conditioners, don't they? Hunh, a desktop air conditioner. That could work." Alas, dear reader, the laws of thermodynamics do not favor such an endeavor.

The "Linux Not Ready" argument has long since become the effete diatribe of the mean-spirited and puerile, which warrants neither attention nor response. The "Year of . . ." assertions, however, usually come from those with good intent. Unfortunately, this apparent anticipation of cataclysmic change derives from an essential misperception.

When working systems are in place, newer, better systems do not suddenly supplant them. The internal combustion engine did not instantly replace horses and steam engines. Nor did hydraulic brakes instantly displace mechanical ones. Indeed, it took decades for the new technologies to gradually dethrone their predecessors. Who among us can't recall the tired refrain, "Get a horse!"? Well, alright, some of you young whippersnappers may not have heard that, but, if you're that young and were educated in the United States, you're probably not up to reading this blog, anyway. Go watch EewwToob, or post something incoherent on LieSpace. This here's serious bidness. But I digress.

Closer to home, there was no "Year of the Windows Desktop", either. While the uptake of Windows 3 by home users was fairly rapid, that was driven as much by the growing availability of low-cost PCs from companies such as Packard Bell and Leading Edge as by the operating system those computers came with. For most of these home users, this was their first PC. In business it took much longer for Windows to gain sway. Again, functioning systems were in place in most businesses and until they were replaced, Windows wasn't needed or even, usually, desired.

So it is that there will be no single year that is the coming out for Linux on the desktop. It's already here and it's growing, fast. In the third world Linux is rapidly claiming market share for the same reason Windows 3 made its inroads in the home market; for most people in those countries their Linux PC is their first. The real surprise is how rapidly Linux and Open Source Software is claiming the European market. Already, in Finland Firefox has claimed almost half of the entire browser market. In France, Germany and other European countries, governmental entities are implementing desktop Linux at a dizzying rate.

Microsoft C-level executives aren't staying up nights for fear that they'll wake up to find Linux has suddenly sprouted on all the world's desktops overnight. Rather, they are losing sleep as they watch a gently rising tide gradually drowning an exhausted, monopolistic business model.