Monday, May 17, 2010

The end of the (Linux) desktop as we know it ?

Embedded Linux : common trends

More and more of the Linux ecosystem (PC hardware vendor, phone hardware vendor, search engine giant and more recently a well known Linux distro, Ubuntu) uses Linux as an embedded system for the desktop. Some examples to illustrate this trend :
  • Asus Express gate embed Linux in the motherboard. You can have, in a few seconds, a browser, skype, etc.
  • Google Chrome OS : not yet released but it is define as the Web OS with a minimalist/zen approach (like an OS based on Chrome, the browser)
  • Mobile platform : you'll have plenty to choose. ARM based : Symbian, Meego, Android, etc.
  • Last but not least, Canonical announce "Unity", a minimal/Zen OS that will be available to OEM but can be nonetheless deployed on Ubuntu Lucid and later.

Major desktop environment (Gnome, KDE) : things of the past ?

One interesting Linux specificity is the fragmentation of the windows manager market. No other "mainstream" operating system has such a complexity : the window manager is unique and completely integrated (from kernel to applications) into the Operating system. Thanks to the XFree standardization, Linux is more complex : several window managers exist and have to co-exist.

However, on this level, things are changing rapidly :
  • Collaboration between Gnome, KDE and XFCE (and others) is accomplished with the Freedesktop project. The project goals are to define common tools (like, sub-systems (Dbus, etc.), API to ease integration and interoperability of the different window manager.
  • Zen-ification : Simple is beautiful. Minimalist systems set the trend. Clunky interfaces tends to disappear and are flagged as bad design. Esthetic and ergonomic are the two main change drivers. Simplicity is especially important in order to "cross the chasm" and reach the general public.
  • Cloud computing : Browsers are the key to the world these days. An interesting point to notice is that none of the desktop environment are relevant in the browser war : they use/integrate a major browser based on user choices (OK. they provide a browser but ... those browsers do no exist on the larger scale of the Internet!).

Negative impacts for the (Linux) desktop

  • With the cloud, more and more users will be completely satisfied with a browser. As a consequence, users are more likely to care about their browser and the associated information (bookmark, session, password, cookies, etc.) than about their desktop. Major browsers offers a form of cloud synchronization : Mozilla Weave and Chrome Sync (with a google account ... of course) are leading the pack here. Those tools contribute to free the user from the desktop : everything can reside in the cloud.
  • Even if a desktop is less and less relevant, migration from 100% local applications (PC) to a 100% cloud will take time. During this time, a desktop is still needed but this is an end-of life situation for this product line. The fact that major players roll out their own desktop environment is a sign that current desktop environment do not meet the needs of the future. Instead of improving the current ones, major organization decided to ... create their own. Asus with Express Gate, google with Android and soon Chrome OS and, more recently, Canonical with Unity.
  • The direct consequence is a form of "commoditization" of the different desktop environments : they all look alike and most "regular" users don't really care. The differentiation factor is small/difficult to point out : only style, look and feel is experienced by the user after all !
Positive impact 
  • Linux everywhere : after the servers, here come some form of "desktop". The platform is now very popular and we can see convergence between mobile phones, netbook, mobile internet device, etc.
  • Hardware support ... will become better and better on the "desktop". As more and more hardware manufacturers provide an embedded Linux, hardware support will become a non-issue. Most components are standard and this will lead to a well supported platform for the desktop.

Conclusion ?

The value is shifting from desktop environment and desktop applications to browser and cloud applications. The direct consequence is that the Linux desktop environments should unite and work more closely together in order to address this need.

This will not be an easy task as lot of flame-wars and ego-wars will have to be resolved : the feud between the different windows manager is long-lasting and not really decreasing. Key projects like Freedesktop are very important in this regard.

Major players created their own "non-desktop environment" to provide a zen-minimal environment that contain a browser and some additional technologies (video-conferencing, etc.). Those players decisions should be a serious wake-up call for the window managers : a major hardware manufacturer, google, an open-source friendly distribution editor (Canonical with the recent Unity announce) decided to create their own "desktop" environment. Those products will be delivered to millions of users...

At a certain level, one can say that the battle is already lost : the current desktop environments can not really fight this war as they don't own the key technology : the browser. As a consequence, the risk, for them (Gnome, KDE, etc.) is to be a tool that will launch a browser. A (relatively) simple tool that can be easily changed with almost no user impact...


  1. This is akin to suggesting that since Linux has a larger market share in headless servers (without Gnome or KDE) that means Gnome and KDE are dead.

    The advantage of Linux is hope flexible, scalable and modular it is. For certain devices, an embedded version of Linux with an alternate windowing system might be the solution.

    The question you're asking is whether or not desktop environments are worthless because of embedded devices. The answer to that question is obviously no.

  2. While cloud computing is getting all of the press lately, until availability and security concerns are addressed better than today, then it won't ever replace the current desktop paradigm. Proclaiming the death of the desktop is as accurate as the prediction many years ago of the death of Unix when Windows NT appeared. I'll believe it when I see it. And while cloud services may work for a lot of people, there will always be the power user for whom cloud services are simply not an option. While I do use a lot of web based applications, there are still a large number of things that the web simply cannot do.

    Frankly, I see the cloud in its current state as completely untrustworthy. Why would I want to entrust my e-mail, documents, and other information to a cloud provider and give up the security of having them on my desktop. If you don't control the hardware, it isn't secure. And if everyone's data moves to the cloud, it makes cloud service providers a huge target for crackers, one that given the potential for profit, they won't ignore.

  3. This article makes a common mistake: it sees the situation as either/or. That's NG. You can install a full-feature linux desktop. You can then easily install (for example) TinyCore on top of it, with Chrome and little else, and switch between them. See:
    Linux has always been about flexibility--you don't have to choose.

  4. Very good article, but Symbian is not Linux ;-)

  5. Hi its really very nice i enjoyed a lot to visit..Handset prices

  6. But what about one's right to privacy? Because of this, I will RESIST!

  7. I suspect the conclusion in the post is exactly backwards. The widespread use of Linux in phones, netbooks, instant-on motherboard systems, and ubiquituous web computing are likely to make Linux on the desktop more common, not less. That said, the importance of the desktop itself may decline for many people, but I'm not quite convinced about that, either.

  8. The author appears to be a non-technical person, who does not understand hardware/network issues with the "Cloud" media hype.

    The "Cloud" is doomed as another Microsoft SAAS marketing campaign, and no one should trust Windoze with their private data on their own PC.

    With evil corporations like Adobe running DRM Flash servers and hiding Flash Cookies in multiple places, where's the trust?

  9. Cloud, smoud. Big effing deal.

  10. I can't see desktops going extinct anytime soon. The "Cloud" is only good for when you can get online, not to mention its less secure then the linux desktop I mean even if the server which is hosting your stuff is highly secure, you information doesn't flow directly to it. It passes through a bunch of others, some of which may not be very secure at all. Also if you store all your documents and such online how do you plan to access them when the server is down? Not a good situation for a business man who has a meeting in 5 minutes...Until we find a way as if not more reliable, safer, etc to create and manage data, the desktop will continue to exist.

  11. The cloud is all hype The IP's have already dipped their greedy fingers in with small bandwidth caps and extortionist overage charges. Thats assuming that the cloud can even function under asynchronous plans thats give you next to nothing for upload.

  12. @Enderandrew Thanks for your comment. My point was not to bury alive Gnome & KDE, this is obviously not the case. However, I would like to increase awareness about a global trend : the "legacy" desktops environment are faced with a minimalist/Zen like competition. The goal of those minimalist desktop is to start in a few second a browser and some local applications (video-conference & ...). Will those minimal desktop succeed and enter every home ?

  13. @anonymous 1 : I completely agree with the security risk and privacy risk you mention. However, my analysis is based on market activity so I guess that most of the cloud users are not even aware of the issues you raise. As a consequence, there is a huge market for the minimalist-OS I mention in my post and major players decided not to use a regular Linux desktop but to build something else.

    In a sense, I think that it can greatly benefit the Linux desktop because Linux support for the hardware will become better and better thanks to those embedded/minimalist desktop. This is only true however if the regular desktop need is still present ...

  14. @Roland : Well, I was trying to make a point and I did not state any definitive truth here (I use the question mark most of the time) so I'm well aware that any innovation/technology shift is following a "normal law" and this clearly takes time and allow different technology to co-exist (*certain industry still rely on mainframe*).

    My point was simply to raise awareness about the fact that regular/legacy desktop environment were not selected for the minimalist desktop and the market potential for those minimalist desktop seems to be far greater than the one for regular Linux desktop. After this, everything is extrapolation and depend on the speed of adoption of cloud computing.

    The main challenges for cloud computing is, IMHO, privacy and security + disconnected mode.

  15. @Anonymous 2,3,4,5,6,7 ;-)

    2 : Agreed, Symbian is not Linux, oversimplification. Open source it is and this was my point.

    3 : Privacy is an issue for .. technical people, freedom activists and geek. Just have a look at facebook success ;-)

    4 : Well, what you mention is clearly listed as a possible positive consequence (better hardware support / Linux on every device). However, I think the legacy Linux desktop environment can not fight the browser war : they rely on others technology provider. Chances are high that they will fade and become less and less meaningful for regular user....

    5 : Well, not to mention my bio but I consider myself a technical person (geeky as well!). I used the term "cloud" liberally but the fact is that with HTML5, 3D in your browser and multimedia support (hopefully, with an open source codec ?), you will not need flash anymore to play multimedia...

    6 : Well, I guess that we can use another less marketing. Let's call the trend "web based computing".

    7 : Agreed in principle. However, when was the last time you had a business meeting with no Internet access ? Whith no cell-phone (and this 3G) access ? The global trend is to be connected 24x7. The value of any equipment connected to Internet is higher than the most expensive computer not connected to the Internet...

  16. @Ck : I fully agree ! In Canada, Internet connection is really a racket. Asymmetric bandwidth and quota will slow down innovation and ultimately the economy. Some government will get it, others will pay the price on the long run...

    I think one of the biggest challenge is the disconnected mode. HTML5 will help as will Javascript and other "fat" technology that will reside on the client side. But it is coming.

  17. CLOUD! Oooooo Ahhhhh
    CLOUD! OoooOoOOOooo
    CLOUD! whoa! I feel all tingly

    I'm so tired of hearing how (warning buzzword) "cloud computing" is making this and that obsolete and will take over the world before we know it. There are some things that will *never* be trusted to offsite providers, which means as much as proponents of hosted computing want to control everything, they simply won't get to that point. Yes it will gain in popularity - especially in non-critical data segments, but it will by no means ever *replace* the disconnected desktop.

    A much more likely scenario is a seemless merge of the two - something like Google OS, where the browser is more fully integrated into the desktop, but the desktop still remains fully capable offline - without ever needing a network connection.

    Enough buzzing please!

  18. @anonymous 8 : Well, I think we are on the same page even if my title is very buzz compliant ;-)

    My main point is that the desktop environment is becoming more and more web centric and the "major" Linux desktop can not even compete : they integrate the browser from a third-party source.

    Major players (Asus, Google, Ubuntu/Canonical, etc.) decided that the actual desktop was not a good answer to their problem (and their users/market). They created their own Zen/Minimalist/Lightweight environment where the centrepiece is ... the browser.

    I agree that, for the moment, some offline capacity are still needed but how long until those capacities gets integrated into your browser ?

  19. @Benoit des Ligneris:

    Perhaps you're correct. Only the future will tell. However, don't put anything past Linux - it is one of the most adaptable pieces of software on the planet. It is the epitome of evolving software.

    I suppose my argument against cloud computing is that not all things fit well into that model. You could argue that the browser will become the desktop with the capability of performing local tasks, but why bother? The browser is slow and a terrible development platform. Google obviously doesn't think so, but everything they do is very web-centric and fits well into that model.

    Imagine creating a Pixar animation film in a browser... It's laughable to even think about.

  20. @Anonymous May 20, 2010 5:13 PM

    I'm not predicting the future here : I try to extrapolate what I believe is a trend. I agree that Linux is very versatile and that this is a very positive trend for Linux (especially the hardware compatibility effect)

    But my point is that the trend is not necessarily good for ... desktop environments (Gnome, KDE). This trend will be reinforced/accelerated if the all web/cloud approach succeed.

    Lots of technical challenges (especially, like you mention, multimedia/3D/disconnected mode) to reach 100% of the users but for 90% of them, I think it could happen quite rapidly.

  21. KDE are already upwardly mobile. The KDE community saw that the future was mobile quite some time ago. As a result Plasma and the KDE SC in whatever form it takes (it is very flexible) is cross platform in all its widgety goodness and upwardly mobile.