Will 2017 be the year of Linux? What about 2018? We’ll have mid-term elections. Let’s skip to 2020. Who has better chances at success – Linux on desktop or Trump reclaiming the White House again? Let’s have an open discussion.
Before we deep dive into Linux on desktop, we need to understand what is the PC market, why it is so important; and is it still important?
If we look back at what made Windows such a popular platform that it commands over 98% of the consumer PC market, it was the open ecosystem and the ability of the platform to serve everyone.
It was in a true sense revolutionary as it opened the immense possibilities. People could create new tools and applications and target that platform. Windows ensured developers that their applications, tools, utilities and hardware would be available to millions of users with just one package. Hardware vendors can create new hardware, write drivers for the platform and sell it to millions of PC users.
Windows essentially created a very open ecosystem, and with no one in control, it triggered the developer’s culture. Yes, Microsoft controlled the operating system, but you could build anything for it.
On the consumer side, people were rest assured that once they bought a PC, they were fully technology proof. No matter what application in use, you can throw it at PC and it will take care of that workload. Whether you were a business trying to maintain a record, or a student working on school projects, someone who wanted to stay connected with friends, or a researcher who needed to do online research. PC was the answer.
Once you bought a PC, all of your computing needs were taken care of. On the flip side, no matter how minuscule your computing needs were, your only option was a PC. You needed a PC even if all you did was just stay connected with friends over email or IM.
That all changed in 2007 with the iPhone. Suddenly you had decent computing power in your hands. As the iOS platform matured, it started to replace the PC. All of those people who were forced to buy a PC to get some work done, discovered that they could move their workload to iPhones and iPads. You no longer needed a PC for checking emails, staying connected with friends, creating documents, watching movies, listening to music, checking the time, snapping photos, using GPS and maps…and much more. Unlike desktop PCs, you were no longer tied to your desk; you could stay mobile all the time. That’s when PC shipments started shrinking.
So when we talk about the year of desktop Linux, we need to take into consideration where the whole market is going.
Does that mean the PC is dead? Not really. It’s quite the opposite. PC will remain a dominant platform for businesses where it will be powering client systems. There is way too much legacy data and software that businesses rely upon. Customers and companies providing them with solutions are not going to migrate to Linux. Companies don’t care about platforms, they only care about the applications that they need to run their business with the least amount of friction. They use whichever platform supports the applications they need. Period.
There are gazillions of custom applications for specific workloads – think of applications used by your radiologist or dentist that are written for Windows. These applications are not coming to Linux.
Beyond these business use-cases there will still be a decent market for PCs in the consumer space. There will still be users who need a PC for creative work, to perform tasks that can’t be done on iPhones or iPads. They are sticking to the PC for that one application and that application may not be available on Linux. It could be the $9 per month Adobe CC that an amateur photographer needs.
These two markets: business and consumer, have become saturated and stale. I don’t care much about them. What I do care about is the market that’s going to see some innovation. The market that’s going to keep pushing the PC to its limits.
Average consumers are turning their backs on PCs and moving to mobile platforms to consume very rich media such as 8K videos, 360 videos, virtual reality…mixed reality, augmented reality and what not.
Who is creating all of that content? What platform is being used to create that content? They are certainly not using their iPhones, iPads and Android devices. They are using powerful PCs. When I edit a 4K footage shot in 60fps and there are 4-5 video layers, with effects, plus a few sound layers, it takes me over 3 hours to render a 10 minutes clip on my latest system with a quad core 4Ghz processor and a decent GPU. I am not even dealing with 8K footage at 180fps. Eventually, I will need an even more powerful system.
That’s where the PC is heading. As the consumer PC segment is shrinking, it’s becoming a niche that is targeting professionals. No surprises that you see Microsoft, Apple, Dell and even System76 talking about their super expensive systems targeted at these professionals. Because they have realized, that’s where the PC belongs.
This evolution of the PC makes things even more challenging for Linux. Professionals are buying systems that cost over $5,000 to handle their workload. They need the platform, and software that is effectively designed to handle that kind of work. Who would buy a $4,000 27” Dell Precision 572o to run GIMP that can’t even scale to HiDPI systems? Who would spend $4000 on a PC to run KDENlive which can’t process multiple layers of 4k or 8K or 360 footage?
Do you see Linux in that market? I don’t.
The reason Adobe and the likes will never bring their applications to Linux boils down to the economy. There is no economic incentive for them. The Linux market share is still under 2% and a majority of users are enthusiasts, students, developers or researchers.
There is a very small subset of users who use Linux for multi-media production. Even if it’s 10% of the Linux market, it would mean something around .010 % of total the PC market. A majority of these users would bash Adobe and prefer GIMP, KDEnlive or other open source applications. If there are people who do want to use Adobe CC, they may not want to pay for it. You are looking at a userbase that’s smaller than .010% of the PC market. Do you see any economic reason for Adobe to port their apps to Linux? Even if they do want to, which distribution should they target?
That doesn’t mean Linux doesn’t belong to the multimedia industry. On the contrary, almost all Hollywood studios are heavy consumers of Linux and open source technologies. Almost all studios have their own in-house applications to handle their workloads, which run on Linux as it allows them to fine tune their infrastructure. If you check any high-end multimedia production applications for enterprise, you will find RHEL and CentOS packages.
Once again, it’s the typical Linux story – strong in enterprise (which in this case is the film industry), but weak in the consumer space.
That doesn’t mean desktop Linux is dead. It’s far from it. There will always be that 2% market share of Linux users -enthusiasts, students, privacy minded people, developers, researchers, scientists and more.
There is one market segment, even if it’s very very small, that’s going to remain the stronghold of Linux. It’s those professionals who need extremely secure platforms to protect their privacy and data. I am looking at investigative journalists like Glenn Greenwald, I am looking at whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. I am looking at activists like Cory Doctorow. These are the people who genuinely need such systems. They can’t trust Windows, thanks to telemetry and possible backdoors that NSA never told us about. macOS has a relatively better track record when it comes to protecting privacy, but it’s still a proprietary system where you can’t audit the code. That’s where you see specialized systems like Tails OS or Kali Linux.
But that’s pretty much it is. That’s the market of Linux. I don’t see that market growing. That’s a big enough market for companies like Dell or System76 to sell their hardware; but it’s never going to be a mass market.
I don’t want to sound like a pessimist; I am trying to separate emotions and passion and look at it from a practical and economic standpoint.
So, if I have to conclude this talk. Here is my take – the year of desktop Linux will never come. That ship sailed ages ago.