Linus Torvalds: Why Linux Is Not Successful On Desktops


Swapnil: Linux is today dominating the world. It’s everywhere, except for the desktop. Why is Linux still struggling in the Desktop market?
Linus: I think, the big reason is just desktop is the hardest market to enter. It’s partly because of technical reasons. Desktops are different from pretty much every other market in that they do many different things. When you do a cellphone or tablet … [he points at my tablet thinking it was an iPad. I told him it was not the iPad it’s Android. He said that’s an Android that he didn’t even recognize and I told him it was the Samsung Galaxy Tab. He said “Oh my wife actually wants that for Christmas.”]

When we look at cell phones or tablets there is usually a fairly limited usage case. You may have thousands of applications, but you don’t, for example, usually connect this thing to hundreds of different devices. I don’t think you can. With desktop, usage is completely different. You have to support every different printer that you can go to store and buy.

In the tablet space no you don’t, in the supercomputer NO YOU DON’T. You support one single printer and you tell the people who paid 10 million dollars for their machine to “buy THAT printer “ because it works.

I am using  printers as a stupid example but the point is the desktop is really a different market where you have to support these crazy people doing odd things at universities. They may do some research that nobody else does and they will use a desktop workstation kind of machine for themselves.

Then there are the ‘mom and pop’ shops who don’t actually know anything at all about computers. They will just go to a random store and buy hardware or software to do their thing. So, desktop is hard to support because it is one area where the same piece of hardware and the same operating system have to really support a lot of things.

I think, the big reason is just desktop is the hardest market to enter. It’s partly because of technical reasons. Desktops are different from pretty much every other market in that they do many different things.

Another thing is this is also the one area where you do have a lot of users that don’t even necessarily want to use computer at all.  A lot of desktops are used for basically work. People like using computers because it makes their work easier, but at the same time they are not really interested in the computer itself. They are not like me. I like using a computer because it is a big toy I can do things with. They like using the computer because they get work done. So for that kind of person to then decide – ‘Oh I want to try a new operating system other than the one I am used to’ – is a big and hard decision. So  the incumbent has a huge advantage in desktop.

Another example of desktop being different is some people want to do the whole media encoding on it. Then you get the DRM mess and you get the whole ‘religion’ around that which just makes it a harder market to enter. Again, the usages  are so varied that you find problems there.

The good news, I think, is to some degree the desktop market is going down.  Earlier a lot of people used to want to have a desktop. That’s changing. These days a lot of people do their work basically in a web browser; maybe they can’t use a tablet because they really need a keyboard. But the wild and varied market for normal people’s desktop is kind of going away, to some degree–not completely. But it is shrinking to a point where a lot of people are perfectly happy with basically just a browser and some tools. Google is going after that market with ChromeBook. I don’t know if it’s going to succeed, I don’t know if it has gone to that point yet.

Swapnil: (I pointed at my wife who was recording the video that she uses ChromeBook) saying she is happy as all she needs is a browser.
Linus: So it works in certain cases. It’s basically the same thing as a tablet with a keyboard. For certain usages that’s enough. Then there are advantages of being single use. The hardware needs to be so cheap that you can basically consider it to be almost throwaway, because you use this piece of hardware for one thing and if you need to do something else you have another piece of hardware. Like you have your cellphone and your tablet and your Chromebook. That simply did not used to be true before, because you wanted to have one computer because that was such a big investment that it needed to do everything. Things have changed. So that change may just mean that the traditional desktop, that does everything, becomes less relevant. That makes things easier for us because the traditional desktop that does everything is really hard.

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