At the end of the 1990s, Linux looked like it could challenge Microsoft Windows as an alternative operating system for everyday PC users.
It has come a long way since then.
Microsoft scored an own goal with the confusing, incomplete and often annoying Windows Vista.
Yet desktop Linux failed to break out beyond a hard-core following of geeky devotees. Windows now faces bigger threats than Linux. Chrome, Android and MacOS are all winning market share from Windows.
Meanwhile, Linux struggles to gain traction.
When desktop Linux was news
A decade ago I wrote for the Australian Linux Today website. At its peak, my posts would be read by tens of thousands and attract hundreds of comments.
Apart from the odd loon, most discussion was informed and intelligent. Internet.com couldn’t make Linux Today pay, at least not in Australia. The parent Linux Today site lives on under the Jupitermedia banner.
The problem with a free operating system
The demise of the Australian Linux Today site was part of the broader problem with Linux and its inability to reach a wider audience. We had bankable traffic, but nobody in the Linux business bought advertising.
That’s because nobody in the Linux business has a marketing budget. That’s because hardly anyone in the Linux business makes money. Which in turn is down to the fact that Linux is given away.
This meant there was no profit to support the kind of thriving media community that follows Microsoft Windows.
There’s not much today either. More to the point, there’s not even the money to fund the kind of activity that underpins planet Google, mobile computing and the world of Web 2.0 websites-cum-services-cum-applications that now threaten to outflank Windows.
Irony of desktop Linux economics
Ironically, Linux or something similar, underpins most Microsoft challengers. And Vista’s annoyances aside, the threat of desktop Linux and open source did much to prod Microsoft into improving its act.
Today the company and its products are massively improved.
Modern Linux distributions are excellent. There’s not much in Vista that the latest version of Ubuntu, 8.10 fails to offer. Kubuntu is possibly better. Fedora is less consumer-friendly, nevertheless a plausible option.
Companies and people freely give their own time and energy to open source projects. That’s great. Long may that continue.
Linux users work at the frontier and continue to pioneer new ideas and technologies that will permeate into the mainstream. But I can’t see Linux ever climbing out of its geeky gravity well and being mainstream. That day has passed.
Linux may find its way under the bonnet (hood if you’re American) of mainstream technologies, it will never be the face of day-to-day computing.