Sunday, June 27, 2010

Why Linux will (has?) hit a wall in popularity with normal users...

So this is one of the few times I decide to get political and/or rational. Most of my career has been spent on Linux. And while the gettin's good, I don't subscribe to the notion that Linux, as a desktop, will take over the World.

Let me make one thing clear. I do believe Linux, as a core, will succeed in many forms. On the server, on mobile products (where it is the core and not exposed directly to the user, a la Android).

So here's the problem as I see it. Too many choices. Yes, this has been beaten to death, and to some extent, many Linux vendors have taken note. Debian used to be a free-for-all where all of the choices were exposed to the user. People who used Debian loved the choices, but the fact isn't that they loved the choices, they just loved that their choice was among them.

If you didn't have a preference, for example with a Desktop environment, then choices are bad for a user. They didn't know how to pick one. So now, there is a default. That's great, but across many Linux distributions, even if the default is Gnome, the little nuances of each system will overwhelmingly differentiate the entire thing so that no Gnome desktop is truly the same as another distribution.

So why are choices bad? I want to take an example from a book I was reading recently called The 4-Hour Workweek. It tells of a watch company that wanted to advertise in a magazine. The watch company had many different styles of watches and wanted to put a full page ad that showed off 6 of them. The advertising executive said they should pick one watch and show off that one. To settle the dispute, they had two full page ads: one with the 6 watch layout, and the other with a single watch. Don't you know that the single watch ad out-performed the 6-watch ad by a factor of 6? Interesting...

So anyway, choices are bad for consumers. They would rather have one choice, even if it may limit them in some way. Apple figured this out when they almost went the way of the Commodore by making so many damn types of Macintoshes (when Jobs wasn't at the helm). Microsoft also learned this when they had an extensive list of Windows variants (Full/Pro/Home/Home-Pro/Server/etc/etc), but I don't think they've recovered from that very well.

Now on to the meat of the problem. Linux, too many choices...what can be done? Well, as a developer, not much. It's not our job to make these decisions. We are the ones that give all the choices. Drivers for every device, apps that do anything you want, themes, icons, documentation, hardware support. The real issue at stake is some company needs to break out of the "We're a Linux distribution" mold.

Let's take Dell's Ubuntu Linux offering as an example (I'm not knocking this effort, I helped start it when I was working for Canonical, it's a great offering). If a normal user somehow gets to the Dell Linux page, and they say "wow, what is this Linux thing?", they will surely go to and start checking. Bad? Hell yes. The huge amount of information, choices and decisions becomes quickly apparent to them. They start asking questions like "Is Ubuntu the _right_ Linux for me?" and "Should I try other Linux's as well" and "Why does Dell only offer Ubuntu?".

Indeed, these are good questions, but for which there is no answer that is going to take the average user from "I've always used Windows/MacOS and know how it works" to "I'm going to try this thing called Linux."

In my opinion, as unfortunate as it may sound, in the end, some company will deliver a product that makes no mention of Linux other than in the copyright attributions and source code, and will call it something completely different. Maybe they will call it Chrome OS?


  1. So stop calling it Ubuntu Linux and start calling it Ubuntu.

    Also, is it really a good idea to get people who can't handle a little choice using Ubuntu?

  2. I would like to point out something about Google's intentional choice of name. Look at the "ChromeOS" name. You can't say ChromeOS Linux... it just doesn't work. It was a very smart and well thought out naming/branding on Google's part.

  3. So what you are saying boils down to: The world is to complex for people, let's make it simpler. You're certainly right on the first part. You're not on the second. There are easy choices for people who don't like to educate themselves. We don't need another one. It would be better to get the people who know about this stuff and use them to work out the main differences between the choices. Compile it in a user-friendly way and offer a default. Offer an easy way to learn about these things.

    Choice is good, education is good. Being dumb sheep and having artificially limited possibilities is not.

  4. I agree with the choice problem. However, choice is good, what's bad is, if the choices aren't obvious. As long as it will ultimately be very clear to the "consumer" which Linux is the one for them (X or the human being, Y for the designer, Z for server, B for the nerd, C for the living room, etc), then it's no problem. What Ubuntu needs to learn is to decide whether it wants to cover all markets (now they're doing servers, mobile devices, netbook, are they going completely nuts?) or whether it wants to deliver an actual competitive desktop OS that is actually "for human beings". Because right now, Ubuntu is a bit of everything, but some nagging problems like an ugly boot sequence, not working hibernate, inability to conveniently install recent versions of new software applications etc, will always result in someone saying "well if you want linux you could go for Ubuntu, it's perfect BUT...". That's where Mac OS succeeded: it's not windows, and it just works. What's Ubuntu's unique selling point?

  5. @elnalex If you're going to sell to the masses, your're going to sell to sheep. Sheep are out there, and ignoring them is ignoring your biggest market. Catering to the smart folks who want to learn an OS is all good and wishful thinking, but selling an OS that is dumbed down to make things simple for the simple minded, is where the money is at.

    Look, we can go back and forth on who should be "cool enough" to use Linux, but that's not what I'm writing about. It's easy to say "we can't make it dumb enough for you, so you go use the lame Windows/MacOS". However, it takes real talent to make something simple, and powerful. I don't believe that the current Linux desktop roadmap of any company is quite headed in that direction (but some are making great strides).

  6. I've said for a long time that Ubuntu needs to stop being Linux and start being a platform.

  7. I don't mention Linux. EVER. It's a kernel. No one needs to know.

    Ubuntu. That's it. Ubuntu.

    Fragmentation is a myth. We're 80% of the linux desktop. Stop bringing linux into this.

  8. I agree with Anonymous; What's Ubuntu's unique selling point? In my opinion Canonical's biggest mistake was their choice of desktop environment. Gnome and KDE are both always playing catch up with their adversary therefore making it hard to have a fresh or innovative look. As it is that is why Lucid Lynx looks like a poor man's Mac. ChromeOS, Android, and even Meego have taken the right way: Build your own innovative UI that is simple to use...Ubuntu still has a chance: Unity, they just have to extended this onto desktop.

  9. Never co-brand Ubuntu (an operating system with amazing community) with Linux (a kernel). The two are completely different.

  10. @Ben: You're completely right. If you want to sell to the masses, you have to make it simple. But if everyone does that people have the choice between gazillions of simple solutions and they won't know what's best for them. Problem with that is: there is no real choice, because everything is the same easy stuff, and yet there is choice, and that brings about the same problem you identified for Ubuntu. I am all for diversity. I think there should be a choice that suits every kind of user. Of course there aren't as many power-users as there are sheep. But then again, a lot of the sheep already have their OS and they wouldn't want to change, they're sheep after all.

  11. Do people still buy automobiles? There are many choices. Its rather complicated. Between type, make, and model, how does anyone make a decision if what you say about complicated choices is true. We should all be nagged sitting in a pile of poo because almost every single product (minus gas) has many different brands and models.

  12. If Ubuntu isn't co-branded with Linux then why is it "Linux for human beings (tm)"?

  13. @Conzar if you want to go the route of a car analogy then yes, there are all sorts of cars. There are fast ones, big ones, little ones, but they all have a steering wheel and controls that all work the same way. You don't have to learn how to drive a Ford and Mercedes, you just have to learn to drive a car.

    For computers you have to learn Linux, or even Windows or MacOS for that matter, but considering MacOS just works so simply and effortlessly, and Windows is so "familiar", it's no wonder people haven't moved to Linux in droves regardless of price. There's too much to learn still.

  14. So I haven't been to in awhile. I just checked, and the first few pages I went to did not have one single mention of Linux...

  15. I have to disagree Me, one only needs to learn to use a GUI and then it matters not which OS lies beneath it. My daughter easily bounces from windows (any version) to linux and back again. She's 9 and has been using computers since she was 5.

    Myself, I couldn't care less about what "normal" users like or don't like. I want as many choices as is possible. For those who cannot make such choices for themselves, there are at least two other OSes that are happy to make said choices for you, leave my choices alone.

  16. We seem sometimes to misunderstand what Linux is all about, I am an educated former Windows user who got tired of using an operating system that made me feel like it was loaned to me. I decided two years ago to use Ubuntu, seem I made a good choice. I realized that all it takes is to learn the Linux way, I have a friend who was sick of Vista on a Laptop, decided to pirate Windows 7 but was constantly bothered to activate, he saw me using Linux quite happily, Linux is also what he used when he used my desktop, he repeatedly asked for it to be installed on his laptop I told him the pros and the cons and he said he wanted it anyway, so he installed it, he is going a year now with very little complaint he swears he is not going back to Windows, the reason why this worked is that he was not a regular computer user before, the laptop is his first so he was not used to Windows.

    I believe that this is the principal way Linux will spread from the educated to the the uninitiated and uneducated, in this case having many flavours of Linux to pick from is no problem at all'

    Anyone who wants to stay in their ignorance mired in pirated installs of windows can continue to do so, you will always have this crowd, you will also have the ones who just buy a computer with anything on it, Windows or otherwise and will continue to use it with no problems at all, some will never change, they are happy with what they have and then there are others that know enough to take the leap themselves and then introduce the beauty of using a free OS to others.

    Linux has gotten to a stage now where it is a viable contender on the desktop it will continue to grow incrementally by the above process, why would anyone think this mode of growth will result in normal people hitting a wall? It is because you do not understand how Linux usage spreads.

    A so called normal user just does not say oh I want to use Linux, which one will I pick, Linux is usually discovered by the curious, savvy computer user who just try one of the big distros or their derivatives; Debian, Redhat, Slackware Gentoo or Arch and then help the normal user who becomes curious or has a problem that Linux can solve.

    Most Linux distribution I know nowadays just work, if you buy a Dell computer with Ubuntu on it I see no reason why it would not just work, I have no idea what you are talking about in this regard, it is ridiculous to believe that because there is this great choice that normal users will hit a wall.

    My three year old daughter had no problem getting used to the difference in the Gnome desktop environment coming from windows, there is no huge shift in the concepts.

    The choice is good it is what makes Linux special, the differences are not usually there for the sake of being different, a lot of the differences carry real advantages, it is just up to someone to decide on which environment is best for them and then pass this on to others that will sooner or later make their own decisions and may or may not choose something different.

  17. - No standard desktop platform
    - No viable business model for desktop Linux.

    There, as simple as that. Accept it and move on.