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2014 is the year of the Linux desktop

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Linux has unexpectedly made it to the desktop through mobile and cloud, but the unintended consequences are troubling

Simon Phipps - InfoWorld - Wait, isn't the Linux desktop dead? As I observed last year, it all depends on how you define it.

Many of us had expected a revolutionary overthrow of Windows by something that was, for all intents and purposes, just Windows with Linux under the hood. Instead, we have Chrome OS and Android, which are both essentially Linux, along with services delivered through the browser by cloud providers that run Linux on their servers.

Part of my conviction that 2014 is the year of the Linux desktop flows from my personal experience at my own business, which now now runs entirely on Chrome OS (apart from the one legacy Mac device, which lives permanently in Chrome). As I've spoken to clients and collaborators around the world, I've realized we're not alone.

I've found that many of the startups and nonprofits I communicate with use Google Apps for email and collaboration. It's not instantly obvious, since most of us operate our own domain names. But the benefit of getting all your productivity tools delivered at minimal cost and without needing an IT department is massive. When you're doing that, you're using a Linux desktop already, even if you're accessing it through Mac OS or Windows. All the code Google uses to deliver those productivity tools is running on Linux.

But once you're a Google Apps customer, it's a simple step to move to Chrome OS and use Chromebooks or Chromeboxes. Using Chrome OS eliminates the last reason for needing an IT department to deliver company or school infrastructure. There's no antivirus issue, no management of updates, hardly any need even to manage the devices.

As a consequence, the new Asus Chromebox seemed to be a runaway success the instant it was available on Amazon, and the fact that almost all serious hardware manufacturers now make a Chromebook of some sort supports the hypothesis that there is high demand. Chrome OS is Linux -- a minimal variety for sure, but it's the real thing. Adoption of Google Apps and the high demand for Chrome OS both point to the Linux desktop crossing the chasm.

The ascendance of Android maybe the most obvious sign of all. For a huge and rapidly increasing number of people, the computer they use for most activities is an Android-based smartphone or a tablet. Android is another special-purpose Linux, this time tuned to run a flexible set of Java classes on the Dalvik virtual machine. Besides snowballing global adoption in association with Google, Android is also behind a number of other devices, including Amazon's Kindle Fire and Nokia's new hybrid phone.

Sheer force of numbers from those three areas -- Google Apps adoption, Chrome OS growth, and the spread of Android and Android-based devices -- tell me the year of the Linux desktop has finally arrived.

I'm sure there will be objections from people who want to define "the year of the Linux desktop" differently. There will be those fans of GNU/Linux distributions like Ubuntu who will object that the Linux Desktop has not arrived until we're all running KDE and Gnome. I fear those folks have a while to wait. Others will object because there are still so many copies of Windows and new PCs are still shipping with Windows. That's a fair point, but I believe even those users are actually Linux Desktop users. As I argued last year, Linux has already won on the Windows desktop.

Control Solutions, Inc Think about it: When did a new process or service you wanted to use last come as a Windows application download? When it did, what actually was that application? An increasing number of desktop applications are just containers for HTML5 Web apps. The real powerhouse behind those apps is usually Linux, accessed over the Internet, along with other elements of the modern LAMP stack. In a very real sense, the applications many use daily for email, documents, presentations, and more are Linux desktop applications. A fanatical obsession with replacing Windows made for interesting discussion, but while that debate was happening, all the work on the desktop moved inside the browser window.

The pushback argument for which I have sympathy is the argument about freedom. For many, the future of the desktop is less about the specific software and more about who has control. Whether you use Chrome OS, Android, MacOS, or Windows, more and more software is being mediated by app stores that frequently discriminate against open source. Functions are being delivered through JavaScript that has no license terms and thus can't be open source. Worst of all, surveillance is rife, and the Web-delivered nature of the new desktop makes it trivial to conduct blanket surveillance.

Even given these caveats, I personally am persuaded: 2014 is the year of the Linux desktop, at long last. Moving the center of computing to the cloud turned out to be an integral part of that. Now we need to work on reversing the tide of blanket surveillance.

This article, "2014 is the year of the Linux desktop," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com.

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