I will always love Linux. The excitement began around 1982, when I first had some Unix training for my job. A couple years later, thanks to our employee-purchase plan, I owned my first personal computer.

It ran CP/M. I hooked up a modem, and dialed in to the on-line world. I was off and running. I became a BBS sysop, and I eventually moved on to a Deskpro 286 – now I was a DOS guy. Many people say that DOS was a stolen copy of CP/M.

My first Linux desktop was a Compaq Deskpro 2000, in 1997.  I used it to run Red Hat Linux. At the time, Red Hat was still free. The main appeal for me was that it detected more hardware, correctly, than any of the alternatives. I did have several brief affairs with BSD, which was even more fun, but in a different way. (BSD is actually Unix, not Linux.) A different community for sure. After many years of Ubuntu, when it became more like Windows than Linux, I moved back to Debian around 2010 and have been there ever since.

I will always love the power of the command line. I still prefer text editors to word processors. Microsoft finally got it right around 2008 when they released the server core version of Windows, which runs entirely from the command line. Then of course there is Powershell, which I am really starting to enjoy.

Where did Linux go wrong? At the turn of the century, most people were using Windows 2000, if not Windows 98. This was the standard that Linux needed to measure up to, and it wasn’t quite there, but hey – it was free, and it was a lot more fun to play with. The community was (and is) a great thing, and we all had that “overthrow the empire” feeling. Most of us were convinced that someday, Linux would displace Windows on the desktop. Every year, until about 2010, was going to be “the year of Linux on the desktop…” Why didn’t this ever happen?

I think there were many reasons:

0.) Yes, the monopoly. Business is business. With backroom deals and offers they couldn’t refuse, Intel/Microsoft/HP/Dell made absolutely sure that new computers come with Windows. We saw a new effort every few years to sell desktops pre-loaded with Linux, but due to #2 (below) it was always too little, too late.

1.) Hardware manufacturers were never (and are still not) interested in providing drivers (let alone support) for multiple operating systems. Ubuntu was the last great hope for this problem – and it did offer what had always been missing.

1.5) “It’s the culture, stupid!” Every time I told someone about Linux, they would say “what company makes it?” “Where do I buy it?” Then I would try to explain open source, downloading, installation, and dual booting, while their eyes glazed over. Canonical finally stepped up, but by the time they did – the desktop no longer mattered (see 3 below.)

2.) The Linux community “fragmented” just as the Unix community did before it, a (human) generation earlier. Without a commercial foundation for development, basically it went in 10+ different directions. Religious freedom at it’s best, but – no good for the users.

3.) The desktop is dead. How many of us even sit at desks, let alone use a desktop (or laptop) computer while sitting there? The business culture and expectations are different. For starters, people expect to be able to talk and text with their “computer.”

I think Linux, in the form of Ubuntu, surpassed Windows for GUI quality and ease of use around 2005. Unfortunately, by then it was too late. The biggest irony is that Open Source really did win, but no one knows it – both IOS and Android started out as Linux. A lot of embedded systems, network hardware, heck – probably TV sets – run Linux.

Summary:

  • Linux was, and always will be, for do-it-yourselfers. Unfortunately, 90% of users who NEED it are not DIYers.
  • The One Perfect Distribution never arrived.
  • The development world is geared for Windows. That will finally change when we complete our transition to the browser as the OS.
20 years later: The rise & fall of desktop Linux
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