What Killed the Linux Desktop

Theodore Ts'o

I think you're absolutely correct about what ails the Linux Desktop people, but it should be noted that Linus Torvalds was and always has been very strident about not breaking backwards compatibility. He has said multiple times, and he has reiterated again this week at the Kernel Summit, that if you make a change which causes an application to break and a user notices and complains, that's a regression and a bug that must be fixed by reverting the change.

Things inside the kernel can be changed with impunity, but things which applications depend upon must not be changed. Unfortunately, the Desktop developers never understood this lesson.


Few people remember Linus' opinion on userland ABI breakage. People remember Linus (and most of the kernel developers) opinion on the "other" ABI, the one that they consider fair game: kernel drivers.

The endless discussions of why it was ok to break binary compatibility just became part of the overall culture, and it became hard to fight.

For a while Gnome did well, we stuck to an ABI for many years, but keeping up the guard for years at a time is hard, and eventually, the forces of "Let us clean this and start from scratch" win.


There was never really an audience with a pain to be solved by the Linux desktop - never a "why am I going to switch to this," even from each distribution, let alone spanning them. And with no audience and no pain, there was never a business model to charge people for solving their pain, and then build up enough developers to do tedious work (such as fixing drivers, video codecs, and back compat). "Technical workstation" just isn't a large enough market to pay for screwing with drivers and codecs and on and on. It makes more sense to hang that niche off the more general-purpose OS X and inherit its existing efforts.

Here's some old related post from 2008: http://blog.ometer.com/2008/06/11/revolution-and-evolution/

I mean, look at OS X itself. Sure it's doing fine, but powered by iPhone and iPad, not by people wanting a new desktop. And it still has minority marketshare despite being from one of the most profitable companies on earth and despite Microsoft's repeated weird Windows-rethinks.

Copyright 2012 http://tirania.org/