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Keeping the Desktop Dream Alive: Q&A With Jim Zemlin, Part 1

This story was originally published on June 17, 2011, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

In 2007, Linux was heralded as the desktop of the future. However, the history of Linux on the desktop has been a story of strong support from a relatively small group of diehards but little real impact on the market as a whole. And by last year, there was even talk that the dream of the Linux desktop had been shattered.

What happened, and where is Linux going? LinuxInsider sat down with Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin for an exclusive interview to get to the bottom of things.

LinuxInsider: Why is Linux not doing so well on front-end desktops and on laptops? Lack of content? Fragmentation of the Linux platform? The poor quality of drivers?

Or could it be the lack of a hub of some sort to coordinate Linux content development — perhaps a large company such as Microsoft or Apple, or an organization such as the Linux Foundation?

Jim Zemlin:

Let’s look at what we think of as the traditional desktop PC. Clearly Windows has a momentum that’s powerful, and platform confusion tends to happen in slow-moving albeit very powerful waves, but tsunamis are rare, although they do occur. So that momentum that Microsoft has had for years on the desktop continues to benefit them.

Having said that, what’s not benefiting Microsoft … is that desktop computing is starting to become less relevant, and the definition of such is changing more towards what’s probably better characterized or called “client computing.”

The thing people used to care about, and the reason they chose Windows, was because there was a huge number of applications available for the platform, so they had the inertia of having lots of installed users and that led to lots of applications users could use.

What users care about now from the applications perspective is the Internet. Their data, applications and services are meant to be utilized online, and that’s changed the nature of what we think of as desktop computing.

I suspect there’s an entire generation that will accept their smartphone, car, tablet, maybe a traditional PC that looks at all of these devices collective as client computing because all of those modalities get them to what they truly care about, which is the data they have online, the information they may want to share with others, the music they want to stream.

That was most recently validated by Apple’s iCloud product and companies like Google, which has a search product and online mail and other services.

We’ve moved towards a services industry where the client that’s used to access services can be any one of a number of things.

Linux has become used in automobiles, smart connections, and has become the underpinning of a new form of computing. But clearly in the desktop space, Microsoft has hung on to its inertia, albeit that has been significantly encroached upon by Apple. In some sectors of technology, and in business computing where thin clients or specific desktops are needed, Linux has made its mark.

LIN: But the consumer is the key, and in that respect, Microsoft has the ground troops.

Zemlin:

Microsoft has made its money in two products, Windows and Microsoft Office. In terms of future operating systems, people aren’t betting on Windows. In fact, Microsoft stock hasn’t moved in over a decade, whereas competitors to Microsoft are moving up. I won’t dispute that Microsoft will continue making a massive amount of money off Windows and Office, but will it grow? The global community obviously doesn’t think so.

LIN: You can say that Microsoft has X share of the market and Apple has Y share, but when you say Linux has Z share of the market, you can’t point to any one company because there are so many. Linux is the underpinning of many desktop operating systems, and then there’s Android, but the market is very fragmented.

Zemlin:

That, I think, is an argument that perhaps Microsoft would have made a decade ago to criticize Linux in their traditional desktop market, but the reality is that today, computing is leaning towards a services model. We see that [fragmentation of the Linux market] as a strength — that Linux has multiple contenders.

The first thing you should know about Linux is that, at the kernel level, the component that manages the interfaces on the upper level software and the hardware in the operating system is not fragmented.

All operating systems based in Linux pull their primary code from the project hosted at the kernel.org website. This is where Linus Torvalds maintains and develops collectively the Linux kernel.

What you call fragmentation is that core kernel, which is a multibillion-dollar investment, and what people are doing is taking that and building products in the marketplace based on it, whether it’s Google Search, Android, Samsung TV, Facebook ,a music service or the New York Stock Exchange.

You could characterize all these things as fragmentation, but I’d characterize that as an efficient market — in other words, the market is solving the problems today.

What’s important is that Linux as an underpinning can help all these different computing efforts get to market faster and cheaper and, most importantly, allow firms creating these products and services to own their own destiny because no one else controls that destiny.

Also, the price of building a phone is significantly dependent on software development, which is very expensive; and the timeline is short, so Linux is a great way to save money and to make money, because if you own your own platform, you can create your own services and charge for those services and not be dependent on a third party.

LIN: Are there any attempts to move Linux forward?

Zemlin:

I’d like to consider a more subtle argument than “Linux is fragmented, Microsoft is not.” The reality is that most applications people care about are accessed today through Web browsers and/or are native apps that access service on the Internet, whether that’s streaming music or any other variety of service, so that makes the operating system less important.

As the operating system becomes less important, being the free alternative, in other words, the place where people can collectively develop to reduce cost and bring innovation to the market, is a much better place to be because people will launch their services on top of Linux, as it’s the quickest and most effective means to bring products to market.

2 Comments

  • Sure, tell all the gamers that play hard drive installed games that os doesn’t matter and what people want is acess to data in cloud.

    Even worse, mum only plays in browser, open java had problems, installed sun java but still there are some problems.

    Also, still there is a lack of applications. Having mobile computing I still prefer to do most of the tasks (related to word processing, photos, videos) offline on my desktop. So.don’lie to.yourself

  • As a retailer I can tell you why Linux isn’t gaining traction, and it isn’t the iShiny or the iTalky, its because the community won’t listen! I wrote an article here over 2 years ago by the title "What I need to help sell Linux" and not a single one of those things I pointed out exist yet! Not one!

    The community acts like the world is full of nerd and programmers, when reality is more like .03%, they act like Suzy the checkout girl is reading bash programming manuals in the tub or that grandma is working on their CS degree, but that ain’t reality.

    What are your competitors doing right that you are doing wrong? I can answer that, their products are easy, simple, all GUI, and "just work" which Linux isn’t even close. Try my "is it safe" test for yourself. download a distro from 3 years ago and upgrade/date it to current. this is less than half the average lifespan of a MSFT support cycle, yet when i try this simple test I end up with a broken OS. Broken drivers, screwed up settings, it just falls apart. I have WinXP boxes in the field that have been running since early 2002, that is three service packs and probably a couple of thousand patches and it ALL "just works". no broken drivers, no messed up settings, it just goes.

    finally the hardware situation is a mess. How does Suzy shop for a printer? USB wireless dongle? TV Tuner? What does she do? She plays hardware roulette and often loses the game, that’s what! Linux needs an online "Linux store" where ALL the hardware "just works" and has competitive prices, it needs a "Help Me!" button where a Linux Guru volunteer can take control of the system and fix problems, and it needs a hardware ABI so no matter what Linus twiddles with on the kernel or how many times you upgrade hardware NEVER fails!

    Do this and you WILL gain share. Me and all the mom&pop retailers are frankly begging for a Linux distro that will meet our customers needs. At $100 a pop windows eats up our profits and we are already getting pallet loads of XP desktop and laptops coming off lease that will never be cost effective to upgrade to Windows 7. Give us a product that will do what we need it to do and we will be HAPPY to be your support system, imagine how easy it would be for Linux users if every small shop in the land carried and supported Linux. But you haven’t listened to us and in its current form your software just doesn’t work for us. Help us and we will help you. Stay on the current path and don’t be surprised if Apple and MSFT continue to dominate the planet.

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OPINION

4 Industries on the Brink of Technological Disruption

future of computing

One of the stories told in management classes as an example of a recurring mistake companies make when their industry is transitioning focuses on buggy makers at the turn of the last century.

Those that figured out they were in the personal transportation business pivoted to cars. Most of the others that thought they were only in the buggy business became extinct because their market moved to cars, and they didn’t.

Seems obvious after the fact, but clearly at the time it didn’t seem obvious at all because most buggy makers and those that sold horses and did blacksmithing went out of business.

This story was originally published Jan. 17, 2022. As a result of its popularity, it is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

In the case of autonomous cars, we are looking at moving from car ownership to a service like Uber that will provide a car just when we need it.

But, going further, initially with services like Zoom and eventually with the metaverse extending the concept of holoportation — coupled with drone delivery and the pandemic — will we even need cars as much, or at all, in the future?

Holoportation, or the use of avatars to travel virtually, is not considered personal transportation today. But if it is successful, it could eliminate most personal transportation in the future, and in turn put existing car makers in the same category as those buggy makers were a century ago.

Should holoportation be considered part of the transportation industry, or should existing personal transportation be considered part of old school collaboration, social networking, and shopping?

Let’s talk about a some of these big coming technology disruptions. Then we’ll close with my product of the week, a head-mounted display from TCL called the Nxtwear Air that could become this year’s must-have gadget.

Personal Transportation

Before the pandemic, personal transportation was mostly focused on cars with air transport, human powered transport, and even motorcycles largely falling into different classes. But with the increased use of video conferencing and collaboration products like Zoom, Teams, and Webex, the need for business travel has taken a significant hit.

Among the cool stuff at CES this yearPortl and La Vitre demonstrated a way to visit family and friends virtually, while a solution from ARHT Media called Holopresence showed how you can speak at any remote event without ever leaving your home, yet appear to actually be there.

While we are currently still habit-bound to travel, the pandemic is forcing us to reconsider our safety and aggressively consider not traveling. We don’t really need to go to the store anymore as delivery options have expanded. Because of Covid, our doctors increasingly meet with us remotely, and we’ve been able to use services like Amazon and eBay to get around our need to go to malls and department stores.

When cars become truly autonomous, why will we need to own one for the few times we have to leave our homes? Just contact the car service and an automated vehicle will appear at your door and function pretty much like an elevator in a high rise. You don’t need to own an elevator, so why would you need to own a car?

At CES, a lot of the car designs looked more like rolling living rooms than cars, and several of them were rather ugly. But so are elevators, and we don’t seem to mind that much what they look like any more than we used to care about those old yellow cabs or buses.

Plus, we haven’t even begun to talk about flying cars and people-carrying drones, both of which are advancing very quickly. Once vehicles are autonomous, we won’t need professional drivers or driver’s licenses because humans won’t be driving.

Film and Television

In video games, we have a concept called NPC, which is a non-player character that follows a set script. But isn’t that what actors and extras do? Soon, it might be far easier to program an NPC to appear in a movie and convert a script to a realistic representation of the character far easier, and far less expensively than hiring a person.

Actors can get sick, they can have behavioral issues, they can get into trouble off screen resulting in their termination, and they get more expensive every subsequent time you use them. Movies today are largely filmed with computer graphics anyway and it is much easier for a rendered character to operate on a virtual stage than it is for a human.

Now, it isn’t just the acting. Script writing can now be done using AI. You don’t need catering or recruitment for virtual players, and with a digital movie-making engine, you can more easily rewrite the script and digitally reshoot the scene when fine tuning the result with digital characters than with humans.

Studios like Dust are already creating relatively high-quality content using far cheaper digital tools, and an increasing number of movies today use rendered people as extras for scenes that previously would have required humans in those roles.

So, do we replace directors, writers, actors, extras, camera people, and all the rest of the movie staff with a few programmers and advanced artificial intelligence? The result is still a movie — and services like Netflix and Amazon have a never-ending appetite for content today. It seems to me like video game studios might well displace movie studios before this trend is over.

Farming

Traditional farming methods are becoming largely obsolete due to climate change. We are moving to warehouse farms which produce more food in much less space and can exist a lot closer to customers located in cities.

Farms such as these are increasingly tended by robots and autonomous equipment to reduce cost and contamination and operate at a scale that traditional farms generally can’t match.

In addition, for ranchers, we are developing healthier, tasty alternatives to beef, chicken, and other animal protein sources.

These changes should be not only more reliable during times of rapid weather change, but also potentially more beneficial for the environment because you don’t need to clear rain forests and you no longer need to eat other animals. Some of the animals we eat are huge producers of methane gas which contribute significantly to climate change.

Does this mean farming will become like manufacturing, particularly when we start 3D printing food? The farm of the future could simply be another factory.

Manufacturing

Warehouses and factories are changing with the increased use of robots and reduced need for human workers. Factories effectively evolve into huge 3D printers that can produce both cookie cutter products at volume, and far less expensive custom offerings thanks to increased automation.

Are factories still factories once they are fully automated? Or are they just huge appliances that 3D print the products we want on-demand and ship them using the increasing variety of autonomous vehicles and package-carrying drones?

Fully automated 3D printing factories should have fewer shutdowns, be less impacted by inflation slowing their growth, and be more able to meet transitory demand using a just-in-time manufacturing model. Also, because these automated factories will use 3D printing as part of their process, they can be smaller, more localized, and probably more resistant to logistics disruption.

Wrapping Up: Tip of the Iceberg

I could go on for pages about the massive disruption of electrics replacing internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, personal robots, military drones (we may not need military pilots or drivers in a few years), fast food robots turning fast food restaurants into large food vending machines, and satellite-based data and voice services — and we already have advanced coffee vending machines that make a better cup of coffee than Starbucks.

Is personal transportation actually personal, or is it becoming part of the communications market? Are restaurants, factories and 3D printers merging to become part of the technology market? Are movies and video games going to merge and provide different experiences but use the same creation tools and back-end. If so, what do we call the result?

PCs and smartphones are merging at a rapid pace, but is the result an enhanced smartphone or a more portable PC? These are all things that will be addressed in the next decade and those companies that figure out what new segment they are in will likely survive. Those that don’t anticipate these changes and evolve with the times probably won’t.

But one thing is for sure, this decade is going to be known for both an unprecedented amount of change and a lot of companies and people suddenly discovering that the road they were on dead-ended. You’ve been warned.

Rob Enderle's Technology Product of the Week

TCL Nxtwear Air Wearable Display Glasses

One of the coming disruptions are head-mounted displays which are finally reaching a price and performance level that makes them viable. The TCL Nxtwear Air head mounted display is powered by the smartphone or PC it is connected to and it projects a HD image into the glasses that is like watching a 140-inch screen from four meters away.

TCL Nxtwear Air Wearable Display Glasses

While this is mostly for movie watching rather than a monitor for work or gaming, it is a significant step toward that latter category and, eventually, head-mounted displays will force a major shift between PCs and smartphones, particularly when coupled with cloud services like Windows 365.

Once they are in wide use, the need for monitors, laptops with screens, and even personal TVs may become a thing of the past. We may decide that even when we are sitting together, using our own screens which can be adjusted for our eyesight and unique problems (like colorblindness) will be a better solution than the large screen experiences we have today.

What makes these latest TCL glasses interesting is that they are 30 percent lighter than previous generations and they don’t look dorky. The glasses provide decent detail (though I expect the 4K glasses that will eventually follow will be better), deep colors and surprisingly deep blacks. They have built in speakers that sound pretty good and mean you can often leave the headphones at home (I’d still use headphones on planes or when near others, however).

Expected to cost just under $700, these glasses are competitively priced when you consider that 140-inch display likely costs more than any car you’ve ever purchased, making them potentially a true value — and my product of the week.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.
Rob Enderle

Rob Enderle has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2003. His areas of interest include AI, autonomous driving, drones, personal technology, emerging technology, regulation, litigation, M&E, and technology in politics. He has an MBA in human resources, marketing and computer science. He is also a certified management accountant. Enderle currently is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, a consultancy that serves the technology industry. He formerly served as a senior research fellow at Giga Information Group and Forrester. Email Rob.

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