EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Keeping the Desktop Dream Alive: Q&A With Linux Foundation’s Jim Zemlin, Part 1

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.

Keeping the Desktop Dream Alive: Q&A With Linux Foundation’s Jim Zemlin, Parts 2

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REVIEW

Titan Linux Beta Brings Simplicity, Finesse to KDE Remake

Credit: Titan Linux

Titan Linux is not an operating system that casual Linux users — especially new adopters — should install on their primary or only computer. But seasoned Linux distribution hoppers looking for a pleasant new Linux experience should not pass up the new offering.

Titan is a new distro built on the Debian Stable branch. Developers first announced its arrival on April 24. It is a very early beta release, so it is mostly bare bones. Still, it is surprisingly very stable given this phase of its development.

I looked at version 1.2 and found very few things on which to harp about its performance. The new distro’s two-person developer team has a growing community of testers for such a new project; about 60 at last count.

Typically, such small start-up teams cannot sustain forward progress and often fall by the Linux distro wayside. But I am impressed so far with this team’s accomplishments.

Project leader Matthew Moore readily admits that the new distro’s success or failure will depend on user acceptance and a supportive community. One of the bigger adoption challenges Titan Linux faces is that with no advertising or reviews yet (until now), attracting exposure of potential users is hard to achieve.

Progress and updates come almost daily. So I expect to see Titan mature more rapidly than typically happens with fledgling releases.

This distro is a fully functional yet minimal KDE Plasma desktop experience with an emphasis on usability and performance. It already has a wide range of hardware support out of the box.

Titan Linux takes a unique approach to the Debian experience. It eliminates dependency on certain meta-packages to make it a more stable system overall.

Something Old Turning Into Something New

KDE is an extensive desktop environment that offers users a plethora of customization options. It is also a Linux staple that is popular and reliable. However, KDE can turn off new users because of its complexity and its quirks.

I used KDE Plasma with numerous distros over the years. I first tried it when the old KDE desktop became a revitalized KDE Plasma upgrade. Some of its user interface (UI) issues got in my way as a daily driver.

If the direction I see Titan taking continues as it grows out of beta releases, Titan Linux with KDE could well make me a happy user again. It all comes down to usability.

Work in Progress

So far, the developers trimmed the fat out of KDE Plasma to make it less complex without the seemingly endless customization options. That is the point of this distro.

Remaining lightweight means, beside long-term simplicity, Titan can draw a larger user following with aging and less powerful computers. Keeping KDE as streamlined as possible out of the box while offering full hardware support out of the Debian catalog are welcome performance goals.

Titan Linux offers something a little more slimmed down than standard Debian. But it is more usable than a standard Debian net installation, according to Moore.

Customization is not a bad thing. Linux thrives on having the freedom to customize, tweak, and create a desktop environment suited to individual user preferences.

Part of the simplification is an innovative Titan Toolbox — a work in progress but very promising — by head developer Cobalt Rogue. This set of system management tools will let users maintain the OS with a single click. The toolbox will include a series of software apps hardwired for Titan’s specific design rather than a one-size-fits-all Debian Linux component.

Sharing Insider Views

If you like knowing how the sausage is made, check out the developer’s website for links to both Moore’s and Cobalt Rogue’s YouTube videos on the making of Titan Linux. They both provide live stream discussions of their development efforts.

It is insightful to observe the conversations that focus on team goals. A major one is not wanting Titan Linux to be just another remix. Moore has plans to grow his new distribution into a unique offering with meaningful features.

In a recent video Moore explained why he decided to build Titan Linux on Debian instead of Arch, which they previously used. That’s because Debian’s longevity between stable releases is more conducive to rapid beta releases.

Debian has long release cycles — in the neighborhood of two years — so Titan development does not break because base components change frequently. Arch distros are too erratic with rolling releases that break systems often.

Leaner KDE Planned

KDE is the moniker for the K Desktop Environment introduced in 1996. It is also a reference to the organization sponsoring development of the K desktop and the family of software that runs on its K desktop, as well as other desktops.

When the KDE community released a major upgrade from KDE 4, developers dubbed the new desktop upgrade to KDE 5 with the name “Plasma.” That name depicted the radical redesign and functionality changes as sort of a KDE rebranding.

Various Linux distros are built around the KDE project. For instance, Kubuntu Linux is a version of the Ubuntu family of OSes that uses the KDE desktop. Other popular distros running the KDE desktop environment include KaOS, Manjaro KDE, Fedora KDE Spin, MX Linux KDE, and Garuda Linux.

What makes this brand-new Titan beta OS so noteworthy to me is the potential for what it offers. It can make the K desktop more productive with streamlined features and improved usability.

Offering a stripped-down version of the KDE desktop, however, is not by itself a unique idea. Many other Linux developers have tried to rework KDE into a better-working desktop. Some even gave it a new name.

Building a Better K Desktop, Again

Few improvement attempts are distinguishable from the hundreds of Linux distributions I have reviewed over the years. Given the literally hundreds of look-alike Linux distros, reinventing KDE is rarely productive.

Few desktop environments — and Linux is both blessed and cursed with a plethora of them — can be inviting enough to fit the computing needs of all user scenarios. KDE tries to do just that.

Consider these examples:

  • Feren OS toward the end of 2019 switched from the Cinnamon desktop and a Linux Mint base to KDE Plasma and the Ubuntu base.
  • The KDE Neon distro — not called Plasma — is somewhat unique. It has KDE components not yet absorbed by other KDE-based distros. It is based on Ubuntu (which itself is based on Debian Linux).
  • The KaOS Linux distro provides a UI-refreshed KDE-based computing platform. It offers better KDE experiences without bloated software and cumbersome usability.
  • The Vector Linux family is a small, fast, and light Slackware-based distribution that ships a customized version of KDE tweaked to be more user-friendly than other Slackware-style distros.

A Glimpse of Titan’s Potential

The early beta releases of the new Titan distro are much like a partially filled outline. Sectional headings and their supporting elements are in place enough to get a solid read of the big picture.

The core parts are in place and work. But numerous blank spaces have yet to be filled in. The OS works well with what is in place. It will work even better when more innovative parts are written in.

This view of the Titan Linux desktop shows two main KDE elements — access to virtual desktops via the bottom panel and the unique activities layout accessed via a pop-out vertical left column that provides a second type of virtual computing space.


The widgets popup panel display of screen and panel apps adds a variety of services and features to the desktop layout.


Pictured above on the left side is the terminal window’s information display along with the command line interface (CLI). On the right is the software store window which even in this early beta view provides the ability to add/remove the complete inventory of Debian Linux software.


Shown here is the simplified system settings panel in Titan Linux.


Bottom Line

Titan Linux beta versions are releasing at a feverish pace. This development schedule heats up anticipation for the first stable release.

The KDE Plasma desktop design found in current Linux distros are not lightweight. Beta version 1.2 consumes 450 MB of RAM, making this anticipated new distro very lightweight. That means two things: more aging computers can find revival running the Titan OS; and new computers can outperform more standard KDE integrations.

The live session ISOs are upgraded several times per week as the developers push the envelope to release the first stable version and beyond. The live session environment lets you try out Titan Linux beta releases without making any changes to your current OS or the hard drive.

The beta version I tested performs surprisingly well already. More features and UI tweaks show up with each new ISO download.

Check it out for yourself on the Titan Linux website.


Suggest a Review

Is there a Linux software application or distro you’d like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

Email your ideas to me and I’ll consider them for a future column.

And use the Reader Comments feature below to provide your input!

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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