On Desktop Linux, the Mac, and Market Share

by Ostatic Staff - Jun. 09, 2009

There is an old joke, popular among venture capitalists, that goes like this: Two guys are walking in the wilderness, when they spot a huge bear speeding toward them, gnashing its teeth. One of the guys pulls a pair of running shoes out of his backpack and starts putting them on.

  "What are you doing? You can't outrun a bear," says the other guy.

"I don't need to outrun the bear," comes the answer. "I just need to outrun you."

That joke is about knowing precisely who the competition is. That's why I thought of it when I read Matt Asay's post from last year about Mark Shuttleworth identifying the Mac OS, and not Windows, as the desktop operating system to beat. Shuttleworth made comments to that effect in this Datamation interview, and I agree with him. It's right now, though, that we are really seeing the Linux desktop realize its potential, with the Mac OS still setting a good pace in the race.

In the interview above, Shuttleworth characterized the Mac as delivering a superior usability experience, which I think most Mac users know is true. But the good news is that many Linux distros and desktop environments are offering a very graphical, Mac-like interface experience now. I've been using the new KDE, and it definitely does so. Matt Asay reports today in another post on how great a usability experience you can get in Red Hat's just-released Fedora 11 operating system here. Moblin and Ubuntu Netbook Remix are also getting a lot of kudos for their easy, graphical interfaces, and both have bright futures in the red hot netbook market.

Matt writes:

"This is the state of 'desktop' Linux today: it really has nothing left to prove. It took years to become user friendly, but it has arrived, helped along by the world's move to browser-based computing."

Yes, the increasing amount of time we spend in browsers, where we're often using browser-based applications, is opening doors for the Linux desktop. I have a Linux netbook, designed from the ground up mainly for browsing, and it's absolutely irrelevant that I don't have Windows on it. Not to mention the fact that it boots far faster than any Windows machine does.

Desktop Linux still has some ground to make up when it comes to compatibility. I think it's great that the new Fedora 11 offers Microsoft Exchange interoperability, for example, and that's been a long time coming. There are still too many problems with drivers and hardware compatibility with Linux, though.

These problems will get ironed out. Linux has over one percent of the desktop market already, and if it can get to five percent, it will be sitting right at the market share level that the Mac commanded for many years. There's no reason an operating system has to dominate all desktops to usher in lots of innovation. In fact, many Linux users wouldn't want total desktop domination, because the malware purveyors always head toward the platform that has that kind of share, and for other reasons.

Five perecent market share for desktop Linux, right where the Mac sat for so many years, is a good goal for desktop Linux. And Shuttleworth is still right that the Mac OS is the competition to focus specifically on.