"I share the hope with everyone that free and open source software will rise to meet the requirements of content delivery," says longtime Linux developer Jeff Whatcott, senior vice president of marketing for Brightcove, a company that specialises in online video streaming. "But that's not happening."
"DRM is not popular with the open source crowd," says Whatcott, lamenting that the open source community at large remains so steadfastly opposed to digital rights management technologies. Without those systems, commercial content providers have no incentive to embrace Linux. And Whatcott points out that even if the open source community were willing to go along, the DRM arena is dominated by "deep, deep patent pools," making a free, open source alternative unlikely anyway.
Meanwhile, even common streaming technologies such as Flash, which Whatcott helped bring to Linux in his previous role as a Macromedia (and later Adobe) product manager, deliver poor results on Linux.
"It wasn't for lack of trying," Whatcott says. "At the time, Macromedia put extensive resources into figuring that out." But despite the hard work of a team of engineers "that loved Linux," the fragmentation of the Linux platform and the hurdles presented by what Whatcott describes as "alpha quality" drivers for audio and video hardware made success elusive for the Flash development team.
The desktop itself may be irrelevant
We shouldn't be too hard on Linux, though. After all, there are stark signs that the desktop itself is becoming irrelevant.
"The war between cloud and native apps has already been won on the desktop," says Guy Ben-Artzi, CEO of Particle Code, which makes cross-platform tools for mobile app developers. "When it comes to desktop development, everything is moving to web technology. If I was really pushing for Linux right now, I would not be focusing on desktop applications." Instead, says Ben-Artzi, Linux proponents should push aggressively for open web platforms.
Kevin Mahaffey, CTO of mobile security company Lookout, agrees. "Linux can be successful on the desktop if it has a great web experience," says Mahaffey. "The growth of things like HTML5 will help to give Linux a user experience that's on par with other platforms."
According to all of my sources, if there's any last hope for Linux on the desktop, it's HTML5. As the next generation web standard establishes a common set of open media streaming technologies, it will offer a glimmer of hope to those who want to maintain Linux as their desktop OS, increasing the odds that whatever content or services they want to use will work on their open source PC. Of course, that's assuming the DRM problems magically disappear.
"In a strange way," says Brightcove's Jeff Whatcott, "iOS may save the Linux desktop indirectly." Brightcove has thrown its resources into developing HTML5 streaming tools, and according to Whatcott, "what's driving that is iOS."
But if Linux ever manages to win equal footing with Windows or Mac OS X in a cloud-centric world, it will likely be a hollow victory, made possible only through the sheer irrelevance of the operating system itself.
Our mobile future
"Forget about the desktop," Phil Robb, director of HP's Open Source Programs Office, tells Linux developers. "I think that's not where the effort should be put."
Rather than continue to fight for a tiny sliver of desktop market share, Robb says developers should concentrate on areas where Linux is strong. "Linux is already strong on small, mobile devices. If you're looking for ubiquity and impact on the planet, the Linux community should pat themselves on the back because they've already secured a victory on mobile."
And it looks like Robb is right. Even before Google's Android emerged, LG and other companies had turned to Linux to power the underpinnings of feature phones. Now Android and to a lesser degree so far WebOS (which HP recently acquired in its buyout of Palm) are putting Linux at the forefront of smartphone and tablet innovation.
Simultaneously, Linux has emerged as the go-to platform for embedded systems that power web-enabled HDTVs and set-top boxes ranging from Roku and Google TV to Boxee and a multitude of others. Of course, to the end user, Linux is transparent in these offerings, and the experience is a far cry from what traditional Linux desktop enthusiasts have come to know and love. Notably, these implementations tend to be closed rather than open, showing only a simple set of menus to the end user.
End of the road?
It has been a long trek since Linus Torvalds wrote the first Linux kernel as a college project in 1992, and the landscape has shifted considerably along the way. Despite grim prospects on the desktop, Linux has clearly asserted itself as a major platform that's here to stay. And of course, passionate open source proponents will rightly stand by their favourite desktop distributions despite the challenges ahead.
But at this point in history, it's hard to deny the evidence: With stagnant market growth and inadequate content options compounded by industry inertia, Linux basically has no chance to rival Mac OS X, much less Windows.