Why the free software desktop year is not yet here, and why it doesn’t matter anymore.

Since 2001 or 2002, I remember a press statement each December: "this is going to be the Linux desktop year". Well, every year that happens to be a mistake. That optimism is lead by a visible improvement of the situation, wider hardware support, more standardization etc…

However, I’ve realized that that year is not going to happen, never.

Am I crazy? Maybe, but that doesn’t have anything to do with this article I’m writing.

Does this mean that I’m suggesting that we should just give up and stop developing any free software desktop environments. Hell, no. Its a gap that should be filled, and if we don’t we will fail in showing people what free software platforms are capable to do.

My point is that the model of the desktop is dead itself, and I can’t see any big migration from the current predominat home desktop out there. All the application development is moving towards the web, and virtualization as a solution for the lack of flexibility of the current desktop model, is not far from being a reality in corporate scenarios which means that even the desktop is becoming an online service rather than something you may have installed at home. There are some good highlights of this issue on the Brian Setevens’ talk at the Red Hat Summit ’07.

So, where are we going then? Well, free software platforms are already the strongest option on the most interesting software development market now, the Web. On the desktop side, free software desktop platforms are becoming a serious option on the mobile and embedded landscape, see GMAE, maemoOLPC, OpenMoko, GreenPhone, and the release of Java as free software. This is, is in my opinion, a much more interesting platform, for the long term, to bring freedom to users than the desktop as we know it nowadays. Free software is now the default choice when no previous choice is made by the broad market.

This is a really promising landscape for the free software world, because it means that Microsoft is not relevant anymore, even if they have a huge market, they are not inventing newer ones. Vista? who cares… That’s probably the reason they are talking about IP and patents, Vista is far from being an interesting issue, and it adds 0 or less value over the previous products.

So, as long as the current model gets obsolete, free software and open standards is filling all the new gaps and opening new opportunities. We shouldn’t worry about the current desktop market share anymore, what we should do, is worry about providing a good desktop to fill that gap meanwhile we invent new markets where free software can break through and show all its power.

Now the challenge is to reinvent the meaning of the computer desktop concept by developing something new, that solves problems that are not solved already, this is, real innovation.

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18 thoughts on “Why the free software desktop year is not yet here, and why it doesn’t matter anymore.

  1. You are perfectly correct. However, that will not happen. I’ve noticed in total roughly 5 actually innovative open source projects in total, ever. I’ve noticed only roughly 10 slightly visionary people in the open source communities. Most of the people are just useless on the required initiative. There are dozens of completely moot open source projects started each day, and hundreds of the old ones should be allowed to fall into past… Some of them fanboy’ed and developed by hundreds if not thousands of people. It’s such a waste, but the fact that 900 billion flies love eating * doesn’t make it good.
    There is also one quite large general problem with the services and networked stuff. Traditionally having open source applications and using them has not generated extra costs. Think of for instance open sourced “Google Docs”. Who on earth will pay the bills? It will for many ideas prove hard to get funding. At the same time “home servers” are not really generating enough value to justify themselves. Ok, this doesn’t apply to many things and you can go around it. Going around the problem just creates inefficiency and inconvenience elsewhere…

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  2. Really well said. I’ve been feeling recently that far too much effort is going into various frameworks/libraries, and far too little effort into “how do we make this interesting, easy to get, and relevant”.
    That’s probably because it is a lot easier to write up some D-BUS api or redo a jabber chat client than it is to really do something interesting.

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  3. urvel: Google Docs may not be free software, but a good portion of the architecture underlying it is only possible because of free software. Google uses a huge amount of free server and language software as a platform to build their applications, and they give a whole lot back to the community in return– not just releasing code, but also funding things like the Summer of Code.
    But that brings me to aruiz’s point. I think you’re largely right about the move away from the desktop, and it’s true that free software keeps things running under the bonnet. But I do wonder where that leaves free software application development, like GNOME. Maybe if there’s going to be no desktop in ten years, there’ll be no recognisable GNOME, and maybe that’s just the way the world’s going and it’s not important. But what *is* important is that users have the freedom to modify and inspect their application software, and I don’t really see at the moment how that’s going to translate into web-based applications: the problem isn’t so much that Google Docs et al aren’t free software, it’s that I don’t see how they usably can be. (Yes, they could tarball them up and give them out for download, but you’d still need a server farm of your own to run them, which is out of the reach of almost everyone; there’d be nothing like the home user today who can modify their own copy of Abiword or Gnumeric on their own computer if necessary.) I think this needs some hard and careful thinking about.

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  4. I hate web based software. You can’t tweak it to your tastes. They don’t work when my internet connection isn’t working (that happens all the time, stupid internet provider) or when i’m with my laptop where there is no free wifi hotspot.
    My rich email client can read all my offline mail database and i can retrieve any information i need, anytime. Yes, even when it’s about applications that needs internet, they are so much better when they are Rich Clients and not a stupid web 2.0 crap.
    I’m writing medium-length notes inside Tomboy all the time. I’d be crying if i can’t access them when there’s no internet. I like my wiki desktop flavored better.

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  5. @urvel:
    As long as web applications provides open APIs based on open standards, there is no reason to complain too loudly about them being not released as opensource. However, Google contributes to the projects on the underlaying framework, such as Linux, MySQL, Firefox…
    It’s fair enough.
    @Colin:
    We’ve somehow comfortable about API stability and the current release cycle, the innovation is progressive (which is not bad at all).
    But I think Gnome lacks a space to encourage innovation and prototyping as itself.
    @Pierre:
    You’re mobile phone is useless without signal. Don’t you have one anyway? I’m talking about the long term. I think it’s pretty obvious that in not so many years, the common situation would be 99,9% of conectivity even with no wires. It might be wi-fi, or 3g broadband, or whatever, but the market is moving towards that. And right now, a computer with no connectivity at all is almost useless.
    At the same time, the more resources goes to the server side, the less hardware users has to afford, and the smaller the devices can be, they’ll be just a window to the network.
    You are confusing HTML interfaces with web applications, they are different things. For example, MSN Messenger uses HTTP as protocol while it has a native GUI. I’m talking more about Web apps as API providers rather than HTTP frontends.

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  6. Do you understand what’s the WEB ? MSN Messenger is a Rich Client to a proprietary protocol. It has nothing to do with “the web”.
    The world wide web is what you access with your damn browser. A web app is an app that runs inside your browser. The web is about ye good old hypertext documents.
    Msn Messenger is, at best, an “internet app”. If you think you can call a rich client a “web app” you don’t understand the meaning of the “web” at all.

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  7. What to say…? 🙂
    As you well know, I’m absolutely agree with you. Your really got the point.
    I miss sometimes our long chats about these topics… 😉
    Keep posting stuff like this. We need it 😉
    Cheers

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  8. @Pierre:
    Don’t get me wrong, I think that you are the one that’s missing what the web is. Web != web browser.
    You actually, can connect to MSN using html and Javascript. Okay, it’s closed source.
    You can do the same with Jabber.
    My point is about open standards and applications as services that can cooperate together not as a bunch of wasted hard drive space.

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  9. I’m really surprised at how quick some gnome software guys are to just “accept” google/gmail as “openstandards” blah blah blah.
    Gmail is not opensource and will never be. Why would I accept my free(DOM) desktop to go away to be replaced with nothing but commercial software like gmail and flickr?
    Your point about openstandards(FORNOW) and applications(CLOSEDSOURCE) as services (CLOSEDSOURCE)?
    What do you foresee? A future where all we get are greasemonkey javascript hacks between proprietary services???
    These mashups people get all excited about are an illusion of freedom…your data underneath is getting datamined and pwnd by THE MAN.
    What happened to fight the power baby?
    Nice work on pygtk btw 🙂

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  10. Imagine. The first time you open your computer for use after leaving the shop, your computer immediately detects the ubiquitous home wireless network and asks whether it is this network you wish to connect. After settling that the computer then connects to a computing platform run by Google, Microsoft, or whatever new company.
    It is from this point on that the computer takes it “operating power” from that online service.
    Want to change platforms? Then a migratory wizard collects your personal information and transits to the new platform.
    Yes, I can see this happening!

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  11. @Adam:
    Please, point me to one single piece of Gmail that is not made using open standards or an opensource platform. Anyway, that was not my point at all, and my post wasn’t intended to discuss that issue.
    And I can’t see your point about “you Gnome people”, each Gnome people has its own opinion.
    The post is about the visible model change, and one of the companies that is pioneering that change is Google. Does it means that Google is the holy trinity? Nope. But they deserve the credit to create great products avoiding the use of closed technologies.

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  12. Interesting post! You are probably right that for most people, the desktop is getting less and less relevant as more time is spent inside the browser. But I don’t think that it doesn’t matter.
    To me, as a free software zealot, it is worrysome that more and more of the applications I use are closed source. My free software email client has long since been replaced by proprietary GMail, my blog has always been proprietary blogspot, photo publishing app at flickr, etc.
    The more connected I become, the more control I lose over the software I use. It is a problem – someone has to fix it.

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  13. Open Standards is different from Open Source as well as Open Source is different from Free Software. What do we really want for the long term? Does it depend on the context? Right now most new web applications are closed source although they are based on free software and use open standards for interconnection.
    When Alberto said “releasing as opensource” it can still have a license behind it that states that it can´t be used for commercial purposes unless paying a license fee. In these context, probably most of server-side web development languages used right now such as Ruby, PHP, Perl, Python or even Java (although it was freeware not free software) wouldn´t have convinced so much people.
    All people I know have different points of view between the three terms stated at the beginning and what to expect in the market for the near future. For enterprises, developers and users: Should new web applications be free software, so they can be improved and used by lots of people? Or they should be open source so you can still change the code and adapt it to your needs but pay a license fee when using it for commercial purposes? Or we just want them to use open standards so they can communicate with our applications?

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  14. Oh, please. I wasn’t complaining about anything not being open source. I like closed source, really I do.
    The only thing I meant to complain about is that 99% of the open source community’s developers are just plain fucking retarded and incompetent and should be just made with using caddle prods to code according to specifications by someone who actually knows what is required and stfu.

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  15. Alberto-
    Respect to you guys. I said “some gnome guys”.and I’m saying this because I think with things like the large number of gnome > proprietary webservice connectors are concerning as a trend. I read gnomeplanet almost daily…not seeing much thinking about this…
    Everybody can do what they want. Just pointing out why it’s really problematic.
    Part of it is a sign that gnome folks are hip and that overall is tremendously good for the community.
    What I’m taking issue with is that hip right now seems to mean “all this cool free software we are creating won’t matter soon because we have gmail!”(and by gmail I mean the whole web services model as it stands today).
    Gmail is text in a proprietary database dude. Open standards it uses include SMTP and POP (no IMAP) after that nothing really (btw outlook and exchange can use those openstandards too). For now you can access their services with some webapi crap (exchange has a webapi too btw?!?)
    Are you in a hurry to move to exchange? outlook? MSLive2k8 or whatever?
    Awesome Google etc., use javascript! w000t so what! I can use greasemonkey while they datamine me!! Wheeeeeee!
    Google used the web because they had too. Microsoft owned every other avenue. Don’t confuse that.
    It’s cool that Google does cool things. That doesn’t mean the community should throw up their hands and migrate to gmail/flickr/Amazon/ etc.
    ===
    Enough grumping 😉
    How about a desktop “gnome-server” for this new web2.0? Something small and personal but gives everyone the “reach” that we all want in our desktops?
    Expose EDS as a webservice through gnome-server? Gthumb+fspot have live html galleries exported automagically to gnome-server? Opensync as a webservice? All of this wrapped in javascript goodness? GPG out of the box?

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