I have seen the future of the desktop and, in case you’ve missed any of the other times I’ve said it, it’s Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) on the cloud. There’s not going to be, for example, an old-style Windows 11. Instead, there will continue to be one Windows 10 update after another, and — coming soon now — Microsoft Cloud PC, Microsoft’s Azure-based DaaS offering.
But there’s another way of looking at desktops: There are the ones where three of the biggest companies in the world call the shots and there’s the Linux desktop.
First, of course, there’s Windows. There are two versions of it for all practical purposes: Windows 10 <fill-in-the-blank Update> and the forthcoming Cloud PC. Mind you, Microsoft keeps trying to introduce a lightweight version of Windows — see Windows RT, Windows S, and Windows 10X. And they keep failing.
It’s time to invoke baseball: Three strikes and you’re out. There will never be a successful “light” Windows.
There will, however, be a successful Cloud PC Windows. Microsoft has already figured out that Office 365, the office Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), works a lot better for their profits than Office 20xx ever will. The same will hold true for what I’m sure will eventually be renamed Windows 365.
But I digress. Sure, having your desktop run on Azure gives Microsoft even more power over your desktop, but Microsoft’s been grabbing more and more control for decades now. Remember when you could have a serious debate over what was the better Windows office suite? Sure, WordPerfect is still around, believe it or not, and some of us use LibreOffice. But I’d bet money that if you ask people tat work o recommend another office suite, the only one they could think of will be Google Docs. And that’s not even really its business name anymore, it’s Google Workspace, formerly G Suite. Know what it has in common with Office 365?
It’s also cloud-based.
Thinking of Google, it has the most successful cloud-based operating system to date: Chrome OS. Thanks to the pandemic, practically every kid in America knows about Chromebooks now. It’s not just students, though. With everyone working outside the office, Chromebook sales have surged — up a whopping 275% in the last year, according to sales data analyst Canalys. Or, as tech sales data analysis firm TrendForce puts it: “Due to the rapid growth of Chromebooks in 2020, Windows’ [notebook] market share dropped below 80% for the first time ever.”
Let me repeat that: “Ever.” This is the first time Microsoft has faced a real rival for desktop market share this century.
Chromebooks and Windows PCs are just alike in one important way: For all intents and purposes, one company, Google, in this case, controls pretty much everything. Yes, you can run Linux programs on Chromebooks. But only a handful of people, including myself, do so. For the vast majority of Chromebook users, it’s all Chrome OS, Google Docs, and other Google apps like Gmail all the time.
Finally, there’s Apple. If you think Google and Microsoft are bad about controlling desktops, you haven’t seen anything yet. For decades, Apple controlled its desktop with an iron fist. Don’t believe me? Just ask Epic Games, which is locked in the legal fight of its life, with Apple.
That particular battle is about Apple’s absolute control of the App Store. Today, Epic and everyone else who sells anything to iOS users must use Apple’s payment system and hand over 30% of sales to Apple. It’s the same on the Mac side.
In return for this control, you get…things. In theory, at least, you get better, more secure <Looking at Windows: cough> programs. Superior services <Hack, hack, glancing at Apple>. And privacy. OK, I can’t even write that with a straight face from any of these companies.
In all fairness, you do get some good programs. I don’t know anyone in the photographic or video business who doesn’t use Macs. For ease of use, you simply can’t beat Chromebooks. And, Windows, well everyone knows enough Windows to get by.
But at the end of the day, with all these platforms, their owners — not you, not your system administrator, not your head of IT — control the horizontal and the vertical and everything in between <hat tip to “The Outer Limits”>.
The exception is Linux. (I know there are other independent desktop operating systems; FreeBSD springs quickly to mind.)
The reason Linux still matters on the desktop, and always will, is that it’s the only desktop where the end-user is in control.
That’s the good news. That’s also, in a way, the bad news. There are many different ways to do things in Linux. That gives you a variety of choices, but it also means you — not Microsoft, Google or Apple — need to understand your choices and pick out the best one for you.
Some of you are no doubt saying, “Yes! And that’s how it should be.” I’m with you. But, and this is why the Linux desktop is perpetually an also-ran in the desktop wars, most people just want to get their work done. They don’t know and they certainly don’t care about the differences between deb and rpm, the Debian and Red Hat fundamental package management formats.
I and the Linux folks reading this know what I’m talking about when I say “package management.” But Joe and Jane User? They’ve already skipped that paragraph.
In other words, the Linux desktop is bedeviled by fragmentation. To quote a guy who knows a thing or two about Linux, Linus Torvalds thinks fragmentation has fouled up the Linux desktop.
True, top Linux companies — Canonical, Red Hat, and SUSE — all support Linux desktops. But they decided early on that the big money was in servers, containers, the Internet of Things, and the cloud. They haven’t given up on the desktop, but it’s far from their first priority. And now we don’t have just their desktops to consider; there are dozens, hundreds even, of Linux desktops to consider.
Personally, I think the time and trouble needed to master the Linux desktop is worth it. I use the Linux desktop every day. To be specific, I think the Linux Mint 20 operating system is the best around.
But the decision, as always, should come down to you. Do you want a smoother, easier road to the desktop, but with Big Brother always potentially looking over your shoulder? Or, do you want independence, requiring a lot more effort to get it working just right?
I won’t judge. Do what’s best for you. Personally, I use, in order of preference, Linux, Chrome OS, macOS, and Windows. Only you (or your friendly IT admin) can figure out which is best for your needs. But, before you decide, think for a few minutes that there are indeed two kinds of operating systems.
Then make your final call.
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