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2002: The year Linux on the desktop died

April 29 2009

This was originally posted on my old blog

People keep talking about there soon being the "year of the Linux desktop". I've seen this prediction for at least a decade. This prediction will never become true. Indeed, Linux on the desktop died in 2002.

There are three events in 2002 that killed Linux ever having any chance of making it on the desktop:

  • Mac OS X was out and getting application support; UNIX was finally on the desktop (and it wasn't Linux)
  • Windows XP came out: Microsoft finally had an OS for end-user desktops with server-level stability
  • Loki games, a company that made games for Linux, went out of business. This was the final nail in the coffin for commercial desktop applications for Linux
Linux's big advantage in the 1990s, besides being free and open, was that it was a good deal more stable than Windows and Mac OS 9. While consumer end-user desktops had constant problems with crashes and instability, Linux was a server-class operating system and very stable.

Sure, it didn't have a very friendly user interface, but for people who took the time and effort to learn it, it was a very powerful and stable system. Indeed, in the mid-1990s, after spending an hour trying to log in to our UNIX server at work from Windows and failing, I said "there has to be a better way", and installed Slackware 96 on my computer at work. This computer became a Linux server that I used to process reports and perform other tasks; it eventually was upgraded to RedHat 4.2 (with the FVWM1 windows manager) and the server was still up after I left the company until the company was bought out. At no cost, the company I worked at had a very capable workgroup server in our office.

I was sure Linux would some day become more friendly on the desktop and people would start buying Linux applications in droves. Indeed, in part to support the Linux cause, and in part to have a nice office suite on my desktop, I bought a lot of applications for Linux. I bought commercial versions of Red Hat Linux, I bought both versions of Wordperfect that were made for Linux, I bought another office suite called "ApplixWare", I bought another spreadsheet and database for Linux, and I bought a lot of Loki games for Linux, including games I never played.

Sure, it was a cottage industry, but there was a definite market for Linux software out there.

This market died in the early 2000s. Corel bet the ship on Linux succeeding on the desktop in 1999; it didn't and Corel went down in flames as a result. With both Mac OS and Windows updated to have Linux's stability, what little market there was for commercial Linux software all but evaporated.

Wordperfect is no longer available for Linux. Corel is no longer available for Linux. Loki Games died in 2002 and I think Quake 4 was the last commercial game with a Linux port (John Carmack has talked about moving away from OpenGL, and it looks like ID Games, the last holdout for commercial Linux games [1], never made a Linux port of their latest game, Quake Live)

Applixware is still around, but in a much-reduced form; it's no longer for retail sale but exists as a "download-then-register" product. They appear to be targeting enterprise desktops (what were called "Workstations" in the 1980s and 1990s), and no longer target the end-user desktop.

There is no market for Linux desktop applications today. If you want to make money selling desktop software, Linux is not the platform to target.

So, why is there still a lot of noise about Linux on the desktop in the internet?

It's like the Amiga in the 1990s. The Amiga died in 1992 when Commodore stopped making this computer. No matter that there were still people with Amigas on their desktops, using Amigas for professional work as recently as 1997. The Amiga was dead in the marketplace: No one was making any money selling Amigas any more, and indeed, you could no longer buy a new Amiga.

People kept talking about the return of the Amiga in the 1990s, but it never happened. People keep talking about the year of the Linux desktop in the 2000s, but it is never going to happen.

[1] For years ID games were available for Linux: Doom, Quake, Quake II, Quake III, etc., but this seems to have finally stopped.