Linux on the Desktop

To our builds: "Oh, the places you'll go!"

Maybe you remember the big push to mainstream Linux for end-users. It’s still going on. But it’s already happened.

A bit more than 20 years ago, folks were worried Microsoft was abusing its monopoly status and making sure no PC clone seller would ship with anything but Windows. We had Windows Refund Day, where people who had bought computers and installed Linux or BeOS or FreeBSD on them asked for their money back from Microsoft.

There was this warm and fuzzy sense that something better was about to come along. Either BeOS would rocket us into the future (a POSIX-compliant future), or Linux would show the business and government worlds how simple, reliable, and inexpensive open source software could be. Millions of accountants would stop using Excel and start using OpenOffice or GNUcash or something.

Turns out it was a little more tricky, and we had to wait for a couple of pieces first.


Of course, the real joke is “desktop.” Who even uses those anymore? Well, wait, what if I said “laptop”? Better, but let’s be serious here: hasn’t the majority of human-to-computer interaction moved to phones or maybe tablets?

We really just work with a facade of a program, a “front end”, that connects us to a slew of orchestrated microservices. For example, I am writing this blog on Ubuntu Linux, but who cares? I’m really writing it on my web browser, which is writing it in Substack’s editor, which talks to myriad pieces behind the scenes. My desktop computer and the OS it runs are really the least of it, right?

A macBook for every web developer

I bought my first Mac to run OS X (Jaguar). I’d used Macs for years, at school, etc. I’d managed to give up my trusty Amiga. I’d seen BeOS get edged out.

I loved using Linux, but there was this crazy idea of a solid Unix foundation with a thought-out, consistent, and attractive UI. Maybe even commercial software?

And as Linux servers more and more ran the Web, we saw how many coffee shop webdevs wanted that, too. Give me an environment close enough to the deployment server, but without the ouchie sharp edges.

For whatever reason, Linux on laptops did not establish itself in the coffeehouse ecosystem. Apple had found a very sweet spot. This became only sweeter as apps moved into containers. Now the environment was clean and isolated and easy to design for and test.

Never Forget That Unix Won

If we look at computing devices today, that ‘90s Windows monopoly is long gone.

Sure, Windows still fills office buildings. But don’t forget that iOS comes from macOS which comes from Mach and Unix. Android comes much more directly from Linux.

Windows Subsystem for Linux means Ubuntu is thriving on more and more Windows machines. (Microsoft trying to carve back a little of that macBook sweet spot. But also, them realizing the desktop OS is no longer where the power is.)

And K-12 education, even before the pandemic, has gone all-in on little disposable Linux machines called Chromebooks.

Because the real action is happening on the (Linux) servers. And a browser can be a platform.

So yeah, I love running Linux on my desktop tower. I use it for all sorts of things. It’s easy and powerful and I would recommend it to anyone. But I know where Linux on the Desktop really came true. It came true in the cloud. And on Chromebooks.