Is desktop Linux too fragmented to succeed?

A single version might make it easier for businesses to adopt Linux, but several factors may prevent that unification

If one desktop Linux distribution were to gain a significant lead over all the others, it could boost mainstream Linux adoption significantly. After all, desktop Linux makes a compelling replacement for Windows XP for organizations about to refresh their hardware or software, offering lower per-head costs than a move to Vista or Windows 7. But so far, the ideal Linux desktop remains a moving target.

Unlike Windows or Mac OS X, each of which is the product of a single vendor, Linux comes in many different distributions that target the desktop, and each has its own look and feel. Some are based on the Gnome desktop environment, while others use KDE, and still others let the user choose between both. Icons, color schemes, desktop backgrounds, menus, directory arrangements, control panels, and available software choices will all vary depending on which distribution is installed. We speak of Linux as if it were a single, coherent entity, but from the user's perspective, there's really no such thing.

[ See why desktop Linux should be deployed in many businesses and government agencies. | Learn what's holding desktop Linux back from competing with Windows and Mac OS X. ]

Having a single version of Linux as the de facto standard for the enterprise desktop would make training easier, increase Linux's attractiveness to individual home users, and lower barriers of entry for commercial software vendors. All of this in turn would make Linux more competitive with Windows and Mac OS X. However, "one Linux to rule them all" seems unlikely. The market is rich with competition, and neither commercial Linux vendors nor open source developers are likely to agree on a single vision.

Could one contender emerge as the desktop Linux leader?
The current darling of desktop Linux is Ubuntu, which has garnered praise for its clean, streamlined UI and attention to ease of use. Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth has made user experience a top priority for the distribution, citing Mac OS X as the target to beat. The next version of Ubuntu, he says, "will have a designer's fingerprints all over it," further cementing Ubuntu's lead in look and feel.

But there are plenty of other goals for a desktop Linux distribution beyond aesthetics. Novell, for example, has made interoperability with Windows a primary goal for its commercial SLED distribution. It endured heavy criticism for partnering with Microsoft in 2006, but as a result of that partnership, it says, SLED is easier to integrate with Windows networks and Microsoft Office than other distributions.

Elsewhere, Xandros also emphasizes Windows interoperability, but more recently it has begun offering OEM solutions for hardware manufacturers, including pared-down desktop experiences for netbooks. And Mandriva pays special attention to the needs of new users, offering wizard-based installers and effortless hardware support on a variety of PCs and laptops. Further clouding the issue, a variety of free, community-developed distributions are available -- including Debian, Fedora, and OpenSuse, among others -- for those who can't afford or choose not to use a commercial product.

The movement toward a standardized Linux
Unifying the user experiences of all of these offerings is an unrealistic goal. But some in the Linux community believe it may be possible to do the next best thing. The Linux Standard Base is an effort to unify the system internals of Linux distributions by specifying a standard directory structure and file layout. This makes it easier for software developers to create applications that install and run across a wide range of Linux distributions, whether their desktop environments look alike or not.

Ubuntu's Shuttleworth would like to go a step further. He has called for the major Linux distributions to synchronize their release schedules so that different flavors of Linux release new versions on a single, predictable timetable. That would allow the developers who produce the various software components that make up Linux distributions to set their own release deadlines to coincide with the master Linux schedule. However, none of the major players have taken Shuttleworth up on his suggestion so far.

For the time being, at least, it seems desktop Linux must remain a many-headed beast, both inside and out.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.