More and more of the Linux ecosystem (PC hardware vendor, phone hardware vendor, search engine giant and more recently a well known Linux distro, Ubuntu) uses Linux as an embedded system for the desktop. Some examples to illustrate this trend :
- Asus Express gate embed Linux in the motherboard. You can have, in a few seconds, a browser, skype, etc.
- Google Chrome OS : not yet released but it is define as the Web OS with a minimalist/zen approach (like an OS based on Chrome, the browser)
- Mobile platform : you'll have plenty to choose. ARM based : Symbian, Meego, Android, etc.
- Last but not least, Canonical announce "Unity", a minimal/Zen OS that will be available to OEM but can be nonetheless deployed on Ubuntu Lucid and later.
Major desktop environment (Gnome, KDE) : things of the past ?
One interesting Linux specificity is the fragmentation of the windows manager market. No other "mainstream" operating system has such a complexity : the window manager is unique and completely integrated (from kernel to applications) into the Operating system. Thanks to the XFree standardization, Linux is more complex : several window managers exist and have to co-exist.
However, on this level, things are changing rapidly :
- Collaboration between Gnome, KDE and XFCE (and others) is accomplished with the Freedesktop project. The project goals are to define common tools (like X.org), sub-systems (Dbus, etc.), API to ease integration and interoperability of the different window manager.
- Zen-ification : Simple is beautiful. Minimalist systems set the trend. Clunky interfaces tends to disappear and are flagged as bad design. Esthetic and ergonomic are the two main change drivers. Simplicity is especially important in order to "cross the chasm" and reach the general public.
- Cloud computing : Browsers are the key to the world these days. An interesting point to notice is that none of the desktop environment are relevant in the browser war : they use/integrate a major browser based on user choices (OK. they provide a browser but ... those browsers do no exist on the larger scale of the Internet!).
Negative impacts for the (Linux) desktop
- With the cloud, more and more users will be completely satisfied with a browser. As a consequence, users are more likely to care about their browser and the associated information (bookmark, session, password, cookies, etc.) than about their desktop. Major browsers offers a form of cloud synchronization : Mozilla Weave and Chrome Sync (with a google account ... of course) are leading the pack here. Those tools contribute to free the user from the desktop : everything can reside in the cloud.
- Even if a desktop is less and less relevant, migration from 100% local applications (PC) to a 100% cloud will take time. During this time, a desktop is still needed but this is an end-of life situation for this product line. The fact that major players roll out their own desktop environment is a sign that current desktop environment do not meet the needs of the future. Instead of improving the current ones, major organization decided to ... create their own. Asus with Express Gate, google with Android and soon Chrome OS and, more recently, Canonical with Unity.
- The direct consequence is a form of "commoditization" of the different desktop environments : they all look alike and most "regular" users don't really care. The differentiation factor is small/difficult to point out : only style, look and feel is experienced by the user after all !
- Linux everywhere : after the servers, here come some form of "desktop". The platform is now very popular and we can see convergence between mobile phones, netbook, mobile internet device, etc.
- Hardware support ... will become better and better on the "desktop". As more and more hardware manufacturers provide an embedded Linux, hardware support will become a non-issue. Most components are standard and this will lead to a well supported platform for the desktop.
The value is shifting from desktop environment and desktop applications to browser and cloud applications. The direct consequence is that the Linux desktop environments should unite and work more closely together in order to address this need.
This will not be an easy task as lot of flame-wars and ego-wars will have to be resolved : the feud between the different windows manager is long-lasting and not really decreasing. Key projects like Freedesktop are very important in this regard.
Major players created their own "non-desktop environment" to provide a zen-minimal environment that contain a browser and some additional technologies (video-conferencing, etc.). Those players decisions should be a serious wake-up call for the window managers : a major hardware manufacturer, google, an open-source friendly distribution editor (Canonical with the recent Unity announce) decided to create their own "desktop" environment. Those products will be delivered to millions of users...
At a certain level, one can say that the battle is already lost : the current desktop environments can not really fight this war as they don't own the key technology : the browser. As a consequence, the risk, for them (Gnome, KDE, etc.) is to be a tool that will launch a browser. A (relatively) simple tool that can be easily changed with almost no user impact...