Linus Torvalds still wants Linux on Desktops

Some of the stuff Linus Torvalds said during the keynote panel discussion at LinuxCon NA 2014

Linux may be dominating the world – powering super computers, infrastructure of stock exchanges and sites like Amazon, Facebook, Google, space missions of NASA , air traffic controls or airlines and much more. In consumer space Linux, via Android, controls over 85% of the market and its fast capturing the casual laptop market through Chromebooks. In a nutshell Linux has become omnipresent in today’s world. As Jim Zemlin said during his keynote Linux is one of the greatest shared technologies in the world.

Despite this dominance and ‘god-like’ presence, the emperor penguin still has one territory to acquire – the desktop. Despite Microsoft’s repeated failure with Windows 8.x, the demise of Xp and need for backdoor free operating systems in the Snowden Era Linux on desktop has not succeeded they way its cousin Android or Chrome have succeeded.

Linus Torvalds and Greg KH at the keynote panel.
Linus Torvalds and Greg KH at the keynote panel.

When asked by Greg KH during the keynote panel discussion ‘where should we go next’, Linus said “I still want the desktop.” As we all know Linux on the Desktop is not as much about technology as it is about marketing and other factors. Just look at ChromeOS which does much less than what Kubuntu, openSUSE or Linux Mint do still Chromebooks are the best selling devices on, whereas it’s hard to find a decent Linux-preloaded system there.

Canonical tried, but then they gave up on desktop and shifted focus on mobile so today there is no big enough company which can not only bring Linux desktops to the market but also manages to get service and content providers to offer their products to Linux users. I interviewed Noa Resare who works on free software at Spotify and even he was of opinion that considering the market Spotify for Linux may never arrive. Even heavy Linux users like Google don’t offer their drive to Linux users so it is a Catch 22 situation. There are so many factors holding Linux back, but the biggest of all is the absence of a commercial vendor to drive adoption of Linux on desktop.

Linus says “I don’t believe its a kernel problem, it’s a whole infrastructure problem and I think we will get there one day.”

Linux is in good shape

During the panel there was discussion about the most annoying bugs that developers face and Linus mentioned the recent GCC compiler bug. He said the most annoying thing about it was that the bug was not in their code, it was somewhere else so while they wasted a lot of time on looking at their own code, it was also relieving to find that bug existed somewhere else.

While Linux is in good shape that doesn’t mean there are no challenges for the developers. Some of the issues that Linus is concerned about is lack of maintainers for some projects. He said that he is less worried about an unmaintained code which no one uses. His real concern is there are many projects which have only one maintainer and if that maintainer chooses to take a week of for whatever reason it becomes problematic for developers who want to push their code.

One solution to the problem, which he said many projects have started to use, is to have multiple maintainers for the same code who work together so even if one maintainer is burned out or sick others continue to job. He gave the example of x86 code-base which have multiple maintainers.

Brothers in ARMs

There is no secret that free software developers used to hate ARM, as it was such a huge mess of code-base. While asking about the situation with ARM, Greg said they have zillion trees so how is the cleaning up of that code going on?

Linus said ARM is getting much much better, but it was very frustrating initially: “When I used to do ARM merges, I wanted to shoot myself and take a few of their developers with me. He continued, “But these days ARM mares are fairy painless and I think they are much less painful for ARM people too.”

He also said that now ARM has also adopted the multiple maintainer approach and there are “at least two people who are working on ARM tree and are pushing the whole unification and they are working together.” He added that they looked much better last year and it’s an ongoing process.

Another thing that Linus wants is to shrink the kernel again. He feels that the kernel has bloated a lot lately. “I love for us to shrink again. I occasionally look at my kernel that I build for my own machine and I build a very minimal kernel because quite frankly i build kernels a lot and boot test them and if I can do that in 30 seconds instead of 2 minutes that’s all good. The kind of minimal kernels I boot used to be a few hundred kb it’s not a few hundred k anymore, let’s put it that way, so we are clearly bloating the kernel a lot for the last couple of years.”

Greg argued that they are deliberately bloating the kernel, they are simply adding the features that people wanted. Bloated kernel can be problem for low-powered or embedded devices which would want the code to be as small as possible. But, Linus points out, the problem is with the market. Developers get only those machines which runs Linux, if the machine doesn’t run Linux they don’t buy it. And the companies who have these kind of hardware tend to do their own solutions that work for them instead of using Linux. Some of these companies may like to use Linux, but when they do they use a very old version of Linux. ”

…. but most of the time they say we can’t use it because we use this really pitiful hardware platform. So these companies continue to do their own things which creates more security issues.”

Overall the kernel is in good shape and hands, it continues to get fresh blood – young developers who not only make it better by patches but also help in cleaning the code. Cleaning the code is also very important and Andy Lutomirski, one of the panelists contributed heavily to improving the code-base. Valve owes a lot to Andy because of his work Steam games run faster on Linux.

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  • Ernesto Manríquez

    The “year of the Linux Desktop” will not happen until we have Wayland. Having a display engine from 1987 versus display engines made in this century is simply too much of a handicap.

  • manmath sahu

    …’s a whole infrastructure problem and I think we will get there one day….
    Linus is right when he said it. But some community members don’t acknowledge it. And when some do, they don’t work at it. For example, why chromebooks and a gazillion android devices become so popular so soon marginalizing the competition? It’s not only the google power of money and market command, but also the cohesive development and tight integration of the overall software stack.

    It reminds me Adam Jackson of Redhat. So, I’d quote directly from the horse’s mouth:

    “If I could only have one thing this year, it would be to eliminate that meme from the collective consciousness. It is a disease. It strangles the mind and ensures you can never change anything ever because someone somewhere has OCD’d their environment exactly how they like it and how dare you change it on them you’re so mean and next time I have friends over for Buffy night you’re not invited mom he’s sitting on my side again.

    As a consumer, yes, you have lots of choices in which Linux you use. This does not mean Linux is in any sense _about_ choice, any more than because there are so many kinds of cars you can buy that cars are about choice.

    The complaints up-thread about juju and pulse are entirely valid, but the solution is not to try to deliver two things at once. If you try to deliver both at once you have to also deliver a way of switching between the two. Now you have three moving parts instead of one, which means the failure rate has gone up by a factor of _six_ (three parts, and three interactions). We have essentially already posited that we have insufficient developer effort to have 100%-complete features at ship time, so asking them to take on six times the failure rate when they’re already overburdened is just madness. Alternatively, we could say that we’re integrating features too rapidly, but you do that at the expense of goal 1, to be the showcase for the latest and greatest in free software.

    Software is hard. The way to fix it is to fix it, not sweep it under the rug.

    There is a legitimate discussion to be had about where and how we draw the line for feature inclusion, about how we increase and formalize our testing efforts, and about how we develop and deploy spike solutions for corner-case problems like the one device class that juju happens to do worse than the old stack. But the chain of logic from “Linux is about choice” to “ship everything and let the user chose how they want their sound to not work” starts with fallacy and ends with disaster.” — Adam Jackson, Redhat

  • 127wexfordroad

    Nobody wants to change. People who use Microsoft are only persuaded to change to Mac for its perceived sex appeal, and even then half of them dual boot their Mac to Windows, or barely stumble around in the OS until they are reduced to using nothing but Firefox.

    People are not going to voluntarily switch OS’s unless OEMs ship Linux, and only Linux. The eeePC proved that people could do it, until they copped out and started selling the things with Windows on them.

    People on computers are stubborn, and no amount of cajoling is going to make them WANT to switch. XP is still in use today, case in point.

    If OEMs ship Linux, then people will switch. End of story.