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Can the Linux desktop best the Mac desktop?


Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu Linux, wants desktop Linux to "shoot beyond the Mac." Can it?

Shuttleworth was speaking to the open-source faithful at OSCon in Portland, Ore., but I’m sure even they had their doubts.

The Linux desktop is a good, workable one. I’ll take any modern Linux desktop over Windows Vista any day of the week, and the better ones do everything that Windows XP SP3 can do and more. Beating the Mac though? That’s another matter.

Today’s Mac OS X 10.5, Leopard, is a work of the user-interface designer art. My wife recently bought a MacBook Pro, and as I’ve been migrating her data and applications from her elderly XP-powered ThinkPad, I’ve been reminded of just how smoothly integrated everything really is on a Mac. It’s like driving a top-of-the-line Mercedes sports sedan.

There’s a price though that you pay for that wonderful integration of form and function, of application and operating system, and it’s not just the price-tag: it’s all totally proprietary. Apple, and Apple alone, controls the Mac experience. Mac clone maker Psystar, lasted just long enough to show that it really could make a viable Mac clone when Apple fell on them like a ton of bricks with a cease and desist lawsuit that one attorney believes is likely to "put Psystar out of business."

For better, and for worse, the Mac, and Apple’s other top devices like the iPod and iPhone, are the epitome of proprietary design. Everything fits together; everything works, because everything is under Apple’s control. Linux has taken an entirely different course.

Linux distributions start from a common base, the Linux kernel, but then split off as they compete with each other to be the best of the best. Rather than a communism, as Bill Gates would have it, open source is all about Darwinism. It’s non-stop competition where only the best survive.

So, today, to name only some of the most popular distributions, you have a choice of openSUSE, Ubuntu, and Fedora. On top of that, you have a choice of different user-interfaces. The major ones are KDE and GNOME, but others like Enlightenment also have their supporters. And, don’t get me started on the far too many ways there are to install software in Linux.

This competition forces Linux desktops to evolve very quickly. That’s why, while Microsoft has been stumbling with its Vista failure, all of the major Linux desktops zoomed by it. Today, I can still see why Windows users would still use XP over Linux, but Vista? Please!

As fast as the Linux desktop evolves though, it’s hard for me to see it ‘catching’ up with the Mac OS. Their fundamentally different development approaches lead to quite different desktop experiences. With Linux, you tend to get more choices and more power over your desktop. Mac gives you less choice but a more consistent experience. To me, it’s like the difference between a manual and automatic transmission car.

No matter how much the Linux desktop evolves it’s not going to turn into an automatic. Even when Linux does move in that direction, as I would argue it does with the GNOME interface, it will never equal the Mac’s integration of application, operating system and hardware. To even try to equal the Mac experience, a vendor would need not just to be a Linux distributor, but a software vendor and hardware manufacturer as well.

"Can we go right past Apple in the user experience we deliver?" Shuttleworth asked his audience. I’m afraid the answer is no.

On the other hand, Linux has other virtues that the Mac can’t deliver. It’s open, it’s flexible, and it gives the user far more control over their desktop.

So, while I can’t see Linux ever equaling the Mac at what a Mac does, I can see it being its equal in capability. It’s just a matter of choice. Would you rather drive an automatic or a manual? Me, I like both, but at day’s end, I prefer driving manual transmission cars and having the final say on what happens and what doesn’t on my Linux desktop.

A version of this story first appeared in ComputerWorld.

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