Social proof and the year of the Linux desktop

Lenovo's Latest Love Letters to Linux

You might have caught Lenovo's recent run of announcements about extending Linux support to all their ThinkStations and ThinkPads [5]. It got quite a bit of coverage.

Of course this is a magnificent increase in choice for fully supported Linux PCs. It's also excellent social proof: the power of a global brand pushing a clear message through multiple channels. It is not just that many people see it; they intuitively realize many others see it too.

But where do we go with it? There is no reliable system in place for echoing this information out beyond the community of people who are already using Linux. And even Lenovo doesn't exactly help with this challenge. Their goal is selling hardware, not raising the general profile of Linux. Consequently, they say that the new support is targeted to "system administrators, AI professionals, IT engineers, and data scientists" [6] – highly technical roles – even though the potential market for ThinkPads extends far beyond this narrow range of users. Lenovo's announcement is still great news, but it falls well short of pushing desktop Linux into the mainstream. The announcement is thus a missed opportunity because there is no organization, movement, or even common understanding in place for how to project the information beyond the open source community and position the event in a way that would maximize social proof.

Where's the Leadership?

When Linus Torvalds said that fragmentation is "why the Linux desktop failed" [7], my hunch is that he was thinking like a lead developer, seeing code contributions diluted across so many projects. Fragmentation has also left nobody specifically in charge of communicating desktop Linux to a mainstream audience. There are segments of the ecosystem that engage in communication and marketing – some quite well. But these are efforts on behalf of individual projects or companies, and they are usually directed at existing desktop Linux users.

The "top of the funnel" marketing [8] – the initial awareness and interest – is a largely informal effort by independent media and word of mouth. There's a lot to like about this – there are talented communicators producing excellent content, but it is hard to see this effort producing a five- or six-figure budget for much needed things like market research and publicity. That's really more the work of an industry association.

Of course we already have the Linux Foundation, which would seem to be the organization best poised to push Linux out beyond the narrow sphere of technical users, but in recent years, the Linux Foundation has become even more focused on industry uses. A scan of the projects sponsored by the Linux Foundation shows a strong emphasis on cloud and server room technologies, along with AI, HPC, blockchain, and other industrial strength applications.

Even if you could convince them that driving desktop adoption is worthwhile, the sheer weight of competing priorities might make the effort a short-lived win. There's a glaring need for an industry body with a specific mission of bringing desktop Linux to mainstream audiences.

Commercial Forces

The conventional view is that industry as a whole is threatened by Linux and would somehow oppose more widespread adoption. That's probably quite true in places, but the IT sector has evolved in recent years, and several factors point to a need for change. Just because the major vendors don't want to lead the charge for desktop Linux doesn't mean they wouldn't benefit from it. Lenovo, for instance, like any Chinese PC manufacturer, surely worries about their reliance on a single American OS provider at a time of intensifying trade wars, so widening the Linux market is very much in their business interest.

Meanwhile, 95 percent of Steam users run an OS that increasingly pushes a competing digital distribution channel: the Windows Store. No wonder Valve has developed Proton. For these and other businesses facing disaster from the Windows monopoly, supporting desktop Linux is sensible insurance. Other Microsoft competitors aren't facing existential risk, but are well aware of the stark disadvantages of over-dependence on the Windows. Cloud services giants fall in this category.

Tier 1 hardware vendors of all nations might favor increasing Linux adoption simply because it puts pressure on the OEM price of Windows. And of course, there are many Linux businesses that directly serve the desktop market too. For some combination of these businesses, a modest budget to promote desktop Linux is loose change. Someone just needs to organize it and put energy into explaining why it is worth the investment.

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