What Everyone Gets Wrong About The Desktop Linux Adoption Problem

Photo by Ruthson Zimmerman on Unsplash

Imagine your friend was assembling the ultimate outfit. He’s rocking a handmade Italian suit in the finest cashmere, bespoke shirts, silk tie and custom kicks.

Even his socks, well, they blow your socks off.

Having spent up big, he has to save elsewhere; he doesn’t wear it anywhere special. Just around the house. Sometimes someone visits and he gets mad props and high fives.

It grates at him that this never amounts to more. It wasn’t just the $$$. It was all that time spent being measured and prodded, all the careful picking and choosing.

Even the monogrammed belt buckle did nothing.

He stands in front of the mirror. What has he not done yet?

Is it time to up his jewellery game?

A hat? A coat? A cane?

An original pair of Bootsy Collins sunglasses from 1974?

You’d Be Shouting At Him To Stop This Immediately

Obviously, the problem isn’t the outfit. It’s that nobody ever sees it.

Instead of adding a gold-rimmed monocle, he needs to wear this somewhere. Ideally, a party, an event… even the supermarket would be something.

But This Isn’t A Person

It’s Desktop Linux. It does this all the time.

Whenever Linux folks gather to discuss the adoption problem, it’s all about looking in the mirror.

How good are the drivers? How many games can you play? What work can it do? How easily? Why won’t my printer just work? Is there too much elitism and toxicity in the community? Is it too hard to pick a distro?

There is barely a murmur about the larger, more fundamental issue: beyond the Linux bubble, nobody knows jack about any of this. They can’t see any of it.

Try Talking to Mac and Windows Users

You know what’s totally crazy? We have no published data on how Mac and Windows users view desktop Linux.

In the meantime, I’ve come up with my own way to look at it. It’s easy; you can try it too.

I just tell people: “You should switch to Linux” — giving no reasons or supporting arguments. I happily answer questions but I don’t push anything. It’s not about planting new ideas but probing what’s already there.

As a sales pitch, this is even worse than it sounds. In two years, I believe only one guy went and tried it.

What you hear in reply though is quite revealing.

What You’ll Find

The first thing you will be struck by is how many folks have nothing to say about it.“That’s about computers, right?”

When they can say something, it’s feelings and attitudes rather than anything specific to the software. “It sounds really advanced, I just need something basic.”

How about the common worry that desktop Linux’s fragmentation is too confusing? I’ve thought this too, but I’ll be damned if I can actually find it in the wild.

Overwhelmingly, folks can’t name any distros or desktop environments at all.

It’s as hard to find anyone with a view shaped by actual use of the software in recent years. That’s true even for folks who love computers, even for many tech pros who use Linux servers all the time.

What This Means

This audience is as disconnected as anyone can be from the factual realities of the software and the community.

That’s an inch-high ceiling on the growth you could drive by further improving those realities. They’re too disengaged to notice.

You Can See This Already

Nobody who follows such things could deny how dramatically Linux gaming has evolved since 2018. But look at how the share of Steam users changed in this time.

This night-and-day difference has driven a growth so feeble, it’s difficult to separate from statistical noise. Linux isn’t even a serious threat to the Mac in this space. Crazy.

It makes a bit more sense though, when you speak with you friends who game on Windows. This has all passed them by. “What’s Proton?”.

Valve Proton is basically invisible on major tech news publications like The Verge

Little wonder too. For all that it’s a hugely newsworthy story, technology mass media has barely touched it.

Does This Mean It’s All Hopeless?

Well, maybe. It hinges on this:

Are there enough movers, shakers and opinion makers willing to explore perspectives that (in public at least) have been totally absent in the adoption conversation?

To see the critical importance of awareness, visibility, reputation, branding, media presence, consumer behaviour, cognitive biases and such — what marketers call “top of the funnel?”

These aren’t mere details. They dominate over everything else you might try.

They also don’t just sort themselves out the moment the code is good enough. If it worked like that, you’d see it already.

I’m optimistic that enough of the right folks have it in them to start looking at it this way. But what if I’m wrong? Expect to see more of the same.

The world’s suavest desktop computing platform will stand in front of the mirror, all alone, wondering what to wear next to turn this all around.

James Mawson is a freelance copywriter and a keen Linux user who just ate too much Chinese food.

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