Choosing a desktop platform usually involves the choice between Windows or Macintosh. There are a few factors which people consider when they are choosing a desktop platform. In no particular order, people want application compatibility, stability, security, performance, and ease of use.
When we look at desktop market share, we can see the following (as of statistics reported in October of 2008): Windows boasts the lead with 91% market share, down 5% from March of 2003. Mac holds 6% market share, an increase of 4% from March, 2003. Finally, Linux has doubled its market share since 2003 with a current 4%. While the Windows operating system does seem to be losing ground, it is Apple that must be credited with the loss. While the Linux market share has improved, it is still obviously not a major contender.
What is required of Linux to compete, as Apple has with the Windows operating system? Certainly, as is this case with any market, a product must offer either something different or a more optimal way of doing the same. It seems that Linux is in a difficult position here because what makes it so different, and what it offers, seem to be things which would not be held as important by the majority of the user base.
Linux (or more specifically, free software) allows one to freely manipulate their software and even the operating system. This is one huge perk it has over the competition, but the perk provides functionality that is only desired by a comparative few. The average user does not know programming languages, nor have the time to code a program. This is one of the perks of Linux which unfortunately, is not a perk at all when contrasted with the intended user base.
Linux advocates will tout that Linux offers a more secure work environment than Windows, but there is already an alternative that exists that boasts such. Macintosh has no doubt made many of its sales to users who were seeking escape from the perceived malware and virus infested world of Windows. If given a choice, I would wager that people choose Macintosh over Linux and Windows in regards to security, not necessarily to imply that Macintosh is more secure than Linux, but there are factors which are leading people to choose alternatives over Linux in areas where Linux may offer the most!
Application compatibility is a huge issue for people deciding which operating system to use. Windows is obviously king in this area as the wealth of applications on Mac and Linux do not come close. This is not to imply that Linux does not have many applications, it does, and most offer the same functionality as their alternatives (and they are free!) but still this is not enough to urge the migration of users from the two leading platforms, to the present day underdog.
Performance is an area which Linux can make some headway, but the majority of performance claims are made in comparison to Windows on old machines. Linux definitely can act as life support system for an otherwise deceased set of hardware, but with the falling prices of consumer computers there is no reason to use the legacy type. It is suspected that people will take a knock in performance for what is perceived to be a leap in ease-of-use.
Is Linux desktop ready? This question is asked numerous times every year and I think we are finally at a place where we can say boldly, yes it is! But desktop ready means nothing if people won't adapt the platform!
Distributions have made the previously looming task of setting up and using a Linux system a breeze. Ubuntu has made great leaps in this department, with many other distros following suit. Using Ubuntu, I was able to use the platform for a great number of months without needing to drop to the command line. I would out of habit, but was never at any point required to do so.
What is needed from the Linux community is an advertising push. We have seen the effects of good advertising on the part of Apple, and it is high time to see the same from the Linux community. Novell or Ubuntu by means of Mark Shuttleworth must step up and finance an advertising campaign that serves a few purposes. To be honest, they have started campaigning (and IBM in the past) but nothing that is on the level of what Apple did with Macintosh. The campaign will get the name of Linux out there, a great number of computer users still do not know what Linux is, and have a puzzled look whenever Open Source Software is mentioned. It must show that Linux is just as good as the other platforms in some areas, and better in others. If enough excitement can be generated from this seemingly 'new and free contender to the desktop market', we might see more demand. With more demand comes more possibilities.
It will take a lot of torque to shift the view of an alternative to Windows being Macintosh, to being Linux. This is where Linux must arise as not another alternative, but a pioneer in a different way of computing. This task will not be easy in 2009 with Windows 7 and Snow Leopard scheduled for release, but there is still the possibility that with some key advertising and a few visionary members of the community working to improve application compatibility (or with advertising that motivates some to switch applications completely), Linux might slowly begin to crawl out of its dark corner and have a place in the consumer world.
As it stands right now, on this the beginning of the year 2009, Linux has the following advantages: it's open-source and it's free. Linux must add to this list, while at the same time stop playing catch-up with the other platform and move in an entirely new revolutionary direction. Which direction that may be, I am not sure. Though if I was, the direction would not be that revolutionary.