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Can Linux steal the desktop PC crown from Windows? Experts weigh in.

Microsoft Edge Linux
Microsoft Edge Linux (Image credit: Microsoft)

"The year of Linux" kind of, sort of comes every year, wherein a few more people give it a try, and enthusiasts continue to love it. It's an OS that's gotten better for gaming and one that's made such an imprint on Windows Central that not all of us even bother much with Windows anymore.

Heck, Germany (part of it, to be specific) is taking another stab at ditching Windows for Linux. Many tiny pieces of the global pie are abandoning Windows in favor of the freedom of Linux and the cost-cutting benefits it entails. The question is, regardless of merit, does it stand any sort of chance of eclipsing Windows' PC market share in the short term or long term?

That is the tantalizing question at the kernelled core of the great Linux debate, and it's the one we reached out to analysts to hear their thoughts on.

It's here, even if you don't see it

Ubuntu on Windows 10

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Linux can be a bit of a ghost. If you look at where it resides, desktop PCs are the tip of the iceberg. It's invisibly sifting around in the background of a great many technologies.

But while Linux may be a starting point for those in the appliance device space (say, someone cooking up a competitor to the Xbox Series X), when it comes to desktop PCs, the foreseeable future is dominated by Windows.

Gartner VP Analyst Steve Kleynhans addressed that point, elaborating on where the actual fight lies. "The biggest challenge to Windows on anything that looks like a PC is probably Chrome OS," he said, stating that Linux and Windows are not in a head-to-head fight on the PC. "Could Linux continue to grow? Yes. But it's not likely to grow as a direct competitor replacing Windows."

He acknowledged the enthusiast population, while also citing the appliance device relevancy and another subsection of Linux users out there. "There is also a large body of users using Linux, who don't realize the fact," he said. "These are when Linux is used as the embedded OS on a terminal or thin client." He qualified that remark by adding, "We don't count these as true Linux use."

However, while Linux does have its place in the world and crops up more often than people may realize, Kleynhans didn't see it as taking the business world by storm anytime soon (a space that remains a key pillar of Windows' operations). "Many enterprises are trying to move away from dealing with the technical nitty-gritty of managing a platform and as such have little interest in learning a new platform — regardless of what possible benefits it might bring," he said.

True year of Linux, some other year

Ubuntu 19.10

Source: Rich Edmonds / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Rich Edmonds / Windows Central)

Every year is a special year for Linux in some way, shape, or form, but in terms of eating Windows' lunch, that's probably not in the cards for a long time, if ever.

Forrester Senior Analyst Andrew Hewitt gave figures to further bolster the argument that Linux is a long ways off from toppling Windows. "Overall, just 1% of employees report usage of Linux on their primary laptop used for work," he said. "That's compared to 60% that still use Windows, and small numbers that use Chrome OS and macOS on a global basis. It is very unlikely that Linux will overtake Windows as the main operating system."

With that said, Hewitt did foresee diversification and growth when it came to Linux, Chrome OS, and macOS, but nothing to a degree that would signal Windows is at risk of losing its dominant market share.

"We commonly see Linux used in Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) deployments," he stated, mentioning that he'd expect growth there since "VDI has grown 2% year over year according to our 'State Of VDI, 2021' report."

In other words, Linux isn't taking the average user's PC world by storm or crowding out the best Windows laptops anytime soon, but the platform and its distros are making ripples in other sectors. Will they become waves? We won't know for a while, based on current figures.

Robert Carnevale is the News Editor for Windows Central. He's a big fan of Kinect (it lives on in his heart), Sonic the Hedgehog, and the legendary intersection of those two titans, Sonic Free Riders. He is the author of Cold War 2395. Have a useful tip? Send it to robert.carnevale@futurenet.com.

48 Comments
  • The answer is a firm "no" and it will continue to barely complete as long as there is no one true, easy-to-use, Linux distro to rule them all and as long as the hardcore Linux fanboys continue to push people away with snobbery. Competition would be nice though.
  • You tell 'em. And yeah, +1 re: Competition is cool.
  • Pardon my ignorance about linux but isn't ubuntu supposed to be really simple and easy.
  • Ubuntu is the most well known incarnation. However, even that has different spin-off versions. Linux has a problem with being fragmented. There are tons of versions you can try and, all too often, if something doesn't work the way you might expect it to in Windows or Mac, you will be told to just install another fork of Linux. It needs to be cohesive as it suffers from having "too many cooks in the kitchen". I have friends who like PopOS, Manjaro, and Mint and find them easy to use, so you might want to look that way to dip your toes into the Linux pool.
  • If desktop PC Linux remains 'free', it will never gain traction. It'll always be a hobby, hence the countless distros.
    You need a committed entity, responsible to customers that will guarantee functionality, stability, widespread support for hardware, etc. In other words, it needs to be paid for in some way.
    Right now, desktop PC Linux is really just a hobby.
  • I know, but you know how that sort of talk goes down with the more zealous fans in the Linux community. The closest I've seen to them being accepting of support from a big business is the Steam OS that is going to ship with the Steam Deck, but I don't think that is going to work out exactly how they want it to. Its primary function is pushing a service versus being a Windows competitor, imo.
  • Yes I know. The Linux community zealots are reluctant to admit that good, supported software just isn't free by definition. It can't be in a capitalist world. Sort of like the enemy -- Windows lol!
    Steam OS will just be like another RHEL. Some company takes the Linux kernel, puts support and services on it, and suddenly, it's just another commercial product, which they dread as if it's a crime to charge for quality.
  • Ubuntu isn’t even number 1 on distrowatch.
  • It's the one most known by the average Joe. Lenovo still ships devices with the option to have it come with Ubuntu.
  • Distrowatch ranks are based on clicks on that site. So the number one distro there is the one that happens to be clicked on the most. When a distro makes a big announcement or has a new release, it tends to jump up the rankings a little. It's not indicative of real world use.
  • It's a hobby, and you know? When you start using it, you get sucked in the hobby. It's basically some sort of pyramid scheme.
  • Well said. Even developers wouldn't build a Linux distro for free. They will either ask for donation or sell the distro as a media installation.
  • They actually spend their own time and money developing and distributing. Servers cost money and it can get expensive when users are downloading 2-4 GB ISOs. Donations help cover those costs.
  • Back in the late 90s/early 2000s there was exactly that push to get a Linux distribution out there from a big, trusted commercial entity, properly supported, etc. Unfortunately, at the time the entity in question was Corel ;-) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corel_Linux
  • That's one thing that always bugs me when it comes to Linux distro. There are just way too many choices with multiple variations. My experience when using a DEB-based distro like Linux Mint is not be the same as using RPM-based distro like Manjaro, especially when it comes to apps or softwares.
  • They're not forks. "Linux" is the kernel (developed at kernel.org), and all the distributions use the Linux kernel. Most of them use GNU libc and userland software, and so they're referred to as "GNU/Linux". There is indeed a GNU kernel; it's a microkernel (called "Hurd") that's been under intermittent development for about 30 years. I don't think anyone other than hobbyists and research institutions use it. There is only one Linux kernel; it's developed at kernel.org. What you're referring to are Linux distributions. There is no imperative for it to be anything other than whatever people feel like doing with it. That's kinda the whole point. It isn't a product in the conventional commercial sense.
  • That's the best thing about Linux but also the biggest thing holding it back. If people are serious about it competing with Windows or just being a good alternative, it needs more cohesion instead of more and more distros being added. And if cohesion is something abhorrent to Linux advocates, then these discussions about taking on Windows or being taken seriously as a viable alternative are destined to go nowhere, unfortunately.
  • I always chuckle when I see headlines like "Company X ditches Windows for Linux...", as if it's some magical cost-saving measure. What a joke. The real problem is that there is truly nothing like non-trivial 'free' software. It doesn't exist. Someone, somewhere is paying the bills, even if it's not obvious on the surface.
    High quality complex software needs deep skills and time to develop and maintain, Linux included. Someone has to support the highly skilled people that build this in some way. These are not trivial skills you acquire overnight. You'll be surprised how many Linux developers are supported by Microsoft, Google, Intel etc. Not until there's a purely business-driven (i.e. money-driven) desktop PC Linux distro, it's not going anywhere. It'll remain a hobbyist project.
    Linux needs to abandon the myth that good software is free.
  • You (and many others) confuse "free as in beer" with "free as in speech". Linux and other open-source software is the latter ... and *sometimes* the former. And hobbyist project? A ridiculously large amount of the internet runs on Linux. As does a ridiculously large number of the world's mobile phones. You might look down your nose at it, but Linux is far from a hobbyist project these days. Is it going to become popular on the desktop though? There's a *lot* that would have to happen before Linux beats Windows or macOS on the desktop... so, not anytime soon.
  • Linux is free as long as your time is worth nothing
  • "Linux Distro to rule them all" sounds like the beginning of a flame war...🤣
  • Lol, it was the clearest way to make the point. I half expected some sort of Linux avenging angel to descend and smite me for posting that. 😜
  • I have been experimenting with Linux for the past few years, as I grow increasingly concerned that Apple, Google and Microsoft seem to want to vacuum from my devices any and all personal information they can send back to their motherships 24/7.
    I have grown very fond of Manjaro Linux, an Arch-based distro that is very easy to install and use, that is a rolling release with frequent updates that almost never require a reboot after completing the updates.
    I have Manjaro dual-booting on all my Windows desktops and laptops, and I can see me moving to Manjaro as my primary OS, first on my PC's that will never qualify for Windows 11, and probably later for virtually all my computers. I love that Linux is not controlled by some mega-corporation that views me as their product to sell to data brokers, so somebody can profit off the use of my personal data without my informed consent.
    Will I totally give up Windows? Probably not totally, as there are some applications that may not every be ported to Linux, like TurboTax. But it is increasingly likely that Linux will be my first boot option, with Windows present only for use with particular applications.
  • Your sentiment is a popular one. I've seen a lot of non-power users educating themselves on Linux and turning to it solely for the privacy benefits.
  • I like to use Linux occasionally for casual use but I need to switch back to windows to get things done. I write apps using .net and visual studio. I was about to jump ship onto visual studio code but the 64 bit support in latest visual studio renewed my interest in it. Other than that I want Windows for gaming (I know Linux can do it too but gamepass forces me to use windows).
  • Doesn't matter. As long as there are viable options it doesn't matter which OS is dominant. Windows, Linux, Chrome OS, and OS X are all viable options. A small percentage of users will be stuck on one of those, most likely Windows, simply because they use an app that is exclusive to that OS. But that percentage of users shrinks every year. The bigger issue is simply inertia, long time Windows users need a good reason to switch. And minor but annoying changes to the UI generally aren't a good enough reason. People don't use computers to run an OS, they use computers to run apps. And as long as their OS runs the apps they want and are used to, they aren't going to change their OS.
  • "The year of Linux Desktop" is a running joke and it will continue being one.
  • Hahaha. I came to post the same thing. It’s a meme nobody in their right mind would post as an honest suggestion.
  • Memes often make the best discussion starters.
  • Applications rule the desktop, and Windows runs the applications that people know and use on their computers. Microsoft has the deals with computer manufacturers that put Windows on their computers. Linux distros will start taking over the desktop if and when people can choose what distro they want when they order/buy their new computers. Somewhere over the rainbow.... (so, not on the horizon but somewhere beyond it... or, maybe not even in your lifetime).
  • Linux distros need to become usable first.
  • "Overall, just 1% of employees report usage of Linux on their primary laptop used for work," he said. "That's compared to 60% that still use Windows, and small numbers that use Chrome OS and macOS on a global basis.“ I don’t think 39% is a small number. Plus, it is growing. I remember when Linux was 1%, Windows was 95% and Mac was 4%. That was 20 years ago. Those numbers are VERY different today. Windows is around 62%, Mac is about 28%, Chrome is around 8% and Linux is about 2%. These are U.S. stats. So Linux is still nowhere after 20+ years of “The year of Linux”. 🙄 When MS announces Office for Linux, you will know that Windows is done. But the Linux numbers above will have to drastically change for that to happen. Also, the PC desktop is not quite the “crown” that it used to be. These days, it has all the luster of a DVD player. Both have their uses, but let’s be honest. Both are antiques at this point.
  • The worldwide figures are 74% Windows, 15% OS X, 2.2% Linux and 2.1% Chrome OS with 6.7% unknown (???). So Linux has a long way to go. But... so does Chrome. And OSX.
  • The point is, the numbers ARE changing. Windows is going down while everyone else is going up. Which explains why MS is allowing Linux and Android apps onto Windows. They know what is coming. However, allowing your competitor’s apps on your OS is OK for the short term, but is a long term disaster. Remember the lesson of OS/2. Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
  • Windows had OS/2 and Posix subsystems ~25 years ago. Did it change anything? No.
  • 100% no they can't. But they should still try. Improvements are welcome.
  • I used to be in the Linux bandwagon before I started using Windows 10 since the Anniversary Update to this day. Would I ever go back to Linux as my primary OS? No, not even slightly. Linux does works best for open-source software development and 24/7/365 servers (Microsoft Azure immediately springs to mind), but the sheer fragmentation of distro and file package wouldn't win the average consumers' heart.
  • Azure runs on Windows Server with Hyper-V
  • Lol, No. Next question.
  • "What inspired the name 'quek9' and its associated picture?"
  • Linux is great for certain tasks and I always keep a bootable USB drive available when I need to tackle things I can't do on Windows. But these are, for me, very specific and "adminy" type things. Windows is still needed for for productivity tasks, for me at least.
  • You forgot the quotes around "experts". I'm not saying I expect Linux to take over the desktop anytime soon ... but as soon as I see titles like "Gartner VP Analyst" and "Forrester Senior Analyst", I'm pretty much going to take anything they say with a big grain of salt. These are the same sort of people that were commenting (back in the late 90s/early 2000s) on how open-source-based companies like RedHat were doomed to fail.
  • If a distro ever success at being a primary desktop OS, Microsoft will be the developer .
  • Most of these comments sound like they came from people who have never actually used Linux or if they did, it was 20 years ago. While most people in the Linux community remain hopeful they there will eventually be a Year of Linux Desktop, they know that it's not realistic. The masses won't suddenly install Linux on their desktops and laptops. Most Windows users will continue to run outdated and insecure versions of Windows before they try something unfamiliar. There will always be zealots. There are Windows zealots who believe it's the best OS no matter what. So yes Linux has those types too. People who think Linux should be strictly command lines and compiling. The majority don't feel that way and many are pragmatic about software now. Free and open source is preferred for philosophical and security reasons but they will also run proprietary software to get things done.
  • The problem with Linux is the fragmentation. It's great for an educated computer user who can find that one little distro that has just the right bells and whistles for his particular desires. It's not so great when it's presented to an old grandma who is terrified of software updates because they *might* move an icon or two. And as one working tech support, I can tell you there are many, many, many such users out there. In a weird way I prefer Linux like it is: Free of Big Tech influence, even if used by it. When I think of Linux going mainstream, I think of Android, and where Google ultimately went with it. And while every android device I've ever owned gets the google crap stripped from it immediately, I'd rather Linux stay free of the big tech influence that would be needed to make it into genuine competition for Windows.
  • The answer is: no way. The code quality is atrocious, there is no stable API, compatibility is nonexisent, HW support is inferior. Plus, it pulls architectural problems from Unix.
    For business, it's not an options since there are no ways of remote management
  • There is a lot of good points in this. While steam deck and proton and now epic's heroic game launcher are definitely helping gaming on Linux, for the average user, they want it to work like windows. The funny thing is it still is improving. Flatpak is/should become the cross distro repository (Ubuntu is a holdout). Flatpak is a great incentive for companies to put software out on Linux, as it's a one stop location and distro's already are adapting in such a way. With what Microsoft has been doing and the additions the have been requesting to the Linux Kernel in regards to Direct X, I wouldn't be surprised if in 5 years a Microsoft store app for Linux gets put out on Flatpak.
  • I've been using Linux daily on my server & a number of devices for years, and though I like competition because it means better software for the customers, I wouldn't really want Linux to be an 'easy to use' OS for people who don't understand or care about tech. If everything becomes like that then nerds like me won't have any software/hardware where we can geek out without the typical restrictions. I need versatile software like Linux to survive, Windows/macOS is too boring and simple