Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Year of the Linux Desktop - on your phone

Sean Michael Kerner recently wrote in eWeek about Linus Torvalds at LinuxCon. In a panel discussion, the moderator asked where Linus thinks Linux should go next. Linus's answer: "I still want the desktop."

In free software circles, we have been looking forward to the Year of the Linux Desktop since … well, forever. At home, I have used Linux as my desktop since around 1993, and I went full-time with Linux at home around 1998 (prior to this, my computer was dual-boot with Windows, to play games). At work, since 2002 I've been fortunate enough to run Linux full-time.

In discussing the changing landscape of desktop support, I've often said that the laptop and desktop will change dramatically over the next few years. That isn't really a novel concept; many industry analysts have predicted the same. In one vision of the future, the tablet and phone will merge with the laptop and desktop, providing a truly portable system. I believe that is the next step.

I've been thinking about the future of the desktop, and specifically the convergence of mobile devices and laptops. Some vendors have experimented in this space, with mixed success. It seems a matter of time until someone strikes the right balance, and this new device becomes the next "must-have" technology that displaces even the iPad.

I used to believe Apple would be the first to find the "right recipe" in merging mobile devices with the traditional desktop. They have the "right" mix of customer base, brand loyalty, and the engineering to do something truly remarkable in this space. But since Tim Cook became CEO, I also see Apple as currently less engaged in driving innovation, instead focusing on iterating products.

I think GNOME is in a good place to merge mobile and desktop—and with GNOME, I believe we will finally see a free desktop as the dominant platform. Here's my vision:

Most modern applications run in the Cloud (think Gmail) and very few applications actually need local computing power to run. Consider what programs you use everyday; I'd bet most of your time is spent in a web browser, and probably less than 25% using a traditional locally-run application. Perhaps "power" users are the only people who need to run big applications like GIMP that require huge amounts of RAM and CPU. The rest of us mostly need a device that connects us to the Internet using a keyboard and mouse to do our work via a web browser.

So, imaging doing your work from a laptop-like device, but the keyboard and display are only "slaves" to your mobile phone. This laptop-like device is effectively a wireless KVM. Pair your phone wirelessly with the "KVM" and your phone becomes your computer. You're still running all your apps on the phone, but the mouse & keyboard input and audio & video output goes through the "KVM." Disconnect the phone, or just wander out of range, and your data and apps go with you. Your laptop is essentially "in your pocket, on your phone." Reconnect the phone to the same or another "KVM" to bring up your apps right where you left them. You can pair your phone to multiple "KVMs" (think "home" and "office") but you can only connect to one at a time.

The magic of the "KVM" is in how the phone manages the display. In "phone" mode, the phone uses a traditional touch display. Connected to a "KVM," the phone's interface should adapt to suit a keyboard & mouse setup. Apps (web browser, music player, etc) should use an API that recognizes a "desktop" connection and changes their interface to one with the familiar GNOME top bar when connected to a "KVM."

GNOME is capable of making this merger between the phone an desktop. The look-and-feel of GNOME is similar to both phones and desktops; GNOME has chosen a cautious middle ground.

Here's looking forward to The Year of the Linux Desktop, with GNOME!
screenshot: mine; phone mockup: Fritz Franke

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