Why open source will never rule the desktop and why it doesn't have to

open-sourceOpen source software is our era’s version of the French scientific salon. In the 18th and 19th centuries, young men (mostly men) would gather at the feet of elder scientists to learn the truth of the day. In Revolutionary France it was philosophy and natural science they studied and in the open source forums of the past decades it was discussions of the finer points of kernels, interrupts, and elegant coding. Purveyors of open source software have gone on to create an international network of crack programmers who all bear the same battle scars and have reveled in the same successes.

But they always want more. They want the desktop. Not content to run the plumbing of the Internet and to control the firmware on almost every scientific device in the world, open source proponents believe it is their birthright to supplant Windows on the desktop or, barring that, at least gain mind share in the average home computer.

They never will. Ubuntu is lovely. KDE is great. Debian is the bomb. Even OS X is pretty hot stuff. But none of them will ever take the desktop. That’s because the desktop is dying and they have already taken the second – soon-to-be central screen – the cellphone and that’s more than enough. Open source is now mobile.

Unfortunately, open source purists won’t like how their handiwork will be storming the world. First, there’s Android. It will be the dominant smartphone OS by the middle of next decade. It is stable, attractively priced (free), and easy to pour into any mobile mold. Android of late has been splintering and it will be interesting to see how the different UI overlays and even different compiled libraries will evolve over time but once China builds out their Ophone platform, essentially a Chinese branch of Android, expect a huge change in the smart- and feature-phone market. But it’s still corporate, right?

Add Chrome OS to this picture and you essentially have the gamut of form factors covered. But Chrome doesn’t belong on desktops and, thanks to netbooks, it would have to stay there. A free OS from Google is much more enticing to a certain audience, once they’ve been convinced of the device’s quality, than a Microsoft Taxed copy of Windows. So even if its corporate software, it doesn’t matter. It’s still open source.

Open source advocates, like old Nirvana fans, especially won’t like the selling out of free software concepts when it comes to the marketing in app and media stores. Everyone a around “open source” concepts including Palm saying they’re opening up their Apps Store in odd ways and Symbian is paying lip service to open while taking its own sweet time. Android will eclipse and potentially destroy these efforts, and, like die-hard fans seeing Kurt and Krist on MTV, this causes some open source advocates to tremble with rage, point one quivering finger, and mouth “Sell out.” Most of this is marketing bluster but, in fact, it is the only way these folks see of gaining traction. Who runs these companies? Old Linux hackers. They know the best way to get people to buy drinks is to offer free wings.

But fear not. All those decades of kernel hacking are not for nought. Open source has taught entire generations that anything is possible with a little code. These new developers understand the innate elegance of UIs, the value of user experience tweaks, and the tinkerers drive to constantly improve. They will beat Microsoft, at least on the mobile front, and by the time anyone notices they’ll own the majority of the small screens in the world.

They’ll never rule the desktop, but they can rule the real estate around the desktop, a greater prize indeed.