Is It Time For Desktop Linux To Focus On Niche Applications And Stop Obsessing About Flashy GUIs?

I decided to write this article after reading about Ubuntu’s recent demonstration showing the use of a smart phone running Ubuntu as a desktop computer.

I currently work in Edinburgh which is hundreds of miles away from my home in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. During the week I stay in a hotel but on a Friday night I catch a train back up north.

Whilst on the train I do many of the tasks that need to be done each week. Recently though I have been using my phone rather than my laptop to perform these tasks and there are few tasks that really require me using a computer at home (or on the train).

Last Friday I managed to fill in a timesheet, raise an invoice, pay monthly salaries, add money to my son’s school lunch card, book the following week’s train tickets and book a hotel. I achieved all these tasks in the space of about 25 minutes.

Had I tried doing this on a laptop running Windows 10 it would still have been installing the updates.

On the journey home I had a good think about what I really need a computer for and what other people really need computers for and I wonder whether we spend too much time going wow about things we don’t really need to focus on.

There are of course certain tasks that either can’t be done on a phone due to it’s size or it would be too fiddly and not a good experience.

Here are a list of things I still use my laptop for at home and to be honest there aren’t many of them.


  1. Writing letters
  2. Writing articles for this site and
  3. Writing scripts and small programs for the Raspberry PI
That is it. My whole home desktop computing needs can be achieved with a web browser and a word processor. To be honest I also need a spreadsheet package as well.

So this gets me thinking about other people. What sort of tasks do you really need a laptop or desktop computer for?

Writers will need at the very least a word processor and there are other tools writers use for the creation of eBooks. These tools are specific to the niche of writing eBooks.

Some people like to create videos or it may be part of their job. Specialist video recording and editing software is therefore required. Again these tools are specific to a niche.

Graphic designers need image editing packages, software developers need compilers, IDEs and other tools.

When it comes down to it though all the tools people really need to use on their computer are specific to a particular niche.

The question therefore has to be asked why we spend so much time worrying about which desktop environment is the best?

At the end of the day as computer users we need to be able to run our specific niche applications, be able to navigate around the file system and be able to organise the files on our computers. We also need our hardware to work.

Does it matter whether we have a simple interface similar to the one provided by LXDE or a whizzy desktop environment like KDE Plasma or GNOME.

Surely if you are clever enough to use whatever niche application it is you really need to run on a computer you are clever enough to click on a menu and navigate to the application required.

What we really don’t need on a desktop computer are tools like Cortana. That isn’t to say that Cortana and OK Google don’t have a purpose but surely that purpose is more useful on a tablet or mobile phone than on a computer with a perfectly serviceable keyboard and mouse.


Have any of you really used Cortana or OK Google when sat in the comfort of your living room or home office? Don’t you feel a bit silly saying “OK Google Run Chrome” when you could just as easily click an icon on a panel?


On a phone Cortana and OK Google are very good. For instance when you are looking for directions it is much easier to say “OK Google give me directions from Edinburgh to Haymarket” than it is to launch the maps application and try and type it into a tiny window using oversized thumbs.

Moving on then lets look at the other applications we appear to be obsessed with when describing how good our operating systems are.

For instance far too much effort is spent talking about audio players, video players and mail clients.

Do people really switch on their computer to listen to music? If I happen to be working on my computer I might on the oddest of occasions choose to play a track from my library but to be honest I am far more likely to stream music from my phone or portable MP3 player to bluetooth speakers.

I’m not suggesting we omit audio players from our operating system. I’m suggesting we are focusing lots of time on something that already seems to work well enough. Does Rhythmbox really need many more features?

The same can be said for video players. VLC works. It doesn’t need any more features. To be honest I am more likely to watch online videos via Youtube and other sources than a dedicated media player. I don’t even really use a computer to watch videos. I either use my phone, cast the video from phone to Google Chromecast or on the odd occasion I use a tablet.


Email clients are a waste of time now. I never use them. My email is on my phone and if I need to type something long then I will use the web interface.


When you hear people complaining about Linux they are usually complaining about lack of good image editing software and lack of decent video editing software and lack of good IDEs etc.

Some of this is down to a learning curve because I’m sure some of you will point out GIMP and Eclipse.

More and more of our life is going to be spent on smaller devices such as phones and so developers would be far better spending their time creating decent web applications and mobile phone applications.

If you are going to develop for the desktop operating system then you are better focusing on applications that people really need for the desktop.

Kudos to the Ubuntu developers. The convergence looks really good.


  1. I guess this post is about redundancy, as much as modus operandi.

    For the sake of existential sales, we're continually bombarded with OEMs pushing their latest, fastest, most capable *whatever*, whilst the hardware we're using is perfectly capable to do most of the stuff we need to do. I guess this is the Netbook/Chromebook argument. We don't need mega-tech for most stuff : We need the right tech for the job in hand.

    But also we're at some point of peak-app, where coders are desperately trying to incorporate features to attract customers. How many apps doing messaging/music/*whatever* do we need? Is there no definitive app for anything? I guess choice is good, but the Open Source solution of building on what's already done seems much more efficient to me.

    But also: people use things in different ways. Some people like vinyl, others MP3, still others CDs or big data files. Some stream movies, others still use DVDs or MP4. Many use a variety on a number of different devices… Others might pair a bluetooth keyboard on the train and write that letter or blog post, or even dictate into their smartphone using a word recognition app.

    For all this complication, I think Canonical's convergence of code is really powerful. And transforming devices; really exciting.

  2. Strangely enough, I recently switched from web-based to email client.
    Another reason is that some web sites have limited functionality in web version/app. Even if "Desktop version" requested, the navigation there is still easier with a mouse rather than a finger.
    And last but not least, typing with a physical keyboard is way faster and convenient for me.
    Am I too old?

  3. I've read a lot of your stuff and it's generally worth the effort. I wish whoever wrote the title hadn't made it look like several articles recently published that are essentially clickbait. "I didn't say I'm against [whatever], I just took a whole page to ask a question. Yeah, it's just a question. I didn't say I'm advocating anything, just asking a question."

  4. Amen. There are a lot of crap applications for doing these niche tasks. Like Audacity. I love Audacity and all it's rough edges. But it is no Adobe Soundbooth. I've used OpenShot, good enough for me piece together something for work. But lets be honest, it's no Adobe Final Cut or After Effects. Gimp is wonderfully powerful and wonderfully confusing. And it comes close to being Adobe Photo Shop, but if you've ever used it you know how much work it takes to get it to that level. And lastly there is Libre/Open office. Libre office looks like office 2003 and has about the functionality of it. Can we please dump some effort on to that project to get it up to par with MS office? I Agree with you whole heartedly. I would love to see more love given to the things that actually get used.

    • I've come to the conclusion that app development is a very fluid thing:
      For example: in the 90s it was a battle between Finale and Encore, and Encore won (at least for me). Then Sibelius developed into being really intuitive. It still beats Open Source MuseScore, though the latter's good enough such that I wouldn't use Sibelius any more. But here's the thing: proprietary software can come and go. And sometimes the more successful it is, the more tottering it becomes. However, somewhat counter-intuitively, because Open Source software is available for anyone to build on. A solid financial foundation isn't a prerequisite for continued development. As Mozilla has recently shown, however, it helps. :/

  5. From Franklin Reid

    Gary, This is all very good and needed to be said, but I take it a step further. I'm a writer of books, technical and history books and have eight on Amazon now and working on the next one. I live in the U.S., was born and raised in Los Angeles California then after about age 45 I moved to northern Utah. Yes, I am a Mormon but it doesn't make me any different than anyone else, whether Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, or none of the above.

    I have been teaching Windows XP then version 7 to many people both in classes and on the internet. Last year I pulled an old HP desktop out of the closet and formatted the hard drive. I then installed Linux Mint 17 Cinnamon on it and began learning Linux.

    If you saw it you could not tell my screen from a Windows screen because I'm familiar and comfortable with it this way. The reason I'm writing is because I believe most Windows users don't care what OS is underneath their system. 95% of them never "use" Windows except to change the wallpaper and screen saver. They do all their work in the browser of choice, and in programs that help them do what's needed. I have installed LibreOffice, LibreCad, Atlantis Word Processor, Google Chrome, Firefox, and several other programs that look and feel like I'm on Windows.

    The people I teach have never used the command line in Windows, don't know how to install software, or uninstall it. They only want to continue with the websites in their browser. They can check their email and create letters to family and friends, go to Facebook, access Wikipedia, read your great blog, check their bank, study the Bible, contact their doctor's office or hospital, use Google Maps, Check their favorite news sources, and many other places available to them.

    Outside the browser, they sometimes use a word processor but mostly use the spreadsheet to keep track of finances. This is in addition to their favorite Tax Accounting package, or genealogy program. They would ask, "What's an Operating System?"

    My point here is that the entire Linux community only cares about what they can do with the various distros of Linux and only want to use the command line. General users care nothing about that. All they know about Linux is they don't want any of those scary words to appear on their computer. Words like Linux, gnome, gnu, KDE, UBUNTU, etc. They are very familiar with all the Windows terms and want to keep it that way.

    I am on a one-man crusade to change over the American people from Windows to Linux by setting up systems that never show the latter. In my opinion Linux is the future because it is free and everything that runs on it is free. They will never have to deal with constant reminders to upgrade their OS then they have to abandon much of their current software and buy the newer versions.

    Sorry for the long post, I write books and forget this is not a chapter in a book. :/
    Franklin Reid

  6. I would never watch video on a smartphone or tablet. I use my laptop. So does my whole family. In fact, we have no cell phone service where we live (Vermont) and so none of us use smartphones (or any of my daughter's friends). I suppose that comes as a complete and utter shock to you.

    //For instance far too much effort is spent talking about audio players, video players and mail clients.//

    I have to agree with the other comment: WTF? None of us use webmail, but have come to prefer mail clients (Thunderbird specifically). My relatives on the Windows side use 'The Bat!'. I personally dislike webmail.

    I don't have bluetooth speakers. Do you really think the rest of the world lives in a BEST BUY? I'm listening right now to music on my laptop via radiotray (or Quod Libet). The family uses VLC to watch DVD rented from the library. Our connection isn't always reliable enough for Netflix.

    //Do people really switch on their computer to listen to music?//

    All the time. Same with my kids.

    I don't disagree with the overall gist of what you've written; but when characters like you, who are obviously living in tech-BESTBUY-fantasyland, get on your bluetooth soapbox and generalize about the rest of the world based on your own tech-privileged experience, I can only marvel at how *utterly* out of touch you are (or have gotten).

    Do you really think everybody is as geared up as you are?

  7. Better time than ever to convert people to linux… Yes there is photoshop and Office. However they are increasingly moving to a "web" based model so if you have chrome doesn't matter what Operating system your using you can still do office in linux via office 365 on a chrome browser, and believe the latest photoshops are more web based too…

  8. Very interesting and thoughtful article Gary. For me though I cannot see me using a smartphone or tablet for any serious amount of work. Phone screens (for me) are too small for anything other than reading text messages / email and touchscreens / virtual keyboards are just too fiddly . I fired up the PC for example to make this comment – I keep finding myself wanting to go back to a simple button phone ( only thing I would miss is reading email).
    The video you posted regarding Ubuntu phone convergence is fascinating but even on it the ability to attache a screen / bluetooth keyboard is demonstrated – implying that this is what most would want to do.

    I'm with DarkDuck and Saints awake on this one ( methinks we are all on the wrong side of 50 !) . Thanks again though for an interesting question posed in a thoughtful way.

  9. Convergence is a very powerful idea, and when correctly implemented can be awesome (yay for sharing data accross multiple devices / types of device). However, I'm afraid I must strongly disagree with the mobile-centric use shown here. I find that desktops in general have a much superior experience compared to that of say, Android. I can select exactly which applications I want, and exactly how I want to use them. It's a general-purpose computing device with infinite possibilities. I have complete control over the system – it's mine and to have it any other way would be wrong. Conversely, I rarely use my phone and I don't think it's even turned on much. It's not a general device and I don't think it has the potential to be one. My tablet stands in the middle and I use it on a daily basis because the experience is smooth and much less restrictive than on my phone. There are some very capable applications and you can even get a sweet actual Linux environment with some apps. It'd be nicer to have an actual distro on the thing with a suitable mobile interface, but Android is good enough.

    All in all, the ideas are good but fails to recognize that mobiles and desktops should ideally be equivalent in features – true convergence. Let both do what they're excellent at, and do not shoot at the feet of one for the sake of the other.

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