Uniformity considered harmful
A couple of days ago, I saw yet another discussion of Linux on the desktop, specifically, somebody who spent years on macOS was giving a positive endorsement of Ubuntu. The reaction ranged from positive to extremely negative, but among the negative reactions, what stood out to me were the numerous calls for the Linux desktop to unify into a single environment, in order to stand a chance amongst the competition that is so unified.
Now, I am not ashamed to admit that you won't find me in the trenches defending Ubuntu specifically, I have criticized many choices of Canonical over the years, but this call is not unique to Ubuntu, I've seen it whenever the Linux desktop comes up in any context and is thus worth diving into a bit more.
It is worth taking a step back for a second and looking at where uniformity is actually desirable and where it's not.
If I said to you, dear reader, "uniformity of thought is desirable", I suspect most of you would close this tab and file the author under "authoritarian". I suspect the same would happen at the suggestion of unifying music tastes, food and practically any other cultural output.
Yet have I said, "criminal suspects should be treated uniformly, regardless of their race, sex, religion..", the swing would be in the other direction, likely also resulting in closed tabs, not because of your author's authoriatian tendencies, but rather for stating things so obvious, the text is unlikely to be thought-provoking.
Despite the clear understanding outlined above, that we should strive to treat people uniformly when it comes to their immutable characteristics, but should not seek uniform culture, for we risk limiting expression, stalling innovation and ultimately sociatal stagnation, this does not seem to be well understood in a culture where the phrase "monoculture is bad" is often repeated. At least not when it comes to the Linux desktop.
The reasoning is not completely unreasonable; people are familiar with a single desktop experience from Windows/macOS and they feel lost when they have to choose on Linux.
Some argue that having so many choices splits the resources available to the Linux desktop efforts and therefore it would always lag behind their proprietary counterparts.
What these arguments fail to account for, however, is why do Apple and Microsoft strive to have only one option when it comes to the desktop on their respective platforms.
I'd argue that the primary reason is, as often happens in the world of proprietary software, vendor lock-in. Nor Microsoft, nor Apple ever had any interest in using their significant presence in homes and businesses to teach users what the computer desktop even is.
No, I don't mind what their desktop is, I mean what the concept of a desktop is.
I am strongly of the belief that was the average computer user taught more about how to identify and operate on the components that can be found on every desktop; icons, folders, search, quick launch and that the concept of a program means there are many programs that do the same thing in similar ways, if you don't like one, how to search for another etc, if that was taught as being universal to the concept of a computer and the desktop, perhaps many would not have mechanically learned to "Click on the Start icon and go to the IE icon to launch the internet" .
There's another reason Microsoft and Apple don't want you to have a choice on the desktop you use; control.
Despite the hardware you have purchased, the software often comes on what is practically a loan and can thus be updated, deactivated, or otherwise changed at the discretion of the vendor, not you.
Why do vendors do this?
Often, it is to seek additional rent from the user they have already extracted significant upfront payment from and often it is for features and updates one doesn't even want.
The AppStore is full of reviews where users complain that the most recent update of a popular application broke their workflow and is often worse than the old version in some way, often the result of a "strategy shift", on which the paying customers were not consulted on in any way.
Remember Microsoft's push for "Metro UI", a tablet UI that nobody on the desktop wanted and hundreds of thousands of users expressed their disapproval of the change? Yet, after "listening to feedback", Microsoft rolled the change into production anyway, without any of the criticisms addressed. More recently, users have been facing pervasive tracking and forced updates, which have disrupted and even destroyed important work.
The announcement that macOS Mojave will support dark mode was met with universal applause of macOS users looking to refresh their stale desktops.
And am yet to meet a person who actually "enjoys" the Windows desktop. Most users I know associate the familiar Windows look with work and seek to stay away from it as much as possible at home. On Linux, they could transform their work machine into one that pushes work as far away as possible, bringing leisure front and centre in just a few clicks, macOS users could have their windows in any colour scheme, or even pattern they want, rather than being restricted to black.
Developers and users from all cultures creating for all moods are what makes the Linux desktop what it is. The last bastion of freedom for its users, regardless of what they are looking for.
A land where developers can work freely on what actually interest them. Getting rid of that would be a mistake our children wouldn't forgive us, once Microsoft, Apple, Google and Amazon complete their war on general-purpose computing, the next generations will be listening about how there once was the land of the free, but how we willingly destroyed it by unifying even it into the same monoculture that offers no choice. And we did it smiling.