A while back I wrote about the challenges that are preventing mass Linux adoption. I’ve been mulling on this and related topics for a while, and yet I haven’t really progressed far beyond my closing thoughts from then:

However, I think there’s another way we could push Linux faster. If some enterprising person launches a Linux computer startup that focuses heavily on marketing, strikes deals with retailers to promote their computers, and ships a polished distro that will make the transition from Windows as easy as possible, I think there is a real possibility that Linux on the desktop could happen sooner than we expect. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any tech billionares who are looking for a cool side project, but if that describes you, you’re welcome to talk to me about it!

Well, it just so happens that a tech billionare is publicly contemplating the potential of Linux:

That’s right, the man that some adore as “Technoking” and others deride as “Space Karen” now is talking about switching the general public over to Linux on the desktop. Granted, he didn’t actually say “We’re building a Linux PC”, but when Elon Musk publicly talks about crazy ideas, sometimes they actually happen (example).

A little background

Before you dismiss this tweet as “another meme from Elon”, let’s take a look at the historical context. In February, Elon bought a new Windows laptop and was frustrated when he discovered that Microsoft requires you to sign in with a Microsoft account:

He went so far as to complain at Satya Nadella in a (probably futile) attempt to get Microsoft to ditch the sign-in requirement.

By the way, if you want to bypass Microsoft account sign-in on Windows, you can easily bypass it during setup. When asked to sign in, type “no@thankyou.com” for the email address and anything you want in the password field. Since this email address has been blacklisted, the sign-in will fail and you will be dropped back to a local account creation screen.

Elon’s recent tweet suggesting that Linux should take over was prompted by Microsoft’s announcement of Recall, an AI assistant that will log everything you did on your PC for the last three months and then feed that into Copilot to try to help you find more things. Besides the massive security implications of Recall, the entire concept seems dystopian, making the Apple “Crush” ad seem downright appealing by comparison. You may not have any features of humanity left, but at least Apple (theoretically) isn’t feeding everything you do into the hungry maw of data-collecting servers (although that could start changing if the rumors of a new OpenAI-powered Siri are true).

The part where I make wild speculations

At this point, there are two possible outcomes: either Elon makes sure to keep all of Windows’ antifeatures turned off and just lives with it, or he starts a computer company out of frustration. The second scenario is the interesting one here.

I’m going to assume such a computer company would focus on laptops initially, but pretty much all of the below commentary applies equally to desktop PCs.

If Elon decides to start a computer company, one thing is certain: it will be divisive solely because it is owned by Elon Musk. On the one hand, ardent fans will all but smash their existing computers as they rush to daily-drive Elon’s laptop instead. On the other hand, some will go out of their way to avoid Elon’s laptops, possibly even switching their operating system:

The one thing that might convince me to ditch Linux .. Elon convincing people to use it...

This is a coworker's reaction to Elon's Linux tweet.

Of course, I’m not planning to ditch Linux if Elon starts a Linux computer company, and I certainly hope nobody else does either.

Beyond the initial online arguments that are grounded only in personal opinions of Elon, what would a potential product look like and what would it do for Linux? Most likely, any laptop produced by Elon would be done as a subsidiary of X, which means it would likely sprout a (paywalled) xAI integration. This could be good or bad, depending on how it’s executed. Done well, it ends up being a useful AI assistant that doesn’t push itself in your face. Done poorly, you end up with a final product that is no better than Windows.

Would the laptop sell well? I hesitate to make a call on that. While the laptop would face an uphill battle to gain widespread acceptance while being an Elon Musk product, it would have the advantage of a high-profile launch, with accompanying media coverage. Imagine all the news outlets that covered the Apple Vision Pro now covering a Linux laptop, and you’ll get an idea of how many potential users could be reached. As long as the laptop has a solid enough user experience to get positive reviews, that translates into possibly more media coverage Linux laptops have ever received before, helping sell the laptop to people who aren’t using their opinion of Elon to decide whether or not to buy.

According to Statcounter, Linux desktop share sits at 3.74%, with ChromeOS at 6.18% (thanks to its widespread adoption in public schools) and macOS at 22.59%. For Linux to reach a point where software makers begin to treat it as an equal player, it needs to at least get close to equal macOS’s market share. My not-at-all-scientific mental estimations put the required number of conversions well into the millions, making this no easy task.

Fortunately, it’s not a task that Elon would have to achieve himself. With the all the publicity surrounding this laptop, existing companies like System76 that already have a solid product would have a golden opportunity to push themselves into the public eye, and if public demand for any Linux-powered laptop rose enough, the big OEMs could potentially start joining the trend. After all, it’s not like most people unconditionally love Windows or anything, and between an all-seeing AI Big Brother, an ad-riddled interface, and a history of being just unstable enough to bluescreen at the worst possible times, the Windows of the future just might be a Windows that nobody uses.

What are the chances that this happens?

Frankly, I’m not holding my breath. While Elon probably has the money to start a computer company several times over without batting an eye, it’s not clear whether he actually wishes to do so, as his attention is already spread quite thinly between all his other endeavors. With that being said, Elon’s distrust of others to do a good job might push him to build a computer that he feels he can trust with his personal information.

What do I mean by “Elon’s distrust of others to do a good job”? As far as I can tell, he views himself as the only person he can trust to hold his companies to idealistic standards. It’s why he bought Twitter; he ultimately didn’t trust the existing Twitter leadership to provide a politically fair platform, so he put himself in charge instead. It also could partly explain why he still retains a significant amount of control and involvement at SpaceX; his goal for that company is to enable Martian colonies, and if somebody else was in charge of SpaceX, they might veer from that goalpost and focus on the existing launch market.

Regardless of whether Elon starts a computer company, his tweet has likely already had a positive impact. As of 5/23/2024, Twitter reports 43,000 views on that tweet; many of those views are probably from non-Linux users. This exposure alone has probably convinced at least a few people to try Linux, and at the end of the day, that’s a good thing.


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