The "year in review" pieces that proliferate old and new media alike around this time of year get tedious pretty fast. But because I've yet to see a good compilation of the major developments -- and there were plenty of them -- that affected desktop Linux in 2011, I couldn't think of any better topic for my last post of the month. That may make me a hypocrite, but if you can forgive a personal flaw, keep reading for a look at how the Linux world has evolved in the last 365 days or so.

First, let's acknowledge the obvious: 2011 was not the Year of the Linux Desktop. Nor was it the Year of the Linux Mobile device, a niche which in many senses has already eclipsed traditional PCs in importance.

2011 Milestones

But 2011 did see a lot of major changes to the experience of desktop Linux users. The most memorable -- and influential -- arguably included:
  • Ubuntu's switch to Unity: Canonical's decision to make its homegrown Unity desktop environment the only preinstalled interface choice in Ubuntu 11.10, released in October, continues to prove more than a little contentious. But like it or hate it, this new take on the way Linux users interact with their desktops has reconfigured the Linux experience in major ways, and possibly helped prepare Canonical's foray into the world of touchscreen and mobile devices. Continued refinements to Unity in upcoming Ubuntu releases should, I hope, allay some of the ire that it has generated.
  • I can't mention Unity without also taking note of GNOME 3, another desktop environment platform that -- even though it didn't become the default in Ubuntu -- replaced GNOME 2 as the preinstalled interface for a variety of other distributions this year. Like Unity, GNOME 3 also has its lovers and haters, but it's not going anywhere anytime soon. Fortunately, the expanding library of GNOME Shell extensions promises to address some of the usability issues in early iterations of the interface and make it a true replacement for its august predecessor.
  • The summer saw the release of Linux 3.0. Practically speaking, the changes of the new kernel lineage constitute incremental upgrades more than fundamental breaks with the 2.6 family it replaces, a fact Linus Torvalds himself acknowledged when he declared "the real reason [for the change] is just that I can no longer comfortably count as high as 40." All the same, people like version updates, and at least symbolically, Linux 3.0 was a major one.
  • The Ubuntu Software Center also reached some major milestones in 2011. The first for-sale application was introduced in the fall of 2010, but many more were added in 2011. Meanwhile, the recent implementation of support for PayPal makes the portal a more serious contender in the world of app stores. In many ways, I suspect, we'll look back and conclude that 2011 was the year when the Software Center came into its own.
  • LibreOffice: Sponsored by the Open Document Foundation, this fork of OpenOffice.org had its first official release last January. As the open source world's leading office productivity suite, LibreOffice is vital for making desktop Linux a viable platform for millions of people who have to do real work. It was also crucial for allaying the open source community's fears after Oracle took control (through its acquisition of Sun) of OpenOffice in 2010, spawning concerns that the code would not remain open source or free. In the event, Oracle ended commercial development of OpenOffice last April, leaving LibreOffice as the new face of open source office productivity.
  • Ubuntu preinstallations on personal PCs also made some significant headlines in 2011: In June Asus announced a line of Ubuntu-powered netbooks, and in the fall computers with Ubuntu preinstalled were promised in retail stores in China and Portugal. This isn't the first time Ubuntu PCs have been offered directly to consumers on a large scale -- similar efforts several years ago via collaboration between Dell and Canonical ended with lackluster results -- but the initiatives in this vein announced in 2011 proved that Canonical continues to believe that normal people will buy Ubuntu PCs if they are marketed and supported in the right way.
And so there you have it: the year in desktop Linux. I won't pretend this list is exhaustive, as it's certainly not. But from key new interfaces and applications to novel attempts for bringing Linux to the desktops -- not to mention phones, TVs and tablets -- of more non-geeks, the open source ecosystem witnessed plenty of notable changes in 2011, even if some of them were highly controversial among users. Here's to continued healthy evolution for the Linux world in 2012.