We're living interesting times, the web is gaining momentum, the explosion of the smartphones and the mobile market is changing the ways people think about computing, the model to deliver applications and services to the consumer and his role in the usage has radically changed.
The way people create, build and deploy applications has radically changed, 10 years ago you couldn't even think about deploying a large application without packaging it in a box with a manual and spend large amounts of money to deliver it to the shop shelves, you couldn't even think about people actually buying it without some sort of advertising in the hi tech magazines.
Today, all that it takes to check what's new and exciting is a browser, even if the application you want to try is locally installed. In this regard, the traditional closed desktop provides a pretty well understood deployment model for ISVs willing to create and deliver an application, a .msi installer on windows, a .dmg image for Mac OS X where you just drag and drop an icon to your app folder.
Platforms like the iPhone and Android makes application creation, packaging and distribution a well documented straightforward process, except for one thing, their app stores are censored so we have an advantage here that we are not exploiting.
The Unix world in general, and the Linux world in particular is a little special in this regard. By nature, we have a diversity of tools to manage and deploy applications and libraries in our system (yum, apt, ips, ports...), tools like PackageKit can overcome some of the problems of such diversity, although it is getting mainstream slower that we would like to. In general users should be alright with this as things stand today.
However, it is not the users the ones I'm worried about here, it is the CS students and enthusiast wanting to do small fancy apps, it is the small companies with no resources to employ a team of package maintainers to create and maintain a dozen versions of packaging scripts. The very people with the talent to create new exciting apps that can attract and engage users, the very people that can create an ecosystem where creating and distributing large apps for Linux is not a path full of pain. Applications like Photoshop, Autocad, SPSS are not going to get open sourced anytime soon, some of them may never be, the question is, can we attract them to make the free desktop a more appealing option for users? For some people and institutions those apps are the one and only reason to stick to Windows or Mac, so this problem is worth considering.
Yet, it doesn't look we are getting close to support application distribution models klik in the upstream desktop environments where you could download a file and run your app straight away. This is what the developers want. This is what the users want. We are just not listening them here.
Creating apps for our stack is a pain in the ass, the good practices are fairly undocumented, essential resources are fragmented within several web sites, with different APIs models, there's a lack of consistency and ease of use. Yes, I know, this is open source, this is the way it's been so far, you can't kill diversity.
But... I think we are in a point in time where it is critical to assure our success, or the spreading of freedom we envisioned might be threatened by our competition and we will lose large amounts of control over our technologies as a community once again. Most importantly, I do not only think these radical changes are necessary, I think that we can actually make them happen with no much effort, we just in need for some focus and learn from what others have done to make their platforms attractive. We can bring our stack back to the peak of innovation and leave behind our early 90's development and distribution style once and for all.
We already have a compelling desktop people want to use, it's been a hell of an effort to get where we are, things like the new Shell and Zeitgeist can give us some hype on OSNews and Slashdot, but at the end of the day, innovation happens elsewhere, so we better focus on empowering all that creative and passionate people out there who wants to create apps that their family and friends can use.