Linux is ready for the desktop—but whose desktop?

Whether or not Linux is “ready for the desktop” or “ready for primetime” often shows up in technology news these days. It’s also a frequent topic on Linux forums and message boards, regardless of distribution. I often find these debates pointless because there’s an assumption inherent in these debates that there is a real-world-applicable concept called “ready for the desktop” that any operating system’s structure can satisfy.

My answer to people who ask “Is Linux ready for the desktop?” is “Whose desktop?” But I would give the same answer if someone asked “Is Windows ready for the desktop?” or “Is Mac ready for the desktop?” The truth is that if we take “the desktop” to mean “everyone’s desktop,” no operating system satisfies the “ready” requirement. A better way to phrase this question would be “Which operating system is right for me?”

And, unfortunately, the technology marketplace doesn’t give an easy answer to this. It would be an ideal world where you could take any operating system and plop it on your hardware of choice and use your software of choice. The truth is that with Mac, the hardware and operating system are tied together—so choosing to use the Mac platform means choosing a particular piece of hardware (Mac Mini, Powerbook, etc.) to fit with it. Also, with Mac and Linux, you’re limiting the software you’re able to use. Sure, with Linux you have literally tens of thousands of software packages available to you, but if someone hands you the most popular new computer game, you’d be lost on how to use it in Linux or Mac without VMWare, Crossover Office, or some other emulator.

So in choosing what operating system is right for you, you have to consider a few things. Are you a graphic designer? Are you a heavy gamer? Or… do you just check your email, surf the web, word process, organize a few digital photos, and listen to music. If you fall into the latter category, you can use Mac, Linux, or Windows. It’s up to you.

And using Linux has never been easier for this latter category. Linux is no longer a command-line prompt (it can be, if you want it to be, but it’s not the default boot option on most distributions)—there are pretty graphical user interfaces now. And you click on icons that open applications to do all the activities listed above and more. With a few exceptions, chances are that if you use a Windows program, there’s a Linux application that’s a sufficient substitute or an even better substitute. There may be a couple of things you have to get used to. For example, control-alt-delete usually doesn’t do anything. You may have to hit control-alt-escape to kill applications. Your “Start Menu” or Apple menu may be a KMenu or an icon that looks like the footprint of some neanderthal. Nevertheless, it’s a very point-and-click environment for everyday applications.

So, if using Linux has never been easier, why is there all this debate about whether Linux is “ready” for the desktop or primetime? The problem is that HP, Dell, Gateway, Sony, and all the major computer distributors do not sell the latest and hottest computers preloaded with Linux. There’s this myth that Linux is “difficult” to install. Actually, it’s not a myth. No, the myth is that Windows is easy to install. It isn’t. People think it’s easy to install because they’ve never had to install Windows. I’ve had to install Windows, and if you don’t have all the drivers for your hardware, installing Windows is just as difficult as (if not more difficult than) installing Linux. I’m not talking about using the “restore” CDs that came with your Windows computer. Those restore CDs replicate all the hard work your manufacturer put into installing and configuring your Windows computer before you bought it. I’m talking about your Windows 98 computer that you’re now trying to upgrade to Windows XP.

What’s truly amazing is that Linux installation isn’t more difficult than it is. I’m amazed that most Linux distros do recognize my hardware automatically. There have been a couple of distros that haven’t recognized my mouse, but these are usually outdated versions. There are a couple of Linux distros that didn’t recognize my monitor resolution, but that’s an easy fix once you know how to do it.

Anyone who argues that Linux as an operating system isn’t usable for the everyday user (not the commercial graphic designer, not the heavy gamer), I’d challenge you: find a Linux expert (someone who knows just about anything about installing Linux, someone who can install Slackware or Linux from Scratch with her hands tied behind her back) and find a Linux ignoramus (someone who’s never heard of Linux). Get the expert to install Linux and configure it for the hardware perfectly. Give that expert fifteen minutes to explain “This is the email icon. This is the internet icon. This is how you word process,” and tell me that the Linux igoramus won’t be able to use Linux.

Don’t believe me? Go to Linux forums. What are the most common questions? I’d say 90% of them have to do with how to install Linux. How can I dual-boot with Windows? How can I recognize my Windows partition? How do I boot from the disk I just burned? What’s an ISO? I can’t get better screen resolution than 640 x 800. Linux won’t recognize my internet connection. Where’s my sound?

So the question of whether Linux as an operating system—as a piece of software—is “ready” is a stupid question. Of course it’s ready. The real question is for whom? The real question is how can we get others to use it?

The truth is that the situation I described above, with the Linux expert and the Linux novice, is a rare one. Most Linux novices don’t have a Linux expert in their lives. I know I don’t. I’ve spent the last three months learning Linux, and it’s been a tough battle, but in only three months, I feel I’m in a position where I can even help other Linux novices with their installations. It took me years, decades even, to learn how to “use” Windows (if use includes installation, use, and maintenance). Nevertheless, many people new to Linux get scared off because they don’t have an expert to guide them. After all, they had an expert in Windows (the expert being Dell, HP, etc.).

These are the things that will help Linux get better desktop adoption and use:

More well-known manufacturers need to start preloading computers with Linux. Sure, you can pick up a crappy-looking no-name computer at Wal-Mart that has Linspire, but it’s also a very low-end PC (128 MB RAM? Even the Mac Mini has more than that!), but that’s not going to encourage wide Linux desktop adoption. The question of what will motivate manufacturers to do this… well… I don’t know. Money? An assurance that people will actually buy them?

Publicity for user-friendly Linux distributions. My guess is that the average computer user out there (not super-user… user) knows very little about Linux. She may not even know that there are graphical desktops for Linux.

Linux users themselves have to be better about helping new users select appropriate distributions. The three standard responses to “Which distro should I use?” are not satisfactory.

  1. Use Mandriva (or Ubuntu, Xandros, Fedora, etc.).
  2. Use whatever works for you.
  3. Use Slackware (or Gentoo, Linux from Scratch…).
  1. Doesn’t help because even though you name a user-friendly distro, the person asking the question doesn’t know why she should use that one as opposed to another.
  2. Doesn’t help because she doesn’t know what works for her… uh, that’s why she’s asking in the first place!
  3. Doesn’t help because the vast majority of people asking the question do not want to build Linux from scratch—they want something truly user-friendly.

Linux use
rs need to ask probing questions to find out the things that inform people’s choices about distros. Here are a few good ones: How fast is your computer? How much memory does it have? How much money are you wiling to spend? Which version of Windows are you migrating from? Are you migrating from Mac? Do you want to dual-boot? What programs are most important to you? Would you prefer a lot of apps that you need to uninstall or few apps that you’d need to add to? Is using the command-line okay with you, provided you have specific instructions on what to write there? Or would you prefer to do everything via a graphical user interface?

By the way, I recently found out about a Linux distro chooser quiz. I wish I’d had this when I was starting out.

Are you thinking about using Linux?

Well, I’d say you’ll be successful in migrating if you fit into one of these two profiles:

  • You know very little about Linux, but you have a Linux expert friend who can install Linux for you.
  • You know very little about Linux but are willing to learn to install it—this means investing hours in configuring it, possibly many more hours downloading various distributions to see which one best recognizes your hardware.

If you fit into one of these two profiles, you probably won’t be successful in migrating to Linux:

  • You know very little about Linux; you don’t care about how computers work, just that they work; and you will run from Linux at the first obstacle you encounter. You have no friends who are Linux experts.
  • You think the Windows way of doing things is the best way and is always the best way. You don’t really want to migrate to Linux. You just want to make a feigned attempt at installing it and using it so that you can complain about how it’s not “ready for the desktop” when you encounter a single problem.

It’s human nature to be skeptical of new things and forgiving of old things. If something goes wrong in Windows, people don’t even notice. They just put up with it. If something goes wrong in Linux, “Oh, it’s not ready for the desktop. It’s not user-friendly enough.” People expect Windows to fail. They just use it because it’s popular and installed on their computers already. For some reason (perhaps because of crazy Linux zealots?), a lot of Windows users expect Linux to be perfect, so if it fails just once or produces one error (which may, in fact, be the user’s fault, not the program’s), Linux “isn’t ready.”

It’s pointless right now to argue whether Linux is “ready” for the desktop or not. Right now, Dell is still preloading its desktops with Windows XP. So the real question is who are you and should you be migrating to Linux? Well, take a look at those four profiles and figure out which one you fit into.

P.S. You can graphic design in Linux, but I’ve heard, for example, that there are some features Photoshop has that GIMP doesn’t. I don’t know what these features are. GIMP looks pretty fully-featured to me. Then again, I don’t graphic design. Also, Linux has many, many games. My point about games was that a popular commercial game (say, Sims) probably won’t have a Linux port immediately… or ever.

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