The Linux Desktop Myth

The Issue at Hand
It’s entirely possible that you may not have heard of Linux. Maybe you own a Mac or Windows computer and don’t read the technology news. You may have a TiVo, but it doesn’t have a huge sticker on the box that reads “Powered by Linux” (even though it is). You may use Google, but it doesn’t have any announcement on its homepage that it’s run on Linux servers (even though it is). Whether you’ve heard of Linux or not—it probably plays a role in your life somehow.

In all likelihood (yes, even if you’re reading this), you probably don’t have Linux running on your laptop computer at home or your desktop computer at work. The “desktop market” is dominated by Windows. Mac has a very small share of desktop computing (arguably even smaller than Linux’s market share—it depends on whom you ask), but it is high profile—Apple stores abound in the US (there are also locations in the UK, Japan, and Canada), Mac computers feature prominently in Hollywood movies, iPods are the portable player of choice, iTunes dominates the digital download market, computer peripherals that are Mac-compatible have a logo on the side of the box indicating that they are, and major software is available for Mac OS X (Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft Office, for example).

So why are you probably not running Linux on your computer? Why have you probably not even heard of Linux? What’s stopping Linux from being more high profile, being more widely adopted?

The Linux Desktop Myth
Every year—or perhaps several times during the year—if you read technology news, you’ll spot a Linux desktop article proclaiming (or quoting someone who proclaims) that “this year” is going to be the year of the Linux desktop. Clearly, they were wrong,

Linux desktops come in various flavors (or distributions). Unlike Windows and Mac, which each have only one current version (as of this writing, those would be Windows XP and Mac OS X Tiger, respectively), Linux has multiple simultaneous and different versions. They all share the same core (the Linux kernel), but they differ in terms of development cycle, business model, default applications, installation method, and hardware detection. There are literally hundreds of Linux distributions—many of which are aimed at desktop use (as opposed to server or embedded device use) and which are under rapid development. Ubuntu, the top-ranked distribution on DistroWatch, for example, releases new versions every six months. Windows, on the other hand, seems to release new versions every three to six years.

Because of these frequent releases that each come with new features, people who proclaim that “this year” is the year of the Linux desktop subscribe to and continue to perpetuate a myth about Linux—namely, that it’s Linux’s features that hold it back from widespread desktop adoption. In other words, according to the myth, there are hundreds of millions of Windows users out there (and some Mac users as well) desperately waiting for Linux to match their current operating systems feature for feature, and when that happens, they will all download a disk image, burn the Linux CD, install and configure the operating system themselves, and then ditch their current operating system for a Linux distribution. (If you don’t know what a disk image or an operating system is, then I think you get my point—the majority of Windows and Mac users will not be installing Linux regardless of how many features it has.)

What is holding Linux back?
In online support forums for Linux, there are frequent debates about whether Linux is “ready for the desktop” and also why it’s not more popular as a desktop operating system. These debates can go on for hundreds of posts, and there’s usually never anything resembling a consensus reached.

Some of the frequent charges against Linux’s “desktop readiness” are its lack of commercial games, its lack of general commercial applications, its lack of easily installable/obtainable hardware drivers, its different software installation models, its variety of flavors, its lack of point-and-click configurations for certain tasks, its lack of “user-friendliness,” and its bad marketing. That’s not a comprehensive list of the criticisms against Linux distributions, but those are some of the main proposed reasons for Linux being almost unheard of on the desktop.

To properly evaluate these criticisms, you have to know a little bit about what desktop Linux is like and what goes into using desktop Linux. Afterwards, we can start exploring the path that Linux can take to desktop prominence… or why it may never get there.

My Linux Switch Story
My family’s first computer, when I was growing up, was an NEC. I don’t know the model number, but it was an all-in-one computer with a monochromatic screen and two floppy disk drives for 12″ floppy disks. It had no graphics to speak of, and my parents used it mainly for word processing. My brother and I used it mainly for playing a text-only game called “Millionaire,” in which you buy and sell stocks in the hopes of finally earning a million dollars. There was no mouse for this computer because there were no graphics. It was all text.

Over the years, my father built PC computers that ran MS-DOS, Windows 3.1, 95, 98, 2000. My brother got a Mac for college in the early 90s, and I used that same Mac when I went to college in the late 90s. After I graduated college, I used Windows ME and XP at home and work, and I also used Mac OS 9 and OS X at work. Even though Linus Torvalds developed Linux in 1991, I don’t think I’d even heard the word Linux until the turn of the millennium. I did see my father using Linux once—he was launching an application from a grey terminal screen—and my immediate thought in response was You have to type commands? How primitive.

I didn’t touch Linux myself until the summer of 2004. During that time, spyware and adware were rampant, and I hadn’t even heard either term until the laptop my wife and I had was infested with them both. The computer had slowed to a crawl, and pop-up ads would appear even when I didn’t have Internet Explorer open (only later did I learn that Internet Explorer is always running on your computer, whether it appears open or not). I don’t remember the exact details, but in searching for how to get rid of spyware and adware, I somehow came across Linux and had the silly notion to install it instead of Windows XP.

The first place I went (what I thought made sense) was It was a confusing site with many links. The download link takes you nowhere and asks you to go to the distributions link. Some of the download links were to older versions of distros. I didn’t know which distro to pick or what distinguished one distro from another. There seemed to be hundreds of distros available. Eventually, I ended up with Blag. I chose it because all the Linux books I found in my local library were on Red Hat L
inux, so I wanted to get something that was based on Red Hat (Blag is based on Fedora, which is the community-supported version of Red Hat, which is the more enterprise-focused, commercial edition). Blag was also only one CD. I didn’t feel like (even with a fast internet connection) downloading four or five CDs. (Only later did I find out that multi-CD distros needed only the first CD—the other CDs were add-on CDs for more software.)

I had to do quite a bit of research to figure out how to burn Blag properly. Most Linux CDs come with an .ISO extension, which means they are disk images, not files. It’s kind of like the difference between handing someone a Word document of an article as opposed to a photocopy of the article. Both have the same article contained within, but the Word document contains the actual words, which you can edit and remove at will; the photocopy appears to contain words, but it’s really just an image of those words—you cannot add and remove words. A disk image is a single file—about 700 MB in size—that is an image of the CD, not a collection of the files in the CD. If you burn the .ISO as data, you’ll get a CD with one big file on it. If you burn the .ISO as a disk image, you’ll get all the files contained within. (If this paragraph confuses the hell out of you, then you’re getting closer to the real reason Linux isn’t more widely used on the desktop.)

Finally, I installed Blag on our Dell Inspiron 500m. I have to admit my first impression was a good one. I liked that there seemed to be a wealth of software available on one tiny little CD. The questions the installer asked weren’t difficult to answer, and the installation was all point-and-click (no need to type in commands). The desktop looked very similar to Windows’ desktop. I had a menu button to click (it was a red hat instead of the Start button) to run applications. There were desktop icons. There was a clock in the panel. Everything seemed fine except for two things. First, the screen resolution was terrible. The Dell’s optimal resolution was 1024×768, and Blag was giving me something virtually unusable (320×480, or something like that). If I opened a dialog box, the OK and Cancel buttons were off the screen. So I did some web research and found a patch that fixed the screen resolution. When I tried to install a program, though, I ran into what’s commonly referred to as dependency hell. I downloaded an RPM file and tried to run the command rpm on it (which all the books said would work to install it). But I didn’t have any of the dependencies. One by one I tried tracking down each dependency, and I gave up after the third or fourth one. It was back to Windows for me.

Surprisingly to me at the time, the Windows installation was not as painless as the Blag one. Windows’ installer had quite a bit of text-based interface (not all point-and-click), and it did not detect the monitor’s screen resolution or the computer’s sound card. I was also unable to play DVDs, as Windows did not include the proper codecs for viewing DVDs. It was then that I remembered we’d actually received three restore CDs from Dell—not just one. The first CD is Windows XP Service Pack 1, which has the basic Windows operating system. The second CD was Dell’s drivers and utilities CD. The third CD was InterVideo WinDVD, the program that allowed you to play DVDs on the DVD-ROM drive. It didn’t take me long to track down the drivers and utilities CD, and I was grateful I found it, but for a week or two, I still couldn’t find the InterVideo WinDVD. So I had to search around a bit to find something that would allow me to play DVDs, since Windows Media Player wouldn’t.

Eventually, I tried VLC, which was unstable (kept crashing) but at least had a codec for playing DVDs. I also found a web browser called Firefox, which was supposed to be more secure than Internet Explorer. In the end, I recovered even the InterVideo WinDVD, and Windows XP was back to normal, and I didn’t encounter any more spyware/adware issues while using Firefox.

My second Windows installation experience involved a self-built computer my father had. I was visiting for Christmas, and I wanted to install iTunes on a spare PC my parents had, but the PC was running Windows 98. In order to run iTunes, I needed either Windows XP or 2000. My father had a copy of Windows 2000, and I tried installing that. Still the text-mode installer. Still no drivers found for the sound or the screen resolution. I also had no idea where to get these drivers or which drivers to get. I had no idea whether the screen resolution was messed up because I needed a driver specifically for the monitor or for the computer’s video card—the yellow question marks in the Control Panel were not helping. I ended up taking a screwdriver to the computer and opening it up to find out what the video card’s and sound card’s models were. When I did internet searches for these drivers, I came up with a lot of sketchy websites (with a lot of hyphens in their URLs). I wasn’t sure which links were legitimate or not. Some links, instead of having actual drivers for download, would just take me to other links, and the hardware was so old the manufacturer’s website no longer had drivers for them. After several hours, I did finally get it all sorted out. Another painful Windows installation was behind me.

That year, I was a pretty happy Windows user. My wife, meanwhile, had purchased a Mac G4 Powerbook for school, and I was a bit envious of her computer’s “eye candy.” When I looked at my Windows themes settings, there were only two themes available—Windows Classic and Windows XP. The XP theme had three colors—blue, silver, and olive. There was one option to find more themes online, but that just took me to the Microsoft page for buying separate software from them that would allow me to install more themes. No thanks. There was a project I stumbled upon called WindowBlinds. It allowed you to customize your Windows desktop easily—installing new themes, getting a Mac-like dock, and changing icons. I had two problems with WindowBlinds, though: it wasn’t free, and none of the themes integrated well with each other. If you didn’t pay for WindowBlinds, you got nagware—a pop-up every now and then reminding you to buy it. And the pixelated icons I could do without.

I saw a few other programs to help you customize Windows, but all of them looked a little too complicated to install and involved hacking the Windows registry.

I don’t know why, but suddenly I got the urge to explore Linux again. Things might have actually changed, or I may have actually gotten better at doing web research, but my migration to Linux seemed a lot smoother this time around.

First of all, I came across a site called DistroWatch. It has rankings based on number of hits on a page for different Linux distros, and it displays prominently on the front page the top 100 distros. It’s not a scientifically accurate ranking system, but it does give you a general idea of which distros are popular, so if there really are 400 distros, you can check out only five or six.

The local library also happened to then stock a non-Red Hat Linux book called Point & Click Linux, whose title appealed to the Windows user in me (who was deathly afraid of the command-line) and which featured a distro I hadn’t heard of before—Mepis.

Mepis seemed magic to me at the time. Blag was one CD that had a wealth of so
ftware, but Mepis one-upped Blag. Mepis was one CD that was a live CD that could also install itself to your hard drive and include a wealth of software. For those of you unfamiliar with live CDs, a live CD does not affect your hard drive, but if you boot to it, it creates a session from the CD itself and your computer’s RAM (temporary memory). In that session, you get a preview of the operating system—how well it detects your internet, sound, video, what software it includes (you can actually use the software during the live session). The live session may run more slowly than an installed session, but it usually has less to work with.

The bulk of Point & Click Linux was too elementary for me. It showed you how to use OpenOffice (a program very similar to Microsoft Office) and how to browse the internet with Firefox (which I had already been using in Windows). What helped me, though, was its explanation of partitioning and how to set up a dual-boot with Windows. When I installed Blag the year before, I had installed it right over Windows, replacing Windows. With a dual-boot, I had the option to use either Windows or Mepis. The book also explained a new way of installing software. Synaptic Package Manager would take care of all dependencies and download and install them for you. No more dependency hell.

Mepis recognized my screen resolution, and software installation was easy. Best of all, customization was easy. I could right-click an icon and just browse around for a different icon. I could download icon sets and themes from KDE-look and not have to buy and install a separate program to use those themes. The themes integrated well, and the icons were not pixelated—many were SVGs or high-resolution PNGs.

Eventually, the customization bug took me away from Mepis. The software in Mepis is great, but the user community was generally unknowledgeable about intermediate issues. No one, for example, could tell me how to change the boot-up splash screen from the Mepis pyramids to something else.

After that, I tried a series of distros—probably fourteen in total—looking for the perfect one. I almost always came back to Mepis, though. One of the first distros I tried after Mepis was Ubuntu. Ubuntu got a lot of hype at the time, both in the mainstream technology press and on DistroWatch. I was unimpressed, though. My first encounter with Ubuntu, the CD kept getting stuck at 79% when installing the operating system (I later found out this was because I was using a corrupted .ISO download). I came back to Ubuntu later, though, after I stumbled upon the Ubuntu Guide.

The Ubuntu Guide was the ultimate in documentation. It was one webpage (one long, scrolling HTML page with anchored internal links) that told you how to customize in Ubuntu just about anything a new user like myself could think of. Here was the irony of it, though—this highly appealing document was all terminal commands. Command-line-fearing me had embraced the command-line. Why? Because these commands were all in one place and just a small series to accomplish any given task. I would just copy and paste the commands one by one (didn’t even have to retype them) into the terminal, and suddenly things would be working.

Yes, Ubuntu required more initial work at first than Mepis did. Ubuntu, for example, doesn’t come with a lot of popular codecs and software (Flash, Adobe Acrobat Reader, Skype, MP3 playback). You have to install these yourself (or get a script to do it for you). This is mainly a philosophical decision on the part of Ubuntu’s founder Mark Shuttleworth to provide not only a cost-free operating system but an open source one as well (no proprietary software). Using Ubuntu didn’t stop me from using proprietary software (yes, I still use MP3 and Flash), but it did make me more aware of what software is proprietary and what is open.

With Ubuntu, I found a home distro. It was a stable software environment. It had good documentation, and the community users could answer just about any questions I threw at them. Best of all, it was completely free. Most Linux distributions have a free version, but you can get a bit more if you buy a subscription or the “enterprise” edition. Ubuntu is entirely free and even ships CDs free to you (and pays the postage costs)—it may take a couple of months, but your CDs will arrive.

As I got to know Linux better and better through using Ubuntu, I realized that a lot of stuff I thought I couldn’t do on Windows… I actually could. I also realized that most of the open source software available in Linux was also available for Windows. And Ubuntu users are quite knowledgeable about how to customize Windows without using WindowBlinds. Nevertheless, I found a freedom… and some fun in Linux that I couldn’t find in Windows, so I wasn’t going back. I had to use Windows at work—I would not be using it at home, too.

What have I found to be the advantages of Linux on the desktop?

  • Freedom. I don’t have to worry about losing my activation key for any software. All my software is easily reinstallable, and can be installed on numerous machines.
  • Less worry. Since I have several online repositories’ worth of Ubuntu-approved software, I needn’t worry about scouring the internet for software that suits my needs. I can just fire up my package manager and search for what I’m looking for and install it with a couple of clicks. I don’t need to worry about whether that software has spyware or is only a 30-day trial.
  • Support. is an incredible mix of expert, intermediate, and novice users who subscribe to Ubuntu’s philosophy of “Humanity Toward Others.” They can answer all my Linux questions, and they can usually answer my Windows and Mac OS X questions as well.
  • Affordability. Sure, Windows XP came with the computer I bought, but when I want to upgrade to Vista, what will I do? I’ll have to buy it, probably buy better hardware to accommodate it, or bootleg a copy. And if I don’t… eventually Microsoft will discontinue support for XP. When a new version of Ubuntu comes out, I can download a new CD for free or just do online upgrades for free.
  • Ease of Customization. The Ubuntu Forums users helped me to make my work computer bearable, but I did have to install some helper software to get my themes and icons working the way I want—and I would not have stumbled upon those things myself. With Ubuntu’s centralized package management, I can find relatively obscure programs with a few clicks of my mouse.

And, it’s also helped me to learn more about how to solve even Windows or Mac problems. For example, through using Ubuntu, I became familiar with the rsync command, which allows for differential backups (copying over only files that have changed or been added since the last backup), which I could use for my wife to back up her Powerbook. Also, since Ubuntu provides an easy interface for setting up keyboard shortcuts, I realized how much more efficient I can work using those shortcuts, and I insist on using keyboard shortcuts (different ones, of course) when I’m using my Windows computer at work or my wife’s Powerbook at home.

What can be said about my experience?
In many ways, my experience with migrating to Linux is typical—the frustration with installation, the confusion in finding a distro to pick out of many Linux distros, the need for research in learning what to do with an .ISO file, the desperate search for documentation (in books, websites, and forums). The migratio
n is also usually prompted by the same factors—security and customization. I’m not sure if I’m typical in one last regard, though; I stayed for neither the security nor the customization but for the freedom and the fun. I can make a Windows computer as secure as a Linux machine. I can also customize it almost as much as I can Linux. But I can’t make Windows free. I can’t make it not proprietary. I can’t get rid of complicated license agreements or product activation keys.

In terms of the typical Windows-to-Linux migrant profile, I fit the skills but not the needs. Most Windows users who migrate to Linux are what the technology department at my workplace calls power users—not necessarily programmers or system administrators but not anyone who would identify as “computer illiterate” or “not very good with computers.” Power users like to point and click with the mouse and also customize their experiences a little bit. They’re not afraid to look for new programs that will do the same jobs as their old programs.

If I were to generalize, I’d say most Linux users fall into one of these three categories: absolute novice, ex-Windows power user, *nix expert. I’m atypical in that in terms of my abilities and drive, I’m an ex-Windows power user, but in terms of my needs, I’m more like an absolute novice.

The Absolute Novice
Absolute novices become Linux users because they have a friend or relative who is obsessed with Linux and on whom the novice relies for all tech support. What happens is the novice has seemingly endless Windows problems (crashes, spyware, adware, viruses, slowdowns) and every time she encounters those problems, she calls her Linux-using friend or relative. Eventually, the Linux user says, “Look, I’m tired of supporting you on Windows. I’ll set up Linux for you.” After she installs and sets up Linux, she tells the novice, “Here is your web browser—this icon. Here is your email program—this icon. This is how you shut down you computer.” There is a little resistance at first: “Where’s the Start Menu?” “It’s right here.” “But it doesn’t say Start on it.” “That’s okay. I can change the icon for you.” After a while, the novice has no more computer problems and everyone’s happy.

The ex-Windows Power User
She knows Windows inside and out. She can edit a few things in the registry. She defragments. She does disk scans. She knows all the free but good anti-virus, anti-spyware scanning tools. She has a list of about ten or twelve programs she uses and loves to use in Windows. She also gets called to solve her friends’ and relatives’ Windows problems. Something happens one day, though—she’s tired of all the maintenance she has to do on her Windows computer, she’s tired of her Linux-using friends always talking about how great Linux is, or she just wants to try something new. So she installs Linux. Very likely, she will encounter problems. Either her wireless card won’t work, or the CD burning program doesn’t do absolutely everything that Nero does, or the Linux fonts “look ugly” to her. Then, there are two ways she can go. She either throws her hands up and screams (virtually or actually), “I can’t take it any more. This OS sucks. I’m going back to Windows. Linux is not ready for the desktop” or she rolls up her sleeves and says, “I’m going to make this work. This is fun figuring this out.”

The *nix Expert
This person has a lot of experience using Unix, Linux, BSD, or some combination of the three. She probably programs or does some kind of system administration for a living, and she uses Linux on her desktop at home because she thinks it’s fun, and it’s a natural extension of having to use Linux at work for administering servers. She probably doesn’t think most users should be using Linux, as she has a lot of training on computers and thinks that ordinary folks wouldn’t be able to handle installing and configuring Linux themselves.

As things currently stand, any one of these groups would be successful in migrating to Linux. Note, though, that the first group needs the help of an experienced Linux user. I’ve been using Linux for over a year now, and I would not feel confident enough to set up a Linux machine for a novice and say she won’t have to worry about anything after that. Also, the second group has two major ways that it reacts. A lot of these potential migrants don’t migrate at all—just as I did with Blag, they give Linux a shot and then give up very shortly after they encounter a roadblock or two.

The Biggest Obstacle to the Linux Desktop
If you ask most of these migrants (and most of them will be ex-Windows power users) what the biggest obstacle is to Linux desktop adoption is, you’ll get a range of responses, and they’ll usually stem from each user’s bias. One user who couldn’t get her printer to work might complain about third-party hardware support. Another user who couldn’t get the proper screen resolution on her widescreen laptop might complain about the hardware detection. Yet another user who loves gaming on her PC might cite the lack of commercial games in Linux.

Obviously, publicists for certain Linux distro companies and pro-Linux essayists—both of whom occasionally proclaim a certain year to be “the year of the Linux desktop”—imagine that these obstacles are the ones to be overcome. As each new version of Ubuntu or SuSE or Fedora or Mepis or Linspire comes out, some Linux advocates imagine that the new features will demolish that barrier or series of barriers that stops ex-Windows power users from adopting Linux on the desktop.

Well, here’s where the myth breaks down.

Ex-Windows power users may make up the majority of migrants to Linux, but they do not make up the majority of Windows users or computer users. Anecdotally, I’d say I’m the only power user in my office at work. In my family, my brother is a power user, and my father is more like a *nix expert, with my mother a novice. My wife is a power user, but most of our mutual friends are novices, and almost all of her family members (including extended family) are novices. Now, keep in mind, even the power users I know (my brother, my wife, a couple of our friends from college) have never undertaken a Linux installation. So these are not folk who have tried to install Linux and then gotten frustrated and given up.

So out of my friends and relatives, my father and I are the only ones who have installed Linux.

Something else must be stopping everyone else.

The barrier isn’t a dual-boot being difficult to set up. The barrier is not there being too many distros to choose from. The barrier isn’t the difficulty in obtaining and burning an .ISO correctly. The barrier isn’t the two features Photoshop has that GIMP does not.

In order to understand what’s stopping masses of people migrating from Windows to Linux, we need to examine what makes people go to Windows in the first place, and also debunk some of the “Linux isn’t ready” propaganda that could just as easily apply to Mac as well… after all, no one says Mac isn’t ready for the desktop.

Why do they choose Windows?
Well, the answer is obvious—they don’t. With few exceptions, everyone I know who uses Windows uses it because they’ve always used Windows (inertia), because they feel they can’t afford a Mac (money), and because the non-Mac PC they buy comes with Windows on it.

Buying a computer with the operating system already installed and configured takes care of many of the obstacles to Linux adoption. You don’t have to figure out which distro to use because you just use the distro that came with your machine. You don’t have to figure out which .ISO to download or how to burn it correctly, and you don’t have to figure out how to install it. You don’t have to wonder if your screen resolution or sound card will be detected properly. Dell, HP, Sony, or some other vendor has already done all that testing for you and included the necessary drivers for it all to “just work.”

And since most people buy computers with Windows preinstalled, that also means most of the
ir friends and relatives and coworkers also buy computers with Windows preinstalled, which in turn means that they don’t feel left out. No one wants to make a stupid choice, but if you’re going to make one, might as well not be alone in making that choice. After all, if you buy a Windows PC and it crashes, your friend with a Windows PC is likely to say, “Yeah, I hate it when that happens.” But if you have Linux on your PC and it crashes, your friend will likely say, “Oh, Linux doesn’t seem very stable.” And, along with that commiseration in Windows, you may also get a helping hand. Maybe your friend will say, “Yeah, I hate it when that happens… have you ever tried…?” But if you’re using Linux, all you’ll get is, “Linux doesn’t seem very stable.”

Windows is also in the public eye. System requirements for software often indicate a Windows operating system. Windows has commercials on TV. Printers, MP3 players, scanners, keyboards—just about any peripheral you buy—will indicate a compatibility with Windows and also include a Windows driver to ensure it works with Windows. If you walk into Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, or any major electronics store, you’re very likely to see Windows computers. You may or may not see a Mac computer, and it’s highly unlikely you’ll see a computer with Linux preloaded.

This is why people “choose” Windows. It’s already been chosen for them. It’s everywhere. I didn’t choose to use Windows when I was growing up any more than I chose to be a US citizen. I was born in the US, and I was born into Windows for all practical purposes.

Is Mac “Ready for the Desktop”?
Apple’s computers have a very low desktop share, unlike their iPods. I grew up in an upper-class neighborhood with a mix of upper-middle-class and upper-class friends. I went to college with a similar socio-economic class. Most of my friends, despite having financial means, still prefer Windows PCs because they’re cheaper. One friend of ours from college uses a Mac because the school she teaches at uses Macs. My wife uses a Mac because she’s in school for a second-degree and the program requires you to use a Mac. Now, I’m not saying my wife and our friend from college use Macs grudgingly. They’ve both fallen in love with Apple computers since, but they probably would not have bought those computers if they hadn’t been forced to.

A lot of the criticisms leveled against desktop Linux also apply to Macs:

  • Few commercial games available (and only after a long period of waiting)
  • Less hardware support
  • Few users (compared to the vast majority of users—who use Windows)
  • Culture shock ( a different way of installing programs, managing windows and icons)

Yet Macs do not face the “not ready for the desktop” criticism. Even though my wife and I had to carefully look for the blue smiley face on printers before we could buy one for her Powerbook, even though she had to wait a really long time for Sims 2 to be ported to Mac, even though none of our family members and few of our friends use Mac, even though my wife still complains about the usability of the Mac OS X interface… no one in the public sphere declares that Mac is not yet ready for the desktop.

There are two things Mac has going for it that Linux does not—publicity and preinstallation. Yes, Macs are not in every electronics store. Depending on where you live, you may need to go to an Apple store to buy one. But every Apple computer comes with Mac OS X preinstalled. And since Mac OS X will work on only Apple computers, you don’t need to worry about hardware detection. And you are not a freak if you use a Mac. People don’t walk over to your Mac and say, “What’s… that?!” It’s cool to use a Mac. It matches the iPod “everyone” has. All the movie stars in Hollywood use Macs in the movies and on TV. There appear to be more Mac advertisements on TV than Windows advertisements—at least in the United States.

There is no Linux store. There are a handful of stores that sell Linux computers and a handful of online vendors who sell Linux computers, but there is no Linux store similar to an Apple store. The only Linux commercials I’ve ever seen (and seldom, at that) are for servers, not desktops. The only time I saw Linux in the movies was in Roving Mars, where NASA people were using it to track their little Mars probes. It was an exciting moment for me, but it also reinforces the stereotype that ordinary people don’t use Linux—only scientific types. I’m not a scientific type, but that’s beside the point…

Usability does play a role
There are a lot of misconceptions about usability in operating systems. First of all, an intuitive interface is a nice thing to have, but it’s also highly overrated. After all, it’s not intuitive to access the Start menu (indicating a beginning) in order to shut down (an end), but Windows users get used to this easily. It’s not intuitive to drag a USB drive to the trash (which usually erases files) in order to eject it, but Mac users get used to this. Every operating system has its own quirks.

Yes, desktop Linux is pretty much a point-and-click environment, but the two most popular interfaces for Linux—KDE and Gnome—forget what you copy to the clipboard once you close the source application. It took me quite a while to get used to this, and if I’m copying two lines (i.e., not a lot) to the clipboard, I don’t see why I should have to keep the source application open to keep those two lines in the clipboard. Yes, there are programs that help you “solve” this problem, but they are separate programs, and, in my experience, they don’t work that well. In KDE, the automount configuration for external devices (USB drives, CDs, DVDs) is extremely confusing. In Gnome, you can’t choose what folder you want your screensaver slideshow to take pictures out of.

In the end, though, you adjust. I had to adjust to Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X coming from a Windows background. Likewise, I had to adjust to Linux.

Software installation can be extremely easy in Linux if you stick to centralized repositories (which contain a lot of software), but if you have peculiar needs or want the absolutely most up-to-date software (can’t be more than five months behind), you may have to compile some applications from source, which is well beyond the scope of many even intermediate users.

The way I imagine this being fixed—since a universal installer is not going to be adopted en masse out of principle or mandate—is one distro simply becoming more popular than the other ones, to the point where it is the dominant Linux distro and all software developers who want to make a Linux port would be foolish to not create a binary for that distro. Then, that becomes the de facto “universal” installer. Otherwise, we’re stuck with easy installation for repository programs and painful installation for other applications.

What’s going to make the difference, then?
Well, certainly it doesn’t hurt for distros to improve the quality of their software. Better usability is a good thing, more graphical frontends for tasks is a good thing. Good hardware detection and more applications are good things. It won’t matter, though, how easy you make the installation of Linux (and, believe me, right now it’s extremely easy if I can do it)—most users do not install operating systems.

It’s true. Most users won’t even use Windows restore CDs, let alone install Windows from scratch. Why would they install an unfamiliar operating system on their computers?

There are some small vendors who sell Linux preinstalled systems. Linux Certified. Emperor Linux. Koobox. Groovix. System76. The key to getting Linux on the desktop adopted is to support these vendors. Unfortunately, many Linux users (more than I th
ought before I did a poll of Ubuntu Forum members) prefer to build their own computers and install Linux themselves. Sure, they don’t have to pay the “Windows tax,” but they also do not send the message to small Linux vendors “Hey, you’re doing a good thing” or, in turn, to larger vendors like Dell “Hey, this Linux preinstalled thing is a profitable enterprise.”

Money talks in the computer business, just as in any other business. If the Linux desktop is seen as a profitable area for companies, companies will sell Linux desktops. If it’s seen as a big black hole because Linux users just build their own computers anyway, then Windows will continue to dominate the desktop market.

Likewise, if Linux desktop users want more support from hardware manufacturers, they should let those manufacturers know Linux users have money to spend and will spend it on their competitors if those competitors make Linux-compatible hardware (or release driver code to Linux developers). A letter to this effect might help: “I really like your product, but unfortunately it’s not compatible with my Linux system, so I went with your competitor’s similar product. I hope you will consider making your drivers available to Linux developers, as I look forward to buying your products in the future.” Show them a copy of the receipt if you think it’d make a difference.

What else can we do in the meantime?
Yes, it all sounds like a glorious plan, but of the tens of thousands of Ubuntu Forums members, I know of only two who have actually bought System76 computers. Most prefer to build their desktop computers or buy “white” laptops (i.e., laptops with no operating system installed). Some want to buy Macbooks or really cheap Dell computers.

I won’t lie to you. System76’s computers are not dirt cheap. Their pricing is competitive with some of the major Windows computers vendors out there—especially when it comes to 12″ laptops—but they are probably one of the most affordable Linux vendors out there, too!

It’s tough to pay more for a computer on principle, especially when that principle isn’t saving lives, feeding the poor, or stopping wars. You’re just trying to promote free and open source software on the desktop.

So what else can we do?

  • Provide good documentation. There are some Linux compatibility lists out there, and the more we improve them, the less mystery there will be about what to buy. You’ll be able to find out easily whether or not a printer or wireless card works with Linux or not. You’ll get a good sense of what hardware manufacturers release Linux drivers, too. There’s an online quiz at Zegenie Studios, too, that allows you to answer a few simple questions and get three or four recommendations on which Linux distros might be good ones for you to start with (as opposed to weeding through hundreds to find your perfect match). A common misconception in Linux circles is that people don’t like choice. They like choice—they just want to make informed choices. A big list of cryptic-sounding names isn’t choice; it’s confusion. But a list of choices with reviews and detailed descriptions will make people feel empowered. I don’t want one pizza, one car, one movie, or one book. Why would I want one desktop, one operating system, one application? It was ultimately documentation—not software—that got me into Ubuntu, so do not underestimate the value of a good tutorial.
  • Be Welcoming to New Users. I’ve read horror stories of old Linux users yelling at new users to RTFM (or “read the fucking manual”) instead of actually helping. Part of what will make desktop Linux more accessible to new users is an atmosphere that encourages new users to ask questions and not fear being ridiculed or scolded instead of helped. The Ubuntu Forums offered this, and I think there are other Linux distros displaying similar attitudes on their forums.
  • Contribute. Some new Linux users who get frustrated feel that they are somehow making Linux better by whining about how it’s “not ready for the desktop” or “needs” to improve certain features. Well, signing up for a forum account and posting a message to other users doesn’t make Linux any better. You can file bug reports (that the actual developers read and respond to), you can contribute code yourself if you’re a programmer, you can donate money if you have some to spare, but whining really doesn’t improve Linux one bit.
  • Educate and Be Honest. Recognize that Linux is not a cure-all and is not for everyone. Everyone should have a choice, and there are some times when you have to tell people a Linux distro may not be the best choice for them at this time. There are other times when you have to tell people it’s worth a shot. Anyone who, like me, checks email, surfs the web, types documents, listens to music, organizes and manipulates pictures, and designs some websites (albeit poorly… but that’s my fault, not Linux’s) will be fine with Linux. If you love Lexmark printers, AutoCAD, Adobe Creative Suite, and Flash MX Studio, Linux may not be the best option for you right now. Don’t be a crazy evangelist. I was at first, and I think I permanently turned a friend off from Linux. Just remember—one bad experience will leave a lasting first impression. Enjoy it. If people see you having fun with your computer, they may get curious—”Why are you having so much fun with that thing?” On Windows, I can get work done. On Linux, I can get work done, too… and have fun while doing it.

What else is happening?
We users aren’t alone in promoting desktop Linux. Companies like Red Hat and Novell are promoting enterprise Linux for businesses. Linspire has targeted schools for some testing of Linux in the classroom. Recently, South Korea decided to create a “Linux city” dedicated to using open source software, and Taiwan declared that government computers had to be Linux compatible. Meanwhile, MIT is working on the OLPC project (One Laptop Per Child)—getting a $100 Linux laptop out to developing countries.

My guess is that there will be no “year of the Linux desktop.” This is a myth, wherein one year troves of Windows users who had previously never even heard of Linux will suddenly realize that all usability and compatibility problems have been solved by X distro, and they will begin installing it over their Windows systems. It’s not going to happen.

The other myth is that once Microsoft stops offering support for an older version of Windows, those Windows users in large numbers will install Linux instead of upgrading to the newest version of Windows. The truth is that most Windows 98 users will either stay with 98 without the security updates, will buy or pirate a copy of Windows XP and install that, or just buy a new computer with the newest version of Windows preinstalled. There wasn’t a flood of new Linux users when Microsoft stopped support for Windows 95. I don’t see why there would be a flood now.

There are only a handful of scenarios that I can realistically see making a particular year the “year of the Linux desktop”:

  • People show Dell that Linux laptops are profitable and Dell begins displaying them prominently on its website. “Ordinar
    y” people then start buying Linux desktops. It would really help, too, if around that time a virus hit Windows home users like never before.

  • Schools making deals with Linspire actually have a “success story” and spread the word to other schools that it cost them less in the long run and their students learned a lot. As the song goes, “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well, and let them lead the way…”
  • More governments force their employees to use Linux workstations. What you use at work is what you use at home—that’s what usually happens. This may happen in Asia and Europe a lot faster than in North America, of course.
  • The OLPC project fails for its intended purpose (helping developing countries’ children) but leaves a surplus of super-cheap computers for the affluent, who then buy it just to try it out (“What’s the harm? It’s so cheap!”), and you suddenly have a ton of new Linux users.

Why does it matter?
Of course, there are always the old guard Linux users who do not care. Why they would have gotten thus far in my treatise is beyond me. If you don’t care, go about your business. Don’t read this.

There are two (sometimes related) schools of thought in the I-don’t-care Linux desktop camp.

The first camp feels that desktop Linux is fine as it is and will slowly evolve into becoming more popular (the way that it already is). There’s no need to rush it.

The second camp feels that desktop Linux is fine the way it is and likes the fact that there are fewer users because it also means there are fewer incompetent or uneducated users. There’s a sense of accomplishment and elitism in the idea that the masses should use an operating system for the masses, and the elite should use an operating system for the elite.

Naturally, I disagree with both camps. Sure, desktop Linux’s market share will grow naturally. It is already growing. But if it’s going to happen anyway, why not make it happen sooner? I certainly don’t believe that Linux is the best operating system for everyone, or even for most people. I do firmly believe, however, that more people should be using it than even know it exists. If a restaurant had two menus—the public menu and secret menu—you might not actually like the items on the secret menu, but unless you know the secret menu exists and are able to see what dishes are on it, how can you decide whether you like it or not? How can people properly assess if a Linux distro will meet their desktop needs if they don’t even know Linux has a desktop… or that Linux exists at all?

Linux will also improve in its third-party support if it has a larger user base. It doesn’t need to be in the majority. Even if Linux desktops make up 10% or 15% of the market, they will be a formidable enough base that Adobe, HP, Epson, et al will not be able to ignore them.

As for Linux being for the elite, that has long since passed. I may be more computer literate than your average user, but I’m no genius. I don’t know how to program. I was deathly afraid of the command-line when I installed my first Linux distro. And yet I was able to install and configure many a Linux distro. If I can do it, there’s nothing to be elitist about for using Linux on the desktop. It can be a challenge, but even the installation and configuration processes are becoming accessible to the point-and-click ex-Windows power user crowd.

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  1. A nice post. A bit long winded. I agree, we should not be forcing anyone to use what. It all depends on what works for you. An I so much agree with the inertia concept you have provided. It is so true.

    Now Linux community is also working towards the same trend. Ubuntu is coming pre-installed in many laptops.

  2. Didn’t think it was long winded at all rather enjoyed reading it.
    Also very informative.
    I’ve tried Linux several times and now have finally got rid of Microsoft now running LinuxMint 9 Isadora.
    I can identify with your story as i’m also a power user and like building my own machine.
    Usability was the biggest issue for me, if I could avoid the command line i’d be happy.

    I am now a happy Linux user (HeHa)

  3. I only realized when I got to the bottom of your post that it was from 2006. Wow. It’s still mostly true today.

    My experiences were similar to yours, only a lot earlier.

    Today the defacto Linux distribution has, more or less, become Ubuntu. I came across your blog pondering the state of Unity, Gnome 3, and KDE 4’s ongoing controversy. I’m not sure where these things leave us.

    Thanks for the read. I enjoyed it.

  4. like this, but it really How much time do you spend updating this blog every day? Wow is all I can say. Thanks again.

  5. My first experience with linux was when I inherited a computer from school. I never really liked windows that much, so I’m like, so what? I’ll try it. I can always just get a windows vista disc later… I installed ubuntu 9.10, and I loved it! It annoyed me how it would ask me to update the system even when it had not been plugged into the internet ever, but I just disabled the update manager at startup! I was not afraid of the command line, and I never was. Typing “sudo nautilus” makes just as much sense to me as right-clicking on “computer” selecting “run as administrator” and then getting rid of that stupid prompt for you to click “yes” (UAC).

    I have used Linux for four years now. Last year I left ubuntu’s user base, which I had been a part of for three years, and I decided randomly on Mandriva. I loved it even more! there is no need for a command line in Mandriva, everything has a GUI, even the firewall. Mandriva also comes with an amazing amount of software pre-installed. The only thing I have installed is Opera, my favourite web browser, which was just as simple as it is on windows: click download and then open… I love how Linux will not pester you about things, but expects you to do them if you want, and if you don’t, it doesn’t care. *cough anti-virus *cough.

    As for spreading Linux, some of my friends have dabbled in it now that they know how much I like it. They do all like it, but their needs are different to mine, and they go back to windows because of the age-old gaming debacle. They all know how to use Linux though, because they have to use my computer sometimes, and really, it’s not that confusing for them. The fact my mouse buttons are backward is far more “confusing”.

    I intend to use Linux for a very long time, even if my hypothetical girlfriend finds it confusing, she will learn just like me. Linux is not that “confusing”, though. It takes me about three minutes to show a new user how to do everything from browsing the web to sending an E-mail to finding Kapman, and then they start picking things up on their own. One new user actually found out that if you slide two fingers horizontally on the touchpad on the desktop, it changes to the next workspace. I explained the concept of workspaces and soon enough they were using them. I had never known that shortcut before…

  6. Could you just take parts of each desktop that you like and combine it into an Arch distro? I was told Arch allowed you to customize everything, does that count? KDE looks amazing but the Raven menu from Budgie is a must-have and GNOME’s app menu looks really nice, just to mention some things I like…

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