posted by Brian Davis on Mon 9th Aug 2004 06:15 UTC
IconAs I'm sure many have noticed, there's been a flurry of articles recently regarding the Linux desktop and the direction it "needs" to go in. A few have been insightful and offered up valuable information regarding the future of desktop computing. Most, however, have been painfully ill-informed or even confrontational. After sitting back and watching the fighting break out in the trenches, I decided to pen something from the opposite side of the fence.

Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of Some of the claims below don't sound fair to our ears, but an opinion is an opinion and we respect that.

It's the Design, Stupid!

Perhaps one of the greatest sources for the general confusion among critics and ire among the Linux community is that many of the critics are suffering from a case of what psychologists call "projection". The projection hypothesis basically states that a given person will perceive in a project the goal that they themselves value the most. It's a form of identification that is basically derived from the internal assumption that we are normal. If I am normal and I feel a project should progress in a given direction, any normal person should feel the same. Thus, a developer who is involved in the Linux movement typically believes that the unstated goal of the movement is to create an OS perfectly suited to his or her needs. It's a subconscious fallacy, but a fallacy nonetheless. Similarly, many who envision a Linux box in every home wrongly perceive that as the Linux community's primary goal.

So what is the goal of Linux, exactly? Well, that's the fun part... Linux itself is merely a general use kernel designed for high performance, scalability, and a certain degree of modularity. Alone, it's not very useful. The Linux that most people refer to when they write their usability articles is actually known as GNU/Linux and is a whole suite of applications that surround and complement the kernel. These can be packaged and distributed in an almost infinite number of combinations with very different ends. The core of Linux is choice, and nothing illustrates that more than its design. By being almost completely modular, Linux offers users the unique choice of being able to pick the very best for their specific situation. These "pre-rolled" bundles of programs, settings, environments and kernels are called distributions. There are more distributions out there than I would care to enumerate. Suffice it to say that there's one for you out there. If in the extremely rare case you find there's not a distro to suit your needs, Linux affords you the flexibility to create your own operating system from the ground up, or merely alter a pre-existing OS. Neat, huh? Of course it is.

One thing that Linux is *NOT*, however, is centralized. Linux, the OS, doesn't exist. Linux, in the general sense, is so broad and far-ranging that it cannot, will not and does not share a common goal between its specific distributions, with the one exception that it must be free (as in speech). Thus, it is completely reprehensible for any critic, reviewer or well-informed computer user to ever utter the words "Linux should..." The people that speak these words are suffering under the delusion that the entire Linux community is backing a single philosophy or goal (in this particular case, the march to take over the desktop) and that they have a way to improve it. This is most definitely not the case. There are more Linux boxes out there without monitors than there are with GUIs, so we're going to check that misconception at the door right now.

Now, with that done with, let's move on to the meat of the meal: why Windows is unfit for the desktop and how desktop flavors of Linux beat the pants off of Windows any day...

Hardware Compatibility

That's right, I said it. The first words out of any Linux critic's mouth are usually these two. The Linux community typically reacts violently to the frequent charge that "there's no hardware support" in Linux. This is due mainly to frustration. The fact is, hardware manufacturers aren't going to go through all the trouble of allocating resources to port their drivers to each OS on the internet. At least, not unless it's worth their while (read: $$). This leaves Linux floundering in a chicken-and-egg quagmire. See, hardware manufacturers will only write drivers for Linux if it's popular and will benefit the manufacturer, but the only way for Linux to reach this critical mass is to have the drivers that users insist on. It's a vicious cycle, but the Linux community has a little trick up its collective sleeve: will. By sheer dint of effort, developers and hackers have created an awe-inspiring heap of open source drivers that, while occasionally not as featureful as their proprietary counterparts, still deliver where functionality is concerned. The only real areas where driver support is still lagging is in the rare goods arena. It's simple logic; if there aren't many people using a product, it's a lot harder to find people willing to write the code to make it work. But then again, your average desktop user tends to use relatively standard, off the shelf components. The people who have the most trouble with drivers are, for the most part, not your typical desktop user.

A lack of drivers, however small it may be, is no strength, though. It's a weakness that will persist as long as hardware makers are led to believe it's more profitable to just write for the top two proprietary operating systems. So how could hardware compatibility possibly be a *strength* of Linux? Well, pop your Windows XP installation disk into your best friend's Apple G5 and tell me what happens.

... nothing...

No new Windows installation. Heck, without an emulator, there's just no Redmond OS on Cupertino hardware. And why is that? Hardware incompatibility, my friends. Windows is compatible with only one type of processor. In fact, because the closest thing to a desktop-ready OS that has come out of Redmond is Windows XP, the only type of processor that will support Windows is an i686. Furthermore, you need a hefty load of RAM to run the beast, but that's another article in and of itself (be on the watch for a Longhorn rant... coming to a news site near you). Linux, however, is able to run on a dizzying array of platforms. In one incarnation or another, chances are there's a penguin for your processor. Got a Tivo? That runs Linux. Wanna harness the awesome number-crunching power of your PS2 or XBox? I see Tux in your future. And if you've got a bunch of old, dusty, slow grinding 4/586s, I've got good news for you: Linux can breathe new life into those old boxes. They'll be snappier than ever with a smaller base install and a relatively tiny memory footprint. Now that's what I call hardware compatibility. After all, what's the point of paying $1,500 on a good computer if it can't even boot the OS in three years? Linux gives desktop users the unique option of actually being productive for longer by extending the functionality and life of their machine. And by being nearly universally compatible, it allows those in the market for a new system to resurrect old hardware or buy less expensive systems and still guarantee performace and stability. After all, a PS2 would make a great desktop computer: sleek, functional, fast and internet-ready... all for under $200. A PC with a similar feature set would cost much more (and lack the necessary element of style!). Try doing any of that with Windows.

Table of contents
  1. "Windows Not Ready, Page 1/3"
  2. "Windows Not Ready, Page 2/3"
  3. "Windows Not Ready, Page 3/3"
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