Recently in a post on my blog I argued that, despite many claims to the contrary, GNU/Linux is almost ready for the desktop. In particular, I argued that GNU/Linux is already a very good and easy desktop if people just take the time to learn its very basic differences with Windows before actually using it. Note: Don’t forget to rate this article!
Please excuse any spelling/grammar mistakes as the author is not a native English speaker. Thank you.
There is still the (in)famous “GNU/Linux lacks application X” critic unresolved, but I don’t want to address it here: it would require another post by itself. Here I want to make clear my point of view by explaining what I feel is the right target for GNU/Linux now on the desktop, and what hardware it needs to fully reach it.
I. GNU/Linux Can And Should Address The Firefox Target
The success of Firefox is a self-confidence lesson for the free software community. It showed the community that free software can be really successful on the desktop, that it can really provide value to the end user instead of giving a hackish imitation of a commercial product, and that users will switch if they know there’s a better, free alternative. Moreover it made a group of people at least vaguely aware of the Open Source concept, and with a winning product.
Now, we also know Firefox adoption growth is slowing. This means that Firefox, despite all its wonders, is ending to fill its natural niche, and it will only slowly grow among other users. What is this niche -and therefore the GNU/Linux potential target?
Firefox users can be classified -in my experience- mostly as “computer-friendly users”. They’re not computer geeks. They’re the people that use the computer often for fun, day-to-day communication, multimedia fruition, P2P and so on. They usually use the computer at home for social activities and spend much time blogging, chatting, emailing and navigating. They are familiar with basic concepts like installing new software and drivers or customizing the GUI, and they can successfully accomplish tasks like reinstalling Windows or partitioning a hard drive, if they need to. They usually care very much about privacy, spamming and basic security needs, so they will probably install service packs, free firewalls and antispyware/antivirus products and will actively take care them. They are accustomed to IRC, blogs and forums, and they almost always look on Google or Wikipedia when they look for info about almost everything. They are not geeks or tech addicts, but they’re often consumers of basic multimedia-oriented hi-tech products like digital cameras or DVD players. A significant proportion of them own a laptop. They’re often students or young employers of middle to high cultural level. They see the computer as a natural extension of their environment.
What do these users want? They want a slick, friendly, easy, but customizable, cool desktop experience. They basically know their way with computers and they’re ready to accept new concepts. They often want something economical too, because most of them are students or young workers. They don’t want viruses or spyware at all. They want a lot of ready-to-go applications for free that can accomplish their basic everyday tasks.
If you agree with this description, you immediately agree this is the niche GNU/Linux can easily fit just now. GNU/Linux fits the needs of most of these users: slick, good-looking desktop, easy and fun to customize, good security, cheap, full of ready application, completely OK for all basic needs. These are exactly the users that will happily understand and accept what GNU/Linux is, and that will seriously consider googling and looking on the internet before installing it, if they’re explained that’s for their good. They’re almost all potential GNU/Linux users: they just need to be educated to it. They will have no problem orienting themselves in a KDE 3.4 or GNOME 2.10 desktop, and they will probably find them even much nicer than Windows XP. They would learn to use even non-Windows-like interfaces like Fluxbox quite fast and easily without training, even if probably most of them won’t leave mainstream desktop environments. They would be intimidated from the shell at first, but if properly educated they would understand how and why it works, and they will become quite soon able to use it at least for basic tasks.
These are the people the GNU/Linux community should focus on now. To do this GNU/Linux does not need revolutions, it just needs to polish what it already has. Distributions like Mandriva or Xandros should be almost there. If it’s perhaps real that today GNU/Linux is way too hard for grandma or the point-haired boss, it is perfectly within reach of the “Firefox target”. It is useless to struggle to create a GNU/Linux desktop easy for all, at least at this stage. By aggressively targeting the “Firefox users” we could easily rise from the sad estimated 1-3% to a much more interesting 5-10% of desktops. This would be a major achievement, and it would really shift many things, preparing GNU/Linux for the rest of the computer users. This would be even much more important than it seems numerically, because that 5-10% of desktops would include the many of the most active and exigent Internet users. The Internet traffic would be even more biased towards GNU/Linux, helping the penguin to become a buzzword like Firefox did. Again, what we need is to educate the users: telling about this new alternative, about how and why it can fit their needs and warning them they need to learn a bit how it is different from Windows before actually using it, just because it’s different, not because it’s hard. These are the users that can be willing to do it happily, and we must and can attract them. We can do it just now; the system is practically already there. We must just make the right people aware of it.
II. Paving The Way To The Desktop With The TuxMini
There is still a big obstacle to the adoption of GNU/Linux on the desktop. This has nothing to do with GUI usability, hardware support or filesystem hierarchy. This is a much more simple and higher obstacle and, although its existence is obvious to anyone, it is often overlooked. The problem is: GNU/Linux practically never comes preinstalled.
Imagine a world where people have to manually install Windows to use it. They would face a cryptic and slow text-based install anytime, and all what they would get out of it would be a bare GUI without any software -apart from a bad browser, a media player and a few other goodies- and very limited hardware support. They would be lucky if their network card actually works. They would have to install all drivers by hand.
Do you think Windows would be very successful in such a world? Probably not. We all know why Windows is the winner: it comes preinstalled and preconfigured with 99% of PCs sold today. Trivial.
Now, imagine the user coming in front of a preinstalled, preconfigured GNU/Linux desktop. Hardware just works, the system boots into a login manager (just like WinXP) and after login a nice, slick desktop comes out, with a rational menu containing all apps and plug-ins needed for internet, multimedia and office use. Icons for drives like cdrom are on the desktop, with the familiar Trash and a new icon called Home. By the default behaviour of the applications the user will immediately learn this is the place where he can put his stuff. He finds a “Software Install” icon, with (let’s say) a preconfigured Synaptic. Perhaps at the first time the user will be perplexed, but he will somehow figure out how it works and he will be soon happily installing and upgrading packages from the network. He will probably be happy to see virtual desktops. In a few hours he will have mastered all the basic things he will need to be somehow productive, and he’s ready to routinely use the GNU/Linux desktop in a month or less. He will probably never see a shell in the meantime.
This scenario is not already truth, but GNU/Linux desktop is ready for it. What it needs is the preinstalled machine. But in my opinion a plain boring PC with GNU/Linux preinstalled wouldn’t catch up. Given the user target we have defined before, we should look for something different. The native added values of GNU/Linux (cheapness, customization, plenty of preinstalled applications and security) should add up to a significant thing Windows lacks: the cool factor.
That’s why I now hope some bold hardware producer is listening to me, because what we have to do now is to play on Apple’s battleground. We must create a cheap substitute of the Mac Mini with GNU/Linux preinstalled and ready to go. We must create a powerful, flexible, small machine for the desktop of young students and workers that want something both cheap, functional and cool. Despite the hype, Mac Mini’s are not cheap: the base configuration is too crippled to provide a pleasant experience, and upgrades are really costly. Macs also do not feature a plethora of really free applications out of the box, although the situation seems to be better than for Windows. iWork office apps are cheaper than MS Office, but they’re surely not free. Moreover we can exploit the two opportunity windows that the Longhorn delays and the Apple switch to Intel are opening just now.
So, how could we push the TuxMini? We should emphasize:
Ideally the TuxMini should also feature hardware usable by almost every major GNU/Linux distribution without pain. This would allow advanced users to easily upgrade their machine with a new GNU/Linux OS without having to do complex configuration, or to use Knoppix as a rescue disk. The distribution installed should be probably a mainstream desktop oriented distribution -Mandriva probably, or Xandros, or Ubuntu- with a large software repository, good free documentation and an active, established community where to look for advice and help. In this way TuxMini users can feel at home in already populated forums and find coherent advice. The producers could also encourage the formation of a TuxMini community, anyway. The shiny example to look for this should be the Gentoo community.
The final thing the TuxMini would need is: advertisement. Microsoft does advertising, Apple does advertising. I don’t see advertising for GNU/Linux on the desktop. This must somehow change. While it is hard for it to change now, while the distribution market is owned by tiny companies with limited budgets and bigger corporations that have little interest in the young user’s desktop, it would be a necessity for the TuxMini hardware vendor. The world should become suddenly aware that a brand new cool alternative exists, for cheap. It should be aware of a cool design and a cool marketing campaign that promotes GNU/Linux.
What I want to stress in conclusion is that GNU/Linux is ready for this. Now. It just can need some minor polishing, but nothing a smart GNU/Linux distributor cannot easily achieve. We struggled for years, but now we have a functional GNU/Linux desktop. Hardware makers, please listen to me: it’s true. We have it. There is a market that is not fully satisfied with Windows, and not fully satisfied by Apple. We have the alternative. This is a big opportunity for us all. Don’t waste it.
About the author:
Massimo Sandal, a.k.a. dev/urandom, is a Ph.D. student in Molecular Biology in Italy. He is a GNU/Linux desktop user with an interest in free software promotion and operating systems development and future (Yes, he is practically the plain, classic OSNews geek). GNU/Linux really put back the fun into computing for him, and he will never be grateful enough.
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