Linux On The Desktop?

The true reason for this article is to point out some sensitive points and to start a discussion. Hopefully, this discussion will produce some useful outcome and if some people in the Linux community are willing to listen to them, I would already be very enthusiastic. Let’s start, shall we?

First of all, this document is a comment and at the same time an addition to many articles that have recently been posted on the internet concerning the fact if Linux is ready (or not) to face the desktop and if it is ready, why it is still lacking behind. This articles formulates certain ideas. You either agree with them or you don’t. However, this is of no importance. The true reason for this article is to point out some sensitive points and to start a discussion. Hopefully, this discussion will produce some useful outcome and if some people in the Linux community are willing to listen to them, I would already be very enthusiastic. Let’s start, shall we?

Linux has potential, there is no denying that. The success of a distribution like Ubuntu is not something that has gone unnoticed. Out of nowhere, this distribution managed to make it to one of the most popular distros in a couple of months. The innovations are there too. Enlightenment, Luminocity and many more are wonderful technologies that improve the Linux experience like never before. Finally, the bling is finding it’s way towards Linux. Furthermore, there are a lot of companies who are beginning to offer some very decent support for Linux. Even graphics drivers seem to have matured. NVidia has been out there for a long time offering support for the Linux community and the speed of their drivers under Linux are better than those of the drivers under Windows.

Yet, with all these wonderful assets, Linux does not manage to become commonplace in the average household. Mind you, I’m not talking about servers or geeks here. Nor am I talking about the family of some geek. Very often, you will find that his parents, his grandparents and a lot more of his relatives use Linux because he single-handedly installs, updates and manages them. No, I’m talking about the average human being, with little to no computer experience. Why is it that he cannot get the hang of Linux on the desktop?

Well, for some reason, the largest amount of the Linux community still believes that people actually intend to struggle their way through a hefty manual to get the thing installed and configured as they wish. Strange, especially when you see how successful an operating system like OS X is becoming, simply because this operating system is so simplistic and easy to use, even for a complete newbie, that it gives the user a very powerful feeling.

And for some reason, the entire Linux community seems to hide themselves behind the idea that one needs to “grow into” a distro. One should apply for leave for a month before being able to actually getting used to his or her distro of choice. Some may find this absurd, and it is, but this is actually advice people have given me in the past. A lot of you will also agree that if you do want to get acquainted with Linux, you should do it like this, one does need to grow into it and that’s where the shoe pinches. People do not like to be told to grow into something, unless it is worth it. And Linux simply is not worth the trouble.

But then, why is it that operating systems like OS X and Windows are so much more suited for end users? One needs to look beyond his own nose to see why this actually is. If you only focus on the end-users, this is essentially a computer-illiterate, it is hard to see why Windows would be any better than Linux. They both have a start menu, they both have a taskbar, they both have a traybar and I could go on summing things up that are exactly the same for most users. If a user is unable to operate a mouse and point and click on an icon, then he won’t be capable to do a single thing with a computer nowadays. If he can, then he can do all he wants, as long as the computer has already been configured and all his favourite apps are to be found on the desktop.

At this point, you should start to see where I am taking you. Measuring how good an operating system is for an end-user is not a thing someone can measure by looking at how well an end-users can point and click the icons on both systems. What is important, is to see how many people are around that can actually configure the operating system to the needs of this end user. Furthermore, I am once again not talking about the geeks here. Once a person attains a certain level of computer knowledge, he will be held back to do simple things like configuring a computer for a computer illiterate. Believe me, there is nothing so tiresome as having to configure a computer for someone who is a true computer illiterate.

So, one needs a broad base of people who can do simple administrative tasks, like installing software and configuring the system, yet not someone who works in a computer store as a computer technician. The first group, the illiterates, can’t do jobs like these. The latter have done it too many times in the past, and have outgrown the phase in which they found such endeavours to be challenging.

If we look back at Windows, we see how this operating system has a huge base as we want it. The illiterates working with Windows are numerous, but it is safe to say that every five illiterates are backed by at least one person who can configure the machine more or less as they would like. Let us from now on call these people disciples. If these disciples need help, they can always fall back on the geeks, who are also numerous for Windows.

The reason why Windows has such a neat distribution of this knowledge pyramid as I will call it from now on, is because of historical reasons. It has nothing to do with a better system than the others on the market. It has to do with power, and widespread usage. You may love this, you may hate this, you may love to hate this, but the fact remains. Windows is powerful, and it will remain so for a long time to come. If you believe otherwise, you are most likely one of those stubborn geeks who has not yet found the virtue of self-criticism. Please, for once and for all, stop believing you and only you are right, because you are not.

Moving to OS X, we come across a system who has earned every bit of respect thanks to their great efforts. If you have ever worked with OS X, you know what I mean. For those who don’t, I’m talking about simplicity. Installing a program on OS X is nothing more than dragging and dropping the folder where you want it. In fact, OS X even hides the fact that it is a folder, and it simply appears to be the program. Drag the icon of the program to where you want it, and you are ready to rock and roll. Same goes for the control panel. This is much like in Windows a central place where you can make some of the most important adjustments.

Final thing to look at when it comes to installing software, is how different sources interact. This is, when you install from a file from your computer or from a CD, how much difference does it make? As for Windows, thanks to autoplay, there hardly is any difference for the average user. For OS X, it is even better, since every install program automatically behaves as if it is actually a CD. This further increases the consistency of performing an installation.

We not only need to look at how easy it is to install a program or to set some options, but we also need to look at how consistent this is with earlier versions. Here, Windows has done a great job. From Windows 95 and onwards, it should be a breeze to configure the system as you want. While not looking as lovely on one version as on the other, the functionality is to be found at about the same place, and one can rather quickly set everything to his preferences. The same goes for OS X. This is, once again, mainly thanks to Apple itself. Apple is constantly pushing people to use the latest and greatest, and with success. This saves Apple quite some money on support costs, and Apple has wisely used this money to promote people to switch even faster. One has to admit that a family license of OS X (which allows you to install OS X on 3 computers) sounds a lot more attractive than Windows XP Home edition that you can install on a single computer. Oh, and yeah, they both sell for about the same price.

Too bad for Linux, but it is time to evaluate them too. Linux has some share in the end user market, about none when it comes to the disciples and way too many geeks. This is caused by, again, numerous factors. Linux has outgrown the hobby stage, and a lot of geeks had a hand in this. However, as popularity grows, the other two groups should have started building them up themselves and grow into a nice looking knowledge pyramid. But for Linux, this has not happened. Why?

Linux has a learning curve, that is more than just steep. Linux is not something that one learns to configure after a couple of hours of clicking around. Furthermore, where the other two OSes could fall back on a large group of geeks who are more than willing to help, it seems like Linux suffers from a so-called uber-geek effect. When one needs to simply know how to install a driver, and one is offered a solution that resembles more the activation of a nuclear rocket, it is not so hard to understand why the disciples are so thinly spread amongst Linux users. If they ask for more advise, it is not so rare that they get an answer that is full of disbelief and contempt. I know a lot who have tried to make the move to Linux, who struggled their way towards becoming a disciple, but who have failed. Not because they didn’t try. Most of them even tried too hard. No, Linux is open software with open documentation. So you just try to struggle your way trough the sometimes way too complex documentation and please, leave the geeks alone. They are evangelising Linux as “almost” ready for the desktop. So please, do not disturb them. Maybe later. But not now.

When it comes to consistency, I’m afraid to express my opinion. Simply because I know that a lot of Linux geeks will simply activate their defences again and tell me that Linux, well, isn’t Linux. Linux consists of many different OSes where every OS has his own set of rules and own set of features. However, as soon as it fits them, they will once again join forces again and come out as Linux. The Big One. Well, for end users and disciples, Linux is Linux. Debian, Suse, Gentoo, Ubuntu, Mandrake, Fedora, Vector Linux and so on, they are all just different flavours much like Windows 95 and Windows XP. And once again, I agree with them. There is just too little of a difference to actually say they are all different OSes instead of just flavours of Linux.

Getting a disciple to work with a single distro is certainly doable. Linux has some great ideas, and if one only focuses on one distro, things look great. However, even two distros can make a world of difference to a disciple. I think it doesn’t need clarification that getting something installed in Mandrake does not mean you will be able to do the same thing in Fedora. Or Debian. Consistency is the greatest deficiency of Linux. Simple because it is absent. And this is, sadly enough, present in every aspect of Linux. Think about Gnome. Think about KDE. Think about repositories. Think about installation packages. Think about every single aspect of Linux, and you are confronted with an OS that seems to be schizophrenic. For some unclear reason, Linux users are in constant conflict with themselves, trying to outperform the others and building a better copy of what they are making. Not only does this waste most valuable time, it also makes that Linux has too little money to do something (however, combined, Linux would be quite wealthy) and that the good programmers are spread out over projects that are making exactly the same thing.

For some reason, the Linux community simply doesn’t understand what Caesar was saying when he invented the very successful strategy of “Divide and Conquer”; this does not mean that one needs to split up his own troops, but this means that the troops of the enemy should be divided, so that your mighty large army can come and squash those silly small troops. Right now, Linux is nothing more than a bunch of silly small troops. I am not the only one pointing this out, and attempts have been made to make this possible. However, they were all in vain. Yet, people are more than ever saying that Linux should unite. And these aren’t any longer only small fish, but even an executive of Redhat has recently declared that Linux should unite. And he is right.

Linux also needs to leave behind their ubergeek image. Configuration panels are there for disciples, not the geeks. So don’t confront them with options that they would never set. Simply because as soon as one knows what the option is for, one would already have reached such a high level of experience with this operating system that one would be able to simply alter the desired files directly. So keep it simple and stupid.

Innovation is another thing that Linux lags. Linux is a copy of a lot of other things, all pieced together. This is not immediately something bad. However, it needs to be done right. When you copy, you need to innovate, or at least, make a good copy. It is no use to reinvent the wheel, so don’t do it. But don’t copy it and think that a square wheel will do the job as well. For example, look at Abiword, KOffice and OpenOffice. If you throw them all together, you would end up with a more than wonderful package. Leave them as they are now, and they all represent both a small amount of good value and a huge bunch of real annoyances. To tell you the truth, Word will remain my favourite editor for quite some time (oh, and before you start to doubt my credibility, I’m using Word on my trusty iBook running OS X Panther). So please, now is the time to unite. Well, actually, it was yesterday, but you all seemed to have missed the train.

Some other huge things where Linux lags behind is the fact that they have the urge to bundle every possible application and that they are terrible at localising their software. There’s nothing like a distro like Ubuntu. It is small, easy to install and without too many options to set. No filling up your hard disk with useless programs, but most of them are simply necessary programs of a very high quality. This should become the standard for Linux, however, due to the broad range of different ways to install software under Linux, this is not yet truly achievable. The only exception is when you offer a large website with installation packages or when you offer a central repository. In both cases, these things cost a lot of money to maintain.

The other deficiency that Linux has, is even more important than the one I just stated. It is their localisation. Getting Linux to work in English is no big deal, however, trying out other languages is a huge challenge. For example, go ahead and try to get it all running in Dutch. Dutch is no small language, with over 30 million people who have it as their native tongue. Yet, getting a version of Linux that is in Dutch is harder than ever. Not often you are confronted with bad translations, or, even worse, half translations. When it comes to trusting an operating system, I can tell you that there is no trusting a system that can’t even get the translations right. Therefore, why not move to the Apple way of doing things, and make every program de-facto multi-lingual? Truly, Linux lags way behind here. Windows works like a charm, OS X does it even better (allowing two users on the same computer to operate in different languages), but Linux, well, it can zijn better. (and no, the last part of this phrase does not include a clerical error. It is the Linux way of saying things in other languages).

It’s is somewhat funny to see that an operating system with such a high potential as Linux suffers so greatly from tearing itself apart. Face it, why oh why do we have for example KDE and Gnome? While this is not so terrible, it is terrible that every desktop has his own set of software of which the most of them are just copies of one another. Only, they have been designed without working together and once again most valuable time has gone to waste in building two suites of applications who do the same thing.

Lastly, I would once again encourage those who evangelise Linux to start using self-criticism. To tell you the truth, Linux has not made any advancements when you compare it to Windows. Windows has gone forward with leaps and bounds towards becoming a secure and productive system. Linux hasn’t made such advancements. Linux has only made some small steps, and there can only be hope that one day, Linux will actually start to make some leaps. Windows is a lot better than Linux because in the past, Windows has learned from their mistakes. Linux hasn’t. And OS X, well, they play in their own league.

Let me once again remind you that this article only holds a very slim amount of reasons for Linux not being successful on the desktop. Other articles will most certainly pop out other reasons and some other articles will be very correct. I do hope that I have started a good discussion with this article and that I, in a limited manner, provide a general solution to the problem. However, as I said, I’m only pointing out a very limited amount of possible reasons, so please, read other articles who are to be found almost anywhere and try to learn from them too.

About the author:

Kim Bauters is a 20 year old student in applied computer science with special iinterestin automation, artifical intelligence, operating systems and compression.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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