Home > Linux, Philosophical, Tech, Windows > Linux On The Desktop – When?

Linux On The Desktop – When?

Why is Linux still on the fringe of desktop computing?

It has gained considerable ground in areas such as webhosting and enterprise infrastructure, but it remains in single digit percentage points on the desktop. Ubuntu and OpenSUSE have both made tremendous strides in hardware compatibility and user accessibility, but Linux continues to be an also ran for the end user. Why might this be the case?

First, and perhaps most importantly, Linux isn’t a from-the-factory option in most cases. It had previously been the case that one could order a computer with Ubuntu Linux directly from Dell.com as a factory installed option. A quick look at their store today and it’s not a readily apparent (more on this later) option on their netbooks. And you can forget about picking up a machine with Linux from the local Best Buy or Wal-Mart, although, that was not always the case (again, more on this later).The average person is not likely to be comfortable enough with installing an operating system themselves. While it may seem like a trivial task to someone in the industry, it is not something that a lot of people consider to be an option, even when using factory recovery disks. For a majority of the computing public, it would seem that it is easier to simply buy a new computer than it is to have current ones fixed. Consider that many old computers could be given a new lease on life if they were moved from Windows to Linux. Linux can be tweeked to use interfaces such as XFCE that do not require the system resources that something like the Aero Interface of Vista/Windows 7.

Along those lines, it would seem that Linux embodies a certain do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic that is seemingly lacking from contemporary Western society’s “disposable culture.” Anecdotally, most Linux user take a certain amount of pride in their work on their computers. In this regard, a Linux user might be regarded in the same regard as any other enthusiast in a niche area. However, some direct analogies break down fairly quickly, given that a computer running Linux has a greater utility than a vintage car like an MG Midget, one need not be an enthusiast to gain the maximum utility of a bicycle, and the commitment to run Linux is not as large as deciding to refine one’s own bio-diesel. Perhaps, Linux should be seen as a way of dipping one’s toes into a DIY mindset.

How does one overcome these challenges? The easiest answer would appear to be to make Linux more readily available as a built-to-order or default options. Prior to Microsoft’s decision to allow XP Home to be used on new Netbooks and subsequently a low-overhead version of Windows 7, Linux was making significant headway into the market via products such as ASUS’ EeePC, which shipped with a Linux variant by default. Currently, Dell is only offering one Mini 10 variant, and options beyond that to buy an OEM computer running Linux are slim. Part of the problem with this is the fact that many people are going to be wanting to run their Windows programs on their new computers and won’t be happy to discover that they can’t run their games on their new computers easily, which is something that likely led to Wal-Mart discontinuing their line of Linspire powered machines. Where Linux options exist, they need to be sought out.

That said, hurdles to moving to Linux for the end user are becoming lower. Cloud computing in the form of things like GMail, Google Docs, and even Facebook have made most computer users’ computing lives platform agnostic. Add to the fact that popular software such as Firefox, Skype and Picasa are available on all three platforms makes moving between the three platforms much easier than it would have been 10 years ago.

In the end, I feel that I have raised more questions than I have successfully answered with this entry. These are the kind of questions that have no easy answers. Hopefully, this implies that these questions are important enough to not have easy answers.

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Categories: Linux, Philosophical, Tech, Windows
  1. 11 March 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Great post Rory… and some great thoughts. For me, it is really a matter of the programs I need… but I agree… for many people it really doesn’t matter, but there is that cultural idea that it does matter, and that somehow linux is second class, or for cheap people… at least that is the feeling I get from some folks. Almost like a stigma. I personally love it, but as long as I work for the University and they provide me a computer I will probably just use OSX or Windows 7. Once that is not the case however, I will certainly be joining the ranks of the cheap. 🙂 Hey… if it meets my needs… what else is there?

  2. 11 March 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Jeff,

    After I posted this, I realized that I could have discussed many more topics than I actually did. You bring up two of the big ones. I’ll quickly outline some points around programs and stigma:

    Programs!
    Microsoft Office doesn’t work on Linux without a piece of software called WINE, or something similar. WINE is finally a fairly mature piece of technology at this point and my personal experiences with it have mostly been positive. With other software like VirtualBox and VMWare Player, this side of things isn’t the difficulty it once was, but it’s still bordering on complex for a lot of people. The thing to remember for ease, is that for a lot of people, they will only use what comes on their computer.

    Additionally, there isn’t any one unified program installer type for Linux yet. Redhat and its derivatives (including my personal favorite, Fedora) use .rpm files. Debian and its derivatives (like perennial favorite, Ubuntu) make use of .deb files. Still other distros force you to compile programs from source. Add to the fact that a lot of programs have dependencies on libraries that are not including in their installation packages and you have a potential nightmare. Package managers like Synaptic, apt-get, and yum are a step in the right direction, but the user is then dependent upon default package repositories without specific knowledge of other trusted package repositories. This is a significant issue with distros like Red Hat and Fedora since they don’t include proprietary codecs for MP3s or DVDs in their package repositories because of copyright issues. And let’s not even get into the issue of 3D gaming. 😉

    Stigma!
    Americans are fond of saying things like "You get what you pay for." Linux is free as in beer in addition to being free as in speech. The last time that Linux made major headway into the desktop realm was in the late '90s as part of the dot com boom. As Linux companies started to make IPOs, their products were being sold on the shelves of places like Best Buy and Staples. Your $50 wasn't buying software, but a support contract. In most cases, these were pretty good 24/7 phone support contracts, too. However, they were still much cheaper than Windows and my guess is that people still looked down their noses at it for that reason, to say nothing of the fact that it would have been a lot harder for most people to switch to Linux as their primary OS more than a decade ago.

    I think that a lot of these problems stem from a fractured Linux community. There is no one distribution where all the work's being done. Developers are mostly working on what's fun and not necessarily what needs to be fixed or addressed. However, to unify the greater Linux community would be difficult and it would likely lose something along the way.

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