How's the Linux Desktop Doing?

Tuesday Jun 7th 2011 by Matt Hartley

Forget worrying about the “year of the Linux desktop.” Is Linux ready for new users? 

How many times have we as desktop Linux users been asked if this is the "year of the Linux desktop?" Too many times I'd imagine.

Even worse, we still calculate the value of using Linux based on some phantom number that is frankly impossible to measure. As regular users of the desktop Linux, many of us don't care what kind of market penetration is taking place. It's less about a race to the finish and more about the reason we're running in the first place.

In this article, I'd like offer a Linux progress report. While I”m clearly biased due to my affinity for the Linux desktop, I’ll try to be as fair as possible. Then again, any findings I come up with will likely be more balanced than “yet another Windows user" sharing their insights about the Linux desktop experience.

Why? Among other reasons, because I don't pretend that Ubuntu is Linux in its entirety. There is an entire world beyond one single Linux distribution.

Ubuntu doesn't represent Linux

Ubuntu may be a very popular distribution, but there are other communities of Linux enthusiasts enjoying alternative distributions outside of the Ubuntu space. Not to be misunderstood as a strike against one distribution over another, instead I merely wish to point out that this is a point of confusion to most Windows users.

There are distributions of Linux available for every need imaginable. From those looking for a scientific option down to newbie friendly distributions like Ubuntu or PCLinuxOS. There's something for everyone no matter the need.

Linux doesn’t live in the one size fits all world of the proprietary operating system(s). As a matter of fact, I see Linux on the desktop offering better compatibility than their proprietary OS cousins thanks to its diversity. Each distribution is able to offer a customized kernel calibrated best for the given tasks at hand.

Peripheral compatibility

As I look at the accomplishments of the various Linux distributions, I can say without question that we've come a long way. Today's modern Linux distributions accept most peripherals used with modern PCs, while backing things up with the software to run each device when appropriate.

Plugging in devices like a Nintendo Wii guitar or many digital cameras speaks volumes to this success of device compatibility on the Linux platform. In the last few years, the only devices I've ever needed to reexamine happen to be certain wireless dongles.

To further elaborate on the wireless dongle issue, let's just say that there are some wireless chipsets that don't play well with Linux. With the growth of laptops and netbooks in use, this can be a frustration that turns people off rather quickly.

Newer users rarely spend more than a day fighting with the issue before giving up. Perhaps more frustrating is that it's a problem that may never fully be addressed.

On the plus side, some modern Linux distributions use chipset detection tools to automatically install Windows drivers during the distribution setup. If this is something that bothers you, then the easiest way to avoid going this route is to stick with Intel based wireless chipsets built into the computer.

Should the Intel chipset or alternative still not work as expected, this brings us back to specialized software that handles the installation of the above mentioned Windows drivers.

 Software is available

 The biggest challenge I've found with getting new users over the desktop Linux side of the fence is breaking them free of their legacy software mindset. Sometimes new Linux users are asked to part with proprietary office suites, tax software, and other applications.

This isn't to say that one cannot make the Linux switch because of these legacy programs, rather that unless we can find a way to ease the migration away from these apps, some users will just dual-boot their PCs to compensate. In my mind, this dual-booting of operating systems serves no one.

Oddly enough, it will likely be companies like Google and other "cloud favorites" that help to ease the transition away from a singular OS dependence over the long haul. After all, if most of your apps are accessed with a Web browser, the operating system used becomes much less important.

Until the usage of Web apps becomes more commonplace, hassles for users unwilling to unshackle themselves from the familiar will continue. Remember, installed software tends to be very OS-centric.

Familiarity and usability

While I'd be thrilled to report this differently, I still find some PC users thinking that if an operating system doesn't feel like Windows or OS X, then it needs to be changed.

It's interesting how people say they're willing to try new things, yet will balk at the idea of trying the Linux desktop as it's not familiar to them. Perhaps we humans are such creatures of habit, that any potential for change becomes seemingly undoable? Who really knows for sure.

One thing that is clear, however, is that familiarity can be tied to "perceived usability." This means that if the desktop experience isn't easily recognized, then it's entirely possible that some users will arbitrarily decide that it's not as usable to them whatsoever.

To be ultimately fair, I've been known to present the same mindset outlined above when forced to use the Windows desktop. So I do realize how familiarity can breed a limited point of view when left unchecked. This being said, where I think familiarity goes too far is when it's tied into perceived value.

Desktop Linux value

How we value our desktop operating experience is tied into whether we can use the PC to carry out its assigned tasks or not. Nothing more, nothing less. For Linux enthusiasts such as you and I, the value is most certainly there.

But some new users might still be on the fence, due to their inability to get past the issues described above. So for these new users, the value of the Linux desktop is then diminished and provides a lesser experience than their current operating system.

This is unfortunate, as other value-added bonuses like a secure desktop experience, freely available software from a single download source and other benefits end up going undiscovered. Another missed benefit I see is those unwilling to step into the unknown are finding themselves lacking an opportunity to learn something new.

See, each new challenge that comes up during the Linux experience forces the new user to rely on themselves for answers instead of some local repair tech. This becomes an attribute that creates increased personal value which goes way beyond that of a mere desktop computing experience.

Linux ready for most people

As I bring this report to a close, I'd like to summarize my findings as follows:

Linux on the desktop has been completely usable to most people for a few years now. Any perceived holdups or challenges that would keep more people from making the leap are user-created hurdles in my opinion. I believe it's completely doable for the typical non-geek to switch to Linux very easily, when following the advice outlined below. It simply means that there may need to be concessions made on behalf of the end-user themselves.

Let's look at my Want vs. Solution list for guidance.

Want: Everything should be working right out of the box.

Solution: Buy Linux pre-installed by using your search engine to find the right vendor.

Want: Office suite and tax software made available with the same brands as used before.

Solution: I suggest learning to use LibreOffice and try using a search engine to find financial software alternatives. Both options may require you to change your daily habits, but can work.

Want: A familiar desktop experience where things are found in a similar way as with earlier desktop.

Solution: Either adapt or return to your old operating system. While it's entirely doable to make your Linux desktop feel more like your earlier desktop OS, you will end up defeating one of the advantages to switching: an opportunity for personal growth and understanding something new.

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