Is Fragmentation Hurting the Linux Desktop?

Tuesday Dec 27th 2011 by Matt Harley
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Some very basic problems are slowing growth in the Linux desktop.

Throughout 2011, desktop Linux has seen its fair share of changes. From the new desktop experience known as Unity offered by Ubuntu, to the rapid rise in popularity with Linux Mint. This has been an active year for those Linux distributions seeking to attract newer users.

Yet despite these changes, there remains fragmentation within the Linux community due to the inherent difference between various Linux distributions. While users such as myself would be inclined to refer to this alleged fragmentation as "variety," the fact is that the choices can seem overwhelming to many newcomers.

In spite of the perceived fragmentation on the Linux desktop, Ubuntu has managed to grab much of the spotlight from other Linux distributions. The popularity of Ubuntu has persisted so heavily that many new users simply associate Ubuntu as the de facto Linux desktop. In other words, many people think that Ubuntu is a reflection of all Linux desktop installations. Obviously, nothing could be further from the truth.

Linux as a collection of distributions

Not all Linux experiences are created equal, because of customizations with the Linux desktop and to the kernel as well. If you compare PCLinuxOS, SimplyMepis and Ubuntu, you will find that different kernel changes are there. This sort of thing is commonplace.

The same sort of choices are also present when it comes to desktop environments. This is unfortunate because many newer Linux users come from the "WYSIWYG desktop experience" offered by Windows, where the idea of seeking out an alternative isn't likely to happen on its own. Most casual PC users simply aren't wired to look for alternative desktop environments. And even if these users do think to look for alternatives, some new users can find themselves confused and overwhelmed during the process.

Next, there's the issue of how Linux communities offer desktop support. Most Linux distributions provide decent support through user forums, however most distribution support documents are lacking. While I would give these documentation attempts an 'A' for effort, the sad fact is that the effort falls short at being effective; because of dated information and being in a perpetual catch-up mode.

De-fragmenting the fragmented

Popular distributions with resources such as Canonical's Ubuntu are foolish for not utilizing their own popularity more effectively. Ubuntu, among others, has seen a rise in various Linux PC vendor offerings over the years. And for those folks looking to buy a new Linux PC, this is awesome as it makes getting Ubuntu Linux running a snap. The benefits of using pre-installed Linux vendors are obvious - everything works out the box and there's no guess work with trying to decide what's compatible and what isn't.

So this begs the following question: Why haven't we seen the same approach with one of the worst legacy problems on the Linux desktop wireless devices? Branding USB wifi dongles using distribution-tested chipsets (Atheros, RealTek or Ralink) is just not really that difficult. Companies such as TP-Link, Edimax, among others, might be receptive to a "white label" partnership that would benefit all involved. Both of these companies work with Atheros, RealTek- or Ralink-based chipsets, which are supported on the Linux desktop natively. What's missing currently is finding Linux distribution providers to make sure needed kernel updates (Linux-Compat) are setup so these branded devices work out of the box.

Think of it this way. It's almost 2012 and we're still asking people to compile 802.11n compatibility fixes for many wireless devices. For newbie friendly distributions, this is just unacceptable. Even worse, it's completely preventable as well. The technology is available, it works and it would only serve to help make switching to Linux that much easier. The alternative is to continue rehashing this preventable issue that, quite frankly, could have been addressed effectively years ago. Simply put, a choice needs to be made once and for all.

The glass ceiling remains

Speaking as a full-time Linux enthusiast, I believe that one of the best technology-related choices I've made in my life is dumping proprietary operating systems. Despite my finger shaking and occasional complaints, I enjoy Linux on my desktop. That said, coming from a troubleshooting background has led to me pointing out flaws that need to be addressed within the Linux community. While it's correct to point out that desktop Linux adoption continues to grow as things stand now, I would also point out that addressing preventable issues would only serve to keep newer users interested longer.

I'd love to see major distributions such as Ubuntu make a point of asking people to support Linux specific desktop PC vendors. I'd also love to see documentation that explains that if the distribution isn't working, there are "out of the box" solutions available from distribution-specific PC vendors.

Another bonus for users would be a video about what new users should expect when installing a Linux distribution on a PC displaying the "Made for Windows" sticker on it. This alone would not only prevent additional user defection back to Windows, it would increase Linux PC sales as well.

I think I've made my case for improved support for Linux PC vendors. So wouldn't it be nice if Ubuntu posted a simple button under "Get Ubuntu" that listed these partners? Even better than that, how about listing those desktop PC partners rather than only listing Ubuntu server partners?

My personal favorite of these partners has to be Dell. Amazingly, Ubuntu is still linking to a page that doesn't even exist anymore! Don't take my word for it folks, visit Ubuntu's OEM partners for yourself and click the Dell link. Currently it's still pointing to dell.com/ubuntu. And if you're looking for Zareason or System76, good luck – you’ll find no mention of these companies.

The Ubuntu.com website needs a little less glitz and a little more substance. It's the completely avoidable problems like this that perpetuates what feels like a glass ceiling for Linux desktop, slowing growth toward a larger market share. Which truly is a shame for all parties involved.

Linux fragmentation as a saving grace

My expectations for community-funded Linux distributions are pretty reasonable. I understand that these are volunteer efforts, so time is at a premium. However, when I see distributions that actually have access to resources completely overlook painfully obvious blunders, it really bothers me.

I see great Linux distributions with tons of developer work put into them that get a bad name simply because obvious issues are overlooked by the "marketing" team. It would be like building something really amazing, only to have someone come along and fumble their way with sharing your hard work.

To be sure, I find myself seeing the wisdom in the diversity that is the Linux desktop. While it's true that desktop Linux is fragmented on many levels, this may also provide opportunities for those willing to capitalize on the mistakes made by others. I'm not talking about financial opportunities here. No, I mean opportunities to provide simple solutions to simple problems that tend to create complex headaches.

Perhaps someone will take the most user-friendly Linux distributions available and address some of the concerns I've presented. By actively promoting the companies that sell Linux PCs and offering branded, compatible wifi devices, there could be a massive change in new users.

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