Ten Steps Needed for Fiery Desktop Linux Adoption

Monday Mar 3rd 2008 by Matt Hartley
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From a longtime Linux user, a list of key areas -- from video to mobile phones to OEMs -- that are needed for Linux to catch the other major OSes.

With each passing month, I find one article after another claiming to have the magic formula needed for desktop Linux to see significant gains. But to me, this feels a lot like putting the carriage before the horse.

Those with a vested interest in desktop Linux adoption are trying to sell something that still has critical challenges overcome first. Desktop Linux is ready for everyday use, but there are areas that must to be addressed first before seeking any sort of massive mainstream adoption of this in comparison to OS X or Windows. This is a fact backed by bug reports that leave many existing users without any recourse other than to deal with the issues at hand in frustration.

Here’s a list of the areas that I believe are in desperate need of attention. As you read this, bear in mind that I’m a long time desktop Linux user, not another biased Windows-using pundit.

1. Preinstalled desktop Linux. With very few exceptions, most users will find their only support options entail calling someone or if they know to take this action, seeking help from a local Linux user group. And for the more technology savvy, user forums.

Regardless of what people might like you to believe, the fact remains that there are two very opposite ends of the desktop Linux spectrum, neither of which is suitable for every day use. Two great examples of opposite ends of the spectrum are Ubuntu and Debian.

For the Debian example, I envision a typical PC vendor taking that distribution, then installing it onto a PC to be sold to the public. The buyer will then end up with a stable, ready to use PC. The flip side to this is that Debian's development means that many cutting edge advancements being seen on other Linux distributions or with OS X/Windows will leave this common user feeling totally left out of the technology improvements.

Yes, that user is free to sit down for weeks and learn how to become a Debian expert, thus becoming comfortable enough to dip into the non-stable Debian repos to test out unstable updates, but this is simply not going to happen with most people.

Then you have the Ubuntu mindset: Fast, reckless and always full of bugs that are marked as 'non-critical'. Users who ends up with a PC loaded with this Linux distribution will find themselves being dropped into the very latest (broadly speaking) that the Linux development world has to offer. Every so often, they will run a system update that breaks one setting or another. Ubuntu is a fantastic example of progress, but with the exception of their last long term support release, the distribution is terribly reckless and full of regressions in the code.

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Now it should be noted that there are other examples out there using totally unrelated, non-Debian-based distros that do not share many of these problems. Unfortunately, most of these distributions are entirely too hands-on for most users. And some of them, such as Fedora, have bugs of their own when battling uphill with the RPM-based software installation.

Needed solution: For any sort of preinstalled Linux distribution to be taken seriously outside of geek circles, there simply must be a clearer balance between progressive releases and not diving into beta code regression. At this stage in the game, there are just too many unknowns and "work-a-rounds" that keep driving people back to their original operating systems. Worse, even if this suddenly stopped, the prejudice of past experience has already colored the views of this user.

2. Working Wireless options – 802.11a/b/g/n/whatever. Two things to consider here. The first is that a preinstalled Linux notebook nearly always solves this issue, when not plagued with regressive code thanks to sloppy updates. And second, this is only an issue for the most part when considering notebook computers. A desktop machine rarely is in a position where finding a dependable wireless card is an issue. The typical NIC works out of the box 99 percent of the time with zero user interaction.

What’s unfortunate is how nearly every single wireless device vendor in the world has bent over backwards to ignore desktop Linux as a worthwhile platform to provide a working wireless driver for. They cite every excuse from "lack of consistency from distro to distro" to the lack of actual physical user numbers to justify putting work into creating a special Linux-only module for casual use.

Regarding user numbers, much of this is hot air, considering there are entirely more desktop Linux users than being reported. Unlike the proprietary operating systems, it is difficult to track something that is freely distributed on mirror servers throughout the world, as there is no discernible point of sale to grab statistical data from.

Needed solution: I think Linux development needs to center around existing companies that do support open source drivers from the beginning. That and make sure that the support focuses on wireless devices that can easily be plugged into Windows notebooks that now have Linux installed as well.

I watch in amazement as developers and users alike spend days trying to get hack-n-wish solutions like NDISWrapper working with Windows-based wireless drivers. By simply putting a level of importance on the chipsets that support Linux out of the box, the end user is then forced to purchase a compatible wireless device and save everyone a lot of headaches down the road. These devices do exist, we just need to see a central repositories of vendors selling them. And no, hopelessly outdated options like this are not working.

3. All-in-one Printers. The next big hassle to overcome is the fact that while a given all-in-one printer works just fine with desktop Linux, five others provide no compatibility at all. Based on my own experience, I simply use HPLIP, as it has yet to let me down. For those who are using EPSON however, the choices are much slimmer and more difficult to locate.

It's true that compatibility does exist for a limited selection of brands, but the single biggest issue is not seeing this bundled on the installation CD along with the Windows and OS X drivers within the printer packaging. This may seem redundant, yet at the same time I firmly believe that compatible companies would be able to sell more with a cross platform mindset. I believe that solutions like HPLIP should be immediate locatable for newer users. They shouldn’t require blind Google queries to try to locate a way to get these devices working.

Needed solution: Despite valiant effort from HP in this department, the fact remains that other vendors need to get on board as well. There simply must be an option for those users who own products from Lexmark, EPSON (the currently unsupported models) and other vendors. Because as it stands now, a free distribution of Linux still has a price for the individual who needs to go out and purchase a new all-in-one just to get things working.

4. Stand alone scanners and printers. Unlike the all-in-ones previously mentioned, I have found standard printers provide more compatibility with all of the popular Linux distributions. But the same cannot be said about stand alone scanners. Even when taking the SANE project into consideration, there are still a number of scanners models that do not work well as expected. Then you have the scanning applications. I have never gotten "gnomescan" working as expected, however I found Kooka to be a worthwhile application for using my scanner. Unfortunately, using my old Canon scanner meant using a hack, as our old friend "regression" reared its ugly head when I moved from Ubuntu Edgy to Feisty. I have not tested it out yet with Gutsy.

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Needed solution: Scanner vendors such as Canon need to get on the ball and provide better information to SANE developers. Because when models such as the V500 do not even appear in the SANE compatibility list, something is dead wrong with the vendor – they’re missing the opportunity for new customers.

5. EVDO access without the headache. Getting EVDO working in Linux is much more difficult than with typical wireless connections. Modprobe this, edit that conf file…the list just keeps going. Then even after all that, there are no guarantees.

What is worse is that you still have to activate many of the cards from within Windows anyway, which is a real problem if the user is living in a Linux-only household.

Needed solution: Not only should Verizon, Sprint and others wake up and work with their customers to the extent of supporting their OS of choice with their EVDO cards, asking them to activate the card from within Windows is truly inexcusable. There is simply no reason for this.

6. Support for BlackBerry. I am not even going to mention support for PocketPC or the iPhone, as each device has platforms they are aligned with already. However, the BlackBerry needs to truly be platform neutral. To my knowledge, there are two Personal Information Managers in Linux that currently provide MS Exchange support and by proxy, BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) support, localized sync ability is simply not happening.

For example, if you take your Windows software for the BlackBerry and the USB cable, put everything together, you end up with nothing. Nothing localized will sync without a lot of hacking and hoping.

Needed solution: I would really like to see Research In Motion (RIM), creators of the BlackBerry, step up to provide some sort of local access to their devices for Linux users. Again, I realize that there are some 'hack-n-wish" options out there already for Linux users. But the fact is that this is an important area that RIM could truly differentiate themselves from everyone else in the mobile market.

7. Support for other mobile phones. Today's mobile phones offer very little for locally syncing up important contacts with your PC with desktop Linux. Already accessible are some very poorly designed Linux sync applications that provide a less than suitable front-end for this deed. Too bad the back-end requires so much work just for the slim chance of getting a local sync setup in the first place.

Needed solution: Still under heavy development, I think free software such as Conduit has the best chance overall for a future that provides something usable. Still, there is likely going to be some need for mobile phone manufacturers to jump in along side Conduit developers so that any missing back-end pieces are not being left out in the cold.

8. Get serious about open video and audio formats. It amazes me how most Linux users are perfectly fine with using MP3 standards on the typical Linux PC. These same users need to accept that in order for Linux to be taken seriously, we as users must take our open source media formats equally as seriously. Using the OGG container, users must begin embracing Vorbis on the audio front, and Theroa and Dirac for video.

Optimism aside, there are some serious hurdles here. Most people are interested in the accessibility of the content, not what format it is played in. And the movie and music industry is well aware of this. This translates into two controlling industries pushing non-free media formats.

Why? Because by using non-free formats, the music and movies industries are able to maintain a tight control on how their media is enjoyed, DRM is easily implemented and other hassles for the consumer are just a button push away as well.

Needed solution: I believe this is going to be one of the biggest challenges. Because developers have no control over media market influences, the very best we as enthusiasts can do is encourage existing Linux users to convert their CDs to free formats when legally allowed. And simply hope that eventually, enough people will be using free formats for the mainstream music industry to get the message.

On the movie front, however, I see this group being much more stubborn as we are much less likely to find an independent production company able to produce blockbuster content for our viewing enjoyment. Unless the MPAA opts to loosen its control or make Flash on Firefox a possibility, I see little changing here for digital movie formats.

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9. DVDs, Blu-Ray. Just as with the digital movie formats mentioned previously, the current methods for localized playback are still an obstacle for Linux users here in the U.S. All users do indeed have access to libdvdcss for behind-the-scenes DVD interoperability; the problem remains that no one is willing to distribute it thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) here in the States. Despite the legality of libdvdcss never being tested in U.S. courts, Linux vendors simply opt to allow their users to discover and install libdvdcss themselves to avoid this from ever becoming an issue.

The nearly impossible to obtain alternative to this is the LinDVD option. A Linux DVD playback solution provided by InterVideo, LinDVD is proprietary and very difficult to get a copy of.

Needed solution: Either have someone willing to take on the DMCA to test the legality of libdvdcss in a U.S. court so we can move on, or have InterVideo stop playing games with LinDVD and make the sale of this software available.

As for formats such as Blu-Ray, we’ll need to see how developers are tackling the lack of hardware thus far and whether we end up in yet another legal snafu here in the U.S. over breaking any used encryption for these discs.

10. Motivating OEMs. With the exception of Dell, most of the existing Linux retailers providing preinstalled Linux solutions are so "small time" that they are not seen as a real player in the desktop Linux sales marketplace. In the past, companies such as Linspire, Xandros, and others have made attempts at penetrating this marketplace through OEM-styled partnerships, but with the exception of Xandros partnering with ASUS with the Eee, most have failed miserably.

Those vendors that have failed in the eyes of the Linux community did so by choosing to bundle their Linux distributions on sub-par PCs, three of which I have personally owned. Each made permanent impression on users such as myself that this could be seen as a reflection of how Linux is to be perceived by John Q. Public. In short, Linux is to be seen as a poor man's OS.

Needed solution: Dell is the solution. Regardless of my ill-feelings toward Dell and their choosing to make locating their Ubuntu Linux options nearly impossible for the common user to discover on their front page, I believe that they will be the eventual leader in the Linux desktop for the end user. It will be Dell that will be best poised to show the world that with tight Apple-like OS/hardware integration, the Linux desktop is a force to be reckoned with.

Other desktop Linux vendors will continue to have their own niches, but because of the lack of vending reach possessed by the likes of Dell, will never even come close in my opinion. As time goes on, however, it’s only a matter of time before HP joins in here in the States to compete directly with Dell for what could evolve into desktop Linux dominance.

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