The State Of Linux Desktop Functionality

Wednesday Sep 16th 2009 by Matt Hartley

Could this year actually be – finally – the year of the Linux desktop?

For years technology fans have been fighting over one of the most foolish mottos ever mentioned by the Linux community: “the year of the Linux desktop.”

The exact wording may vary from year to year, but the idea remains the same. We find ourselves taking sides, arguing for our own perspective as to whether we believe that Linux on the desktop is honestly ready for the masses. And when someone disagrees, we attack them as spreading FUD.

It’s clearly not the most effective model for success if we’re interested in moving this platform forward.

So rather than continuing the usual arguments any further, I want to instead take an honest look at where today's desktop Linux distributions are from a casual user perspective.

I’m not talking about the casual Linux user mind you, rather those of the typical Windows computing variety.

Getting the operating system installed

One of the biggest obstacles pointed to by non-Linux users is that the Linux desktop is too difficult for the casual user to install without help. Possibly, however most people don’t install their own operating systems. Geeks do, but Joe User is frankly not among this group of DYI types.

Despite that fact above, most people who discover Linux do so by following some links to a download page, which then translates into the need to burn an ISO image to a CD. This means most people trying out Linux for the first time would be considered Windows savvy. Clearly, the argument of Linux installation being too difficult suddenly becomes a loaded statement.

The problem is less about the OS installation and more about confusion with something known as dual-booting their operating systems. Often Windows gamers will do this as they wish to explore various Linux distributions without losing their Windows installation.

Unfortunately dual-booting some Windows releases (such as Vista) is a bit of an art. This is not pointing fault at one OS versus the other. Rather the fact that you are better off either utilizing a LiveCD/Flash Drive instead for Linux use, or considering using something like Wubi which gives you an easy to remove installation of Ubuntu.

Is the issue of dual-booting a reflection of difficulty in installing popular Linux distros? Hardly. Rather, dual-booting is not near user friendly, while solo booting is.

Hardware detection

The next statement that keeps cropping up is that Linux has awful hardware detection and support. Unfortunately for those making this claim, it really depends on your perspective. Nearly everything you hook up to a modern Linux distro will work out of the box.

Does this mean that desktop Linux has perfect hardware detection then? No, there are still devices that can provide problems for someone not wanting to try and integrate the missing driver modules into the kernel themselves. Many of these devices, however, are wireless based.

The issue of wireless compatibility is something of a touchy subject for me personally. Reason being is that none of the distros out there are willing to STOP trying to support wireless vendors that work hard to make sure that their products are incompatible with desktop Linux as a whole.

Despite vendors such as Edimax and Intel providing chipsets that actually work well with Linux, the interest of poorly supported chipsets provided by Broadcom (among others) continues to frustrate new Linux users on a daily basis. In the eyes of some developers, this line of thinking is called progress.

We see developers wanting to be fair to people who are too cheap to simply drop $20-something on a device that can be supported very well out of the box. Popular support for poorly supported chipsets is a false ideal that will continue to hold back Linux on notebooks each and every day in my honest opinion.

I use nothing but Edimax (Linux supported models) dongles and Intel integrated wireless devices. Needless to say, I do not have connectivity issues. And I left netbooks out of this point due to the fact that they also fall into the integrated wireless arena. They, too, use compatible wireless hardware.

Another hassle for new users is webcams. Even though I have yet to run into a webcam that did not work pretty darn well, I have found plenty of evidence out there that some models will not work as needed due to a compatibility issue.

As an example of how this might limit a casual user, take getting a webcam working in Skype. If the cam is known to be a V4l2 webcam, chances are that it will work well with a proprietary VoIP program such as Skype. However, if it is among the older webcam models, using older V4L1 technology, chances are good you will need to use this command to get Skype working with your cam:

bash -c 'export LD_PRELOAD=/usr/lib/libv4l/; skype'

For someone such as myself, this is an easy add-on to my existing menu entry for Skype in my program list. To the new Linux user, they would not even know such a thing might be needed without some substantial digging.

Yet at the same time, all of the following work out of the box with zero interaction from me on my Ubuntu Linux desktop machine: both of my Logitech webcams, Wii guitar, Olympus digital voice recorder, USB Plantronics headset, three different USB external hard drives, DV video camera, 3-in-one HP printer/scanner, bluetooth dongle, external Sony DVD-burner, and Wacom tablet.

Based on my own experience, new user-friendly distributions tend to provider fantastic hardware support. Perfect? Hardly. But darn good nonetheless.

Desktop Linux software

Unlike the previous two topics where it either works or fails, Linux software is something open to interpretation. This means even though the software provided might work exactly as advertised, you may find that it’s not meeting with your own personal expectations.

Speaking for myself, I have found that I am largely satisfied with the selection of applications available to me. However, someone coming from Windows might find that they are either running into limited compatibility problems or – worse – are not able to locate an open source alternative to their previously used legacy application.

The first instance is generally had with office suites such as MS Office migrating over to Open Office. While the latter can support the Microsoft file formats, more often than not formatting goes right out the window.

Then there’s the issue of compatibility. Ever try to take something from MS Publisher over to Scribus? Now there’s a fun way to spend an afternoon. So even though Scribus is an awesome desktop publishing application, the previous application has the end user locked into a file format that is making the migration extremely difficult at best.

As you can clearly see, a combination of circumstances in software can have drastically different results from one end user to another. Even though it was actually fairly painless to make the switch myself a few years ago, a brand new user committed to legacy applications will likely need to run extra software such as WINE or VirtualBox just to make the switch to Linux a permanent one.

Desktop Linux today and onto tomorrow

Finally, the last point of contention is that desktop Linux is forever playing catch up with the two popular desktop operating systems.

To those who feel this way, I would point out the following. First, Linux was the first OS to have provided working USB 3.0 support.

As projects such as rt2x00 and Intel work to put the final polish on 802.11n support for wireless, 802.11n was just to be ratified. It is expected that both chipset types will be working great with the next release of Ubuntu. As it is now, Intel already provides integrated 802.11n support while chipsets like rt2870 are ironing out the speed bugs to make sure it is running full steam ahead in the next Ubuntu release.

Then we have non-FoSS software. Proprietary applications are slowly making their way into the world of Linux as well, much to the dismay of some users. Skype just released its latest release designed to work specifically with PulseAudio (works great) while LightZone provides a Linux friendly option for those coming away from Adobe LightRoom. Regardless of what I might think, the fact is that we are seeing growth in proprietary software for this platform.

What about the computing needs of tomorrow? Will the Linux desktop collectively be able to keep pace with proprietary operating systems as things progress forward with each passing year? Yes, absolutely.

Both touch screen technology and even the brand new augmented reality concepts are already available to anyone who would like to try them. Seems obvious to me that the platform is well positioned to keep pace here.

The real future challenge for the Linux desktop is getting a handle on driver regression, providing a managed model that non-tech types can subscribe to that provides an out-of-the-box support system – including remote desktop support.

And finally, finding a happy medium with open source applications and those of a proprietary nature. Hit those bases, I see every year forward as being year of the Linux desktop.

ALSO SEE: KDE's Expanded Desktop vs. Online Apps

AND: The GNU/Linux Desktop: Nine Myths

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