Linux: Does Being Competitive with Windows Matter?

Monday Nov 8th 2010 by Matt Hartley
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The Linux desktop may actually be hampered by its efforts to compete with Windows.

How many times have you heard this statement: "It's the year of the Linux desktop." Not recently? Then how about "Linux is making gains on the Windows desktop"? Still leaving a bad taste in your mouth? Bet I know why.

For years, both the statements above have been over-used to the point that either idea is now completely meaningless. Not due to anything negative with the Linux desktop, mind you, rather due to inherent differences in how Linux is marketed to the world, who its intended audience is and whether mainstream adoption even matters in the first place.

Let's blame Linspire

The idea behind the Linux distribution Linspire (aka Lindows) was to create a competing desktop environment for PC users not inclined to drop everything and move over to the Mac if they had a distaste for Windows. On the surface, it was an interesting idea. Unfortunately, at the time the Linux desktop technology of that era was not ready for the target market Linspire was going after.

With a more mature desktop experience, the Linspire model might have made greater inroads early without as many hurdles. But the fact is that Linspire took a desktop experience that was aimed at those seeking freedom and tried to make a Windows OS alternative out of it.

Linspire was hardly alone in this path of "conquering Windows" with the Linux mindset. Other Linux distributions of the period were also targeting new users. Unfortunately for adopters of these Linux distributions, functionality like Bluetooth, out of the box wireless connectivity, and other important items were simply not there yet on the Linux desktop. Sadly, this didn't stop many made-for-newbie distributions from pitching the idea to people anyway.

Enough with Linux vs. Windows

My switch to Linux wasn't an immediate one. But what was apparent early on during my Linux adoption was my motivation for making the switch in the first place – no longer wanting to use Windows.

This is where I think the confusion begins for most new Linux adopters. As we make the switch, we must fight the inherent urge to automatically begin comparing the new desktop experience to our previous experiences with Windows. It's a completely different set of circumstances, folks.

Some stuff is easier, other aspects of using the Linux desktop is a bit more involved. Yet once all is said and done, you’ll become a stronger, more self-reliant computer enthusiast if you stick to your efforts and work through any perceived challenges while discovering Linux.

I've grown to dislike the idea of comparing Windows and Linux as I feel that it's a lot like comparing apples to oranges. Both run software and each of them has its strengths and weaknesses. Trying to trump one over the other is time wasted in my opinion and leaves you with no benefit. It took me years to fully comprehend this, but the fact is that expecting one to behave like the other is just a silly waste of time.

Celebrating what works, learning from what doesn't

All too often I see Linux users complain because something that worked fine with Windows failed to operate as expected with the Linux desktop. This of course, leads back down the road of comparing Windows with Linux.

The face that one platform can support a specific device while the other platform cannot (and so on) doesn't really solve the problem of getting said device working. You can see where this dysfunction of thought can become a big problem, fast.

I’ve learned to look at this in a completely different light. I start off by voting with my wallet. I purchase from those companies that support my chosen platform – Linux. Granted, there are some limited exceptions to this rule, generally my computers are almost always purchased from Linux offering vendors. For my peripherals, I use HP printers and Logitech webcams. And my wi-fi options either bear the name Intel or Edimax.

By taking this approach to my hardware and peripherals, I am avoiding the prospect of falling victim to the usual "it's not compatible" hoopla we see filling the various Linux forums. While it's not 100% foolproof, I've found that by supporting those vendors that support my platform choice, I'm working to keep a positive experience with Linux firmly in my sights.

Dumbing down the Linux desktop

Another issue with comparing the Linux and Windows desktops is what some have referred to as the “dumbing down” of the Linux experience. This is an area in which I have some mixed emotions.

Half of me remembers what it's like to learn a new platform from scratch, while the other half of me feels like – in the quest to make desktop Linux more like Windows – we're sacrificing basic skills that give Linux enthusiasts an advantage over users of other platforms. Problem solving skills, anyone?

As Linux distributions like Ubuntu begin to make the same mistakes found with Linspire and < a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xandros">Xandros, among others, I cannot help but wonder: is history is repeating itself?

The difference is that things are happening in reverse this time. Linspire, nearing its demise, was becoming more "open" with their Freespire distribution efforts, while Ubuntu is locking down default installations with its Unity desktop. And the Ubuntu application store is demonstrating a remarkable similarity to that of Linspire's CNR software management concept.

Now, the application store idea Ubuntu is using isn't all that bad. Rather, it's how the desktop is slowly forcing things by default that has me shaking my head in disgust. Take installing a Debian software package, for example. In older releases of Ubuntu, one would end up installing a software package downloaded onto their desktop via Gdebi. Today, Ubuntu defaults to its software center instead, which is much slower to load than Gdebi and results in a much slower user experience.

The same kind of backwards thinking applies with the next release of Ubuntu, version 11.04. As you’ve likely heard by now, the desktop provided on Ubuntu 11.04 will be the "netbook friendly" Unity desktop instead of the regular GNOME shell.

For intermediate to advanced users, no big deal, just boot into a GNOME shell and life is good. But for users who are less familiar with this kind of desktop swap, it's going to be like trying to run Android or iOS on your desktop PC. And once again, I see another example of Ubuntu trying to get Linux to compete with proprietary operating systems.

Need more evidence? Consider Ubuntu's eventual adoption of Wayland over X11. Only a year ago or so, one could make changes to their Xorg file if something on their Linux desktop became problematic. Then came the Ubuntu adoption of "BulletProof X." A nice idea at first, but users are not able to use "dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg" for a fast X server repair.

Once again, dumbing down the desktop experience while forcing users to go without a valuable learning experience. Now for the big question: isn't there a fair chance that by moving to Wayland this kind of limiting experience could become even worse?

Competing with proprietary desktops hurts Linux adoption

At the end of the day, the awesome thing about using Linux on our desktop is all the choices it gives us. The problem is, as distributions like Ubuntu try to compete with proprietary desktop choices, we find much of the Linux platform taking on characteristics that might be more harmful than helpful to Linux adoption.

How? Consider the following:

Imagine two distinctly different users, each running some sort of Linux distribution. The first user switched to Linux because they wanted something like Windows, but without a hefty price tag and licensing headaches. The second user chose Linux because they wanted the freedom to customize their desktop and participate in an open source ecosystem that embraced the values they felt good about.

User one is happy to use Linux on the desktop until the day arrives when something suddenly stops working as expected after an update. Frustrated, they give up and fall back to their proprietary desktop.

User two will at some point face a similar challenge. But instead of giving up, they take the time to troubleshoot the problem and finally decide to purchase a new peripheral device to help ensure the problem at hand won't come up again in the future. They do this because they’re willing to make a small investment in equipment that works well with their desktop environment. Even more important, they made this change because they took the time to understand why the problem happened in the first place – owning hardware designed for a proprietary operating system.

Now I can’t speak for everyone, but I think we could use more users like the second Linux enthusiast. People who are willing to troubleshoot, learn and then share their knowledge with others provide better overall value to the Linux community than those who simply complain because something stopped working and are unwilling to rectify the problem.

Sadly, though, with some Linux distributions trying so hard to compete with proprietary operating systems, we'll likely end up with more of those users who expect an idiot-proof experience than those who are willing to invest a little time learning about how their computer works.

So is competing with Windows hurting Linux adoption? In the short term, perhaps not. But when you look at long term user retention, I think it could be hurting Linux adoption as we end up with a group of individuals who are all too willing to drop Linux the first time something doesn't go according to plan.

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