The GNU/Linux Desktop: Nine Myths

Monday Mar 16th 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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Myths like “not enough software” and “must use the command line” reveal that there’s a good deal of misinformation about the GNU/Linux desktop.

Nobody questions whether Mac OS X is ready for the desktop. Never mind that switching to it involves learning different assumptions and tools and a new desktop. It has a reputation for being user-friendly, and is backed by a proprietary company, just like Windows.

With GNU/Linux, however, the story is different. For over a decade, columnists and bloggers have been explaining how GNU/Linux isn't ready for the desktop -- and, despite all the progress in the operating system over the last ten years, the arguments haven't changed much. Moreover, increasingly, they're outdated when they're not based on complete ignorance. In fact, I often get the impression that those who pontificate on GNU/Linux's inadequacies have never tried it.

Often, of course, the criterion for desktop-readiness is subjective. What is a bug to one user is a feature to another: for example, having to log in as root to install software is an inconvenience to inexperienced users, but a security feature to those with more knowledge.

Often, too, complaints about GNU/Linux are actually complaints that it is not exactly like Windows. Never mind the fact that, unless it did things differently, there would be no reason to switch in the first place. Or that anyone who expects to use a new application or operating system without a learning period is arrogantly provincial. The fact that GNU/Linux is not completely familiar is more than enough to damn it in the eyes of some critics.

Then there are arguments that involve a rubber ruler. That's where someone claims that GNU/Linux will never be ready until it has a certain feature, then, when the feature is pointed out or developed, changes directions and insists that another feature is essential. You can never win against such arguments, because the criteria for judging them keeps changing.

However, in addition to all these arguments are the ones that invalidate themselves primarily because of error, incompleteness, or misrepresentation. These are nine of the most common factually incorrect ones:

1) Distros are too forked for easy compatibility for developers

This claim is popular among software vendors explaining why they don't make versions of their products for the operating system. It is based on the fact that all distributions do not follow efforts at consistency like the Linux Standards Base, and often put files in different locations. In addition, distributions use a variety of package systems, so that widespread support can mean building packages in several different formats.

These problems are real, but the claim exaggerates the difficulties they create. Universal installers like InstallBuilder and Install Anywhere offer vendors installers that are similar to those on Windows. As for building several different packages, if community projects have no trouble doing so, why should a software company?

But, really, the largest problem with this claim is that it attempts to impose the Windows way of doing things on an existing system. In GNU/Linux, the creators of an application don't support different distributions or packaging formats -- the distribution does.

This system works because, with free software, the distribution can make whatever changes it needs to make the software run. It is only a problem for proprietary vendors. If they aren't willing to work with the system and release their code as free software, that is their choice -- but then they shouldn't complain that the system isn't set up for them.

2) No migration tools exist

True, GNU/Linux might benefit from a wizard that would import e-mail, browser bookmarks, IRC channels and other personal information from Windows. But the same could be said of Windows. At least GNU/Linux co-exists with other operating systems and can read their formatted partitions so that you can manually migrate some of this information.

3) There's no hardware support

In the past, hardware support for GNU/Linux was spotty. More often than not, it existed because of efforts by the community, not the manufacturer, and its early stages were incomplete.

However, in the last three or four years, community drivers have matured, and more manufacturers are releasing GNU/Linux drivers along with Windows and Mac drivers. The manufacturers' drivers are not always free software, but they are free for the download.

Today, cases of incompatibility for basics such as hard drives, keyboards, and ethernet cards still occur, but are rare. The problem areas are likely to be peripheral areas like scanners, printers, modems, and wireless cards. However, you can hedge your bets by a few tactics such as choosing a postscript printer, which always works with the generic postscript driver, or buying from companies like Hewlett-Packard, which has a long history of supporting GNU/Linux printing.

Some people even maintain that, because GNU/Linux generally retains backwards compatibility, it actually supports more hardware than Windows. I wouldn't quite go that far, but, on the whole, driver problems on GNU/Linux seem only slightly more common than the ones I used to find on various versions of Windows.

Today, too, you can sidestep hardware compatibility entirely by buying GNU/Linux pre-installed from companies such as Acer or Dell.

Next Page: The dreaded command line, and software...

4) You have to use the command line

This claim seems a mixture of rumors about the early days of GNU/Linux when the command line was more of a necessity and Windows users' understandable horror of the DOS command line. However, it's not even vaguely true.

GNU/Linux has had adequate desktops for over a decade. Now, the latest version of the GNOME desktop is a close match to anything on Windows, and, with the latest versions, KDE has become one of the most innovative desktops around. Even administrative tools are well-represented on the desktop.

You can use the command line, and many users, especially administrators, prefer to do so because it's often more efficient. But for everyday productivity or administration, whether you use the command line is a matter of preference, not necessity. It's also a much more user-friendly experience than the DOS command line.

5) There's no software

What this claim usually means is that common Windows software is unavailable: There's no MS Office, Internet Explorer, or PhotoShop. But even minimal research will reveal equivalents that are more or less a match if you only take the time to learn them.

Nine times out of ten, when someone complains about one of these equivalents (such as The GIMP) or claims that it's not ready for professional use, a little probing reveals that the complainer has not explored the program, or has been stymied by a function having a different name or menu location. Often, the complainer hasn't tried or hasn't tried recently the program they're criticizing.

For general office or productivity use, today GNU/Linux offers a complete solution. Because many free software projects are cross-platform, you may even have used some of the applications on Windows, such as Firefox or OpenOffice.org. The remaining gaps are games or specialty applications such as OCR, and the problem isn't that no alternatives exist so much as that the alternatives are slow to mature.

6) The applications lack polish

Until the last few years, usability was often ignored in favor of functionality in GNU/Linux. Considering that basic functionality was still needed, things could hardly be otherwise.

But all the most commonly used applications are now mature and giving usability serious consideration. Many could still do with an interface overhaul, but most are no worse than their Windows equivalents -- and, frankly, anyone who endures a platform in which Outlook or Windows Media Player are considered acceptable applications has no business complaining about the lack of polish in any other platform's applications.

7) You can't find any support

GNU/Linux first received serious attention in the greater technology world during the Dot-com era. Then, lack of support was somewhat of a problem -- at least if you mean traditional support contracts. But, even ten years ago, you could always enter into a support contract with a company like Red Hat.

Now, traditional support options are easier than ever to find. If you don't care to deal with a software vendor that offers a distribution, you should be able to find local support in any major city in Europe or North America.

But there has always been an even better source of information: the mailing lists for community or corporate projects. Although the lists are a different model for support, they are not an inferior one. Not only are there lists free, but those who frequent them tend to respond more quickly and with more detailed help than any paid help I've ever encountered.

Next Page: So what's the REAL reason?

8) There are too many options

Compared to Windows, GNU/Linux is a far more diverse operating system. Because no one organization builds it, it has more than one way of doing things. Because its developers are highly individualistic, they provide the means for users to do things their own way.

The result is that, unlike Windows, GNU/Linux has more than one distribution, more than one desktop, and more than one of just about everything. That's what its users prefer.

Granted, the options -- to say nothing of their names or acronyms -- can be confusing to a newcomer. However, much of the confusion is due simply to the contrast to Windows. From an end-user's perspective, the differences between the most popular distributions are not that great.

Five minutes' research will identify the likeliest choices, and in every case you can get through an installation with a minimum of decisions and help for the few that you do have to make. Once you are running the distribution, you can take advantage of all the options to create a highly customized desktop, but you can be reasonably content with the defaults and maybe changing the wallpaper.

In other words, the options are for experienced users. Newcomers can ignore as many of them as they choose.

9) Installing software is too hard

You hear this myth in two forms. In the first, the complainer talks about compiling from source code. (What is hard about uncompressing a file then following the standard instructions to run the commands configure, make, and make install is beyond me, but let's accept that many people find the unknown intimidating). In the second, the complaint is that you generally can't go to a hardware or software vendor's site and download and run a binary to install, like you can on Windows.

People who make either of these complaints have missed the fact that GNU/Linux does things differently. Each distribution maintains its own repositories of software, all packaged to run with it. Unless you know what you're doing, you confine yourself to software in this repository, using a graphic tool to install, or its command-line backend.

When you stick to your distribution's repositories, software installation on GNU/Linux is actually far easier than under Windows. You don't need to go to the store, because all the available software is available online. You don't need to pay for it, or register and activate it, either.

If you suddenly need new software for a task, you can locate and install it in a matter of minutes. If you want to browse several alternatives, you can do that, too. All you need to do to enjoy these conveniences is learn a little bit about the operating system instead of barging ahead and relying on hearsay or your old way of doing things.

GNU/Linux Desktop: Real Reasons?

Such arguments say more about those who make them than about GNU/Linux. At worst, they show an unfamiliarity with the current state of GNU/Linux, and at best a collection of habits and prejudices.

So what are the real reasons that GNU/Linux is not more popular? The old standby argument about monopoly is probably a main reason. When Windows comes pre-installed on most computers and you have to search for GNU/Linux pre-installs, the problem seems self-evident.

Still, the resurgence of Apple in the last five years suggests that the monopoly is not absolute. An even simpler explanation is that, despite their complaints, most people are familiar with Windows and unaware of GNU/Linux or any other alternative. They lack hands-on experience, and rely on hearsay and third hand accounts that they have no way to evaluate.

The excuses they make for not using GNU/Linux reveal this lack of familiarity very clearly. People may be saying that GNU/Linux is not ready for them, but the inaccuracy of their excuses suggests that the real reason is that they are not ready for GNU/Linux.

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