Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Rumors of Linux Desktop Death Exaggerated

In the 2010 blog post Is the Linux desktop dream dead?, Steven Vaughan-Nichols asks if a Linux desktop will ever go mainstream. In the same year, PCWorld pronounced The Dream is Dead. In a follow on article, The Linux desktop is dead; Long live the Linux desktop, written in 2011, Steven pulls a Sybil. This year, PCWorld seems to have done a 180 with If Desktop Linux Is Dead, Someone Had Better Tell All Those Users.

It's not really about the desktop, is it?

I used Unity for a while, and it's actually not bad. I wanted more control over certain aspects of the user experience, though, and so I switched to Xubuntu (XFCE desktop). Recently, I bought a netbook and installed Linux Mint 13 XFCE, and was very impressed. Mint is beautiful, and "just works" out of the box, and Canonical should hire those guys as artistic consultants for Unity. But I digress.

My wife and kids, none of whom are geeks, routinely bounce around between computers in my house. They use Unity, Xubuntu, and Linux Mint 13 XFCE desktops, and occasionally Windows, interchangably. There is nothing hard about using Linux from the desktop, and it's not hard to get your bearings even when switching from Windows.

Any of these desktops is easily the equal of (some might use the term "superior to") the old XP desktop, which - let's be honest here - is still what the majority of Windows users see every day. And by the way, for most users, XP is good enough, and it just works, and you don't have to pay $250 for a new version of Office which you never use anyway. The various desktops that are available for Linux are really quite good.

And it isn't like using Linux is any harder than using Windows. I would contend that once you know what you are doing, getting things done is easier, but that's an opinion. In poorer countries, where there really isn't a choice to use Windows, people seem to have adapted to Linux easily. There are several distributions designed for children, after all. Yeah, it's popular with programmers, but it's also popular with people who buy status cell-phones and have no idea they are running Linux.

So what is holding adoption of Linux back in first-world countries?

Recently, when I was shopping for a laptop, I had a really hard time finding a name-brand laptop that did not have Windows pre-installed. Try it if you don't believe me. Even Dell, who has announced they will eventually ship laptops with either Ubuntu or Red Hat Linux pre-installed, won't sell you one now, and won't sell you one without Windows pre-installed. If you buy a Dell laptop right now, you will accept and pay for a Windows license.

Full disclosure: I ended up buying an Acer netbook. I purchased Windows as part of the deal.

I understand that this is reality. I just don't understand why it is considered legal.

Maybe it's time to stop arguing over which distribution is best, or which desktop environment is Linus's favorite, or whether the Linux desktop is dead, and change the argument.

Windows does not run programs faster than Linux - it's usually the other way around. Windows is not easier to use than Linux, and Linux doesn't have many of the quirks in Windows (disk defragment - what's that?). With Linux, you have several very good desktops to choose from. Take your pick. Unless you are tied to Office or Exchange, Windows is not more capable than Linux. Most of the software you use day to day is available for free on Linux, and software repositories are well stocked and well organized. Linux has a great community of people who help beginners, and companies like Red Hat and Canonical offer professional paid support, cheap.

We all know that Linux runs on most laptops and desktops, even if the manufacturer does not officially support it. At this time, all the major manufacturers only support Windows - across the board.

The real question is, I think, why does Microsoft still have this near-monopoly on everything that is not controlled by Apple, and what can be done about it?

By the way ... Linux Mint 13 XFCE is amazing both in looks and performance on this 11.6", 1366x768 Acer netbook. Yeah, I am one of those guys who still doesn't know that the netbook is dead. Don't harsh my mellow, dude. Anyway, I may have been forced to pay for Windows to get the hardware, but that doesn't mean I have to use it.

One thing that holds Mint back is the lack of an upgrade path. When it comes time to upgrade, you essentially have to backup, install the new version from scratch, and restore. This pain is multiplied by the number of installations you have (Linux users tend to have more than one). Not cool.

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