Linux not ready for the desktop?

While I admit that Linux is not as slick as MacOS X and has many other “desktop” and UI issues, I have to make a rebuttal of some of points raized by Asa Dotzler on Mozillazine.org.

Asa suggests that “for ‘Regular People’ to adopt Linux (which usually means leaving Windows) Linux is going to need a serious migration plan.” This is just plain not true. Firstly Linux is not a person or “entity”. Linux is a kernel. Perhaps what was ment was Linux Companies or The Linux Comunity needs a migration plan. I’m sure many Linux companies have migration plans and consultancy that they sell to their clients.

The blog entry goes on to suggested that Linux installs “need to install on machines next to Windows, leaving that completely intact and easy to return to”.

Well they do. Many Linux distro installers, can shrink a NTFS or FAT partition and install in the free space. You can then pick Windows from the boot loader menu.

Asa also suggest that they “carry over all or nearly all of the user’s data and settings. Regular People may be willing to take a look at Linux, but as long as all of their data and settings still lives in Windows, they’re not going to stay very long — no matter how appealing it might be.” This is utter drivel. This is not an argument against Linux being “ready” for the desktop or even being a good desktop OS. This is a general argument against migrating form an existing product to another. This is like saying people arn’t going to migrate from Coke to Pepsi unless Pepsi tastes the same as Coke. I don’t see Apple making it easy for new MacOS users to import their Windows XP settings. Do you? Sure such a utility would be great. But it is not a pre-condition of people using Linux as their desktop OS. It just makes the migration process easier for *existing Windows* users. It is completely irrelavant to non-computer users, like the vast majority of the worlds population. They have no preconceptions or preconditions of use.

I’ll also add that you have exactly the same problem of migrating settings and data when you switch from one Windows machine to another. Microsoft nicely provide a tool to help with your desktop setting migrations but it is hardly essential. Just more convenient (for some things).

Truth be told, writing a *Windows* app that saves all the useful Windows desktop items like cookies, bookmarks, office docs, wall paper, and writes it out in a format suitable for just unzipping over your home directory wouldn’t be that hard. Support for this tool could even be built into the “first boot” process many distros have these days.

Asa’s next point relates to ABI stability. Asa has a point. Linux distros tend not to do ABI stability well. The reason for this is environmental. There just isn’t that much binary only desktop Linux software out there.

The whole, “a user should be able to install Fedora Core 4 and go grab the latest Firefox release from Download.com and have it work”, argument is a little flawed though. In the Linux/OpenSource world there can be no “one true ABI”. The only reason we have a stable ABI in Windows is because there is only one Microsoft. And they have only released 7 major versions of Windows in the last 25 years. You try running a Windows 1 or 2.0 app on XP! Even Windows 3.x apps tend not run on current Windows releases. Some Win95 apps don’t run either and they are part of the Win32 family. RedHat has put out 13 “point oh” releases of their “desktop” distro in less than 10 years, more than 25 releases if you count RHEL and the point x’s. Linux is a very fast moving, constantly improving platform. If you tried to provide all the old versions of libs and kernels for every prior release FC4 would have come on 4 DVD’s not 4 CDs.

What really needs to happen is for there to be better package repositories. Particularly in the RedHat/Fedora realm. Application developers also need to be more on the ball when it comes to creating packages that “plug-in” to popular distros. Why is it the Fedora Extras project’s responsibility to make a FC4 compatible Firefox 1.0.5 RPM? The Mozilla developers create a Windows Installer that follows Windows’ standards for application packaging and registration. Why do they not provide a Debian or Fedora Extras compliant binary package for Linux users that can be installed with yum or apt-get? “Too many different distros” they argue, “not our problem they argue”. Oh so Linux distros have to comply to app developers desires now do they? Microsoft does this do they? I don’t think so. The tools are there, use them.

With good GUI package management tools and expansive package repositories designed for n00bs you don’t need “download.com”. In fact you have a better solution than download.com. The guys at Linspire “got this” with their Click’n’Run system. The larger Linux community could follow suit.

The final point Asa makes is in regard to the GNOME GUI and other UI related problems in Linux distros. I completely agree. This is where many Linux distros fail to be ready for the average desktop user. There are some niche distros that a much better at this than the big popular distros. The other area, which Asa doesn’t even mention is in hardware support/stability. Linux still sucks there as well. Particularly, I find, in USB land.

Yet I use Linux every day on my Laptop, have done for 10 years. As a software developer it meets and exceeds all my computing needs, sans gaming.

So while Asa has a point, that Linux isn’t well suited to dekstop n00bs yet, it is not for many of the reasons given.

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