Sorting Out the Linux Desktop Mess

It seems fair to say that every tech community out there has its own hot-button issues that are pretty much guaranteed to get conversations flowing and blood pressures rising.

The Linux community, of course, is no exception, and it’s difficult to imagine a better illustration than a debate that came up recently over at Linux Advocates.

“The Linux Desktop Mess” is the title of the post that got the discussion going, and sphygmomanometers throughout the blogosphere have been getting a workout ever since.

‘We Need to Do Something’

Linux Girl

“Today we have Linux complete with all of the wonderful open source and choice at our fingertips,” wrote Dietrich Schmitz, author of the post in question. “So much variety. That is trumpeted as a good thing. I would tend to agree, to a point.”

There’s a pressing need for standardization, Schmitz asserted, pointing to the Linux Standards Base (LSB) as a mechanism already in place to help make that happen.

“What would it take to join together to achieve LSB compliance for one file structure standard, one universal package management standard?” he asked. “If that were accomplished, we’d see the number of installers reduced substantially.”

Standards “need not be a control issue,” Schmitz added. “Standards help reduce costs…. We really need to do something about this before it gets out of hand.”

‘The Linux Desktop IS a Mess’

The virtual ink had barely dried on Schmitz’s post — or on the dozens of comments that soon followed — when another post appeared on the site, this time by contributor Ken Starks.

“I hold Dietrich in the highest of regard,” wrote Starks in a post the next day entitled, “The Linux Desktop Mess — Well, There’s Your Problem Right There…. My respect for him is great. And while he may have made some good points, regarding ‘The Linux Desktop Mess’…..there’s more to the story. A lot more.”

Starks went on to tell the tale of a friend for whom Starks’ own favorite distro lacked a critical feature, noting that distro variability can be a particularly big problem for new users.

“Dietrich is right,” Starks said. “The Linux Desktop IS a mess.”

‘They Rarely Come Back’

Now, even more telling than the many new users who embrace Linux each day are “the numbers you don’t see… those that have given up in disgust and went back to their Windows or Macs,” Starks concluded. “Because as many of us realize… once someone pronounces that Linux sucks…they rarely come back.”

As if the topic needed any further accentuation or illustration, by the force of sheer coincidence — or cosmic destiny, perhaps — a closely related discussion was going on over at Slashdot at the same time.

Namely, in response to an “Ask Slashdot” post, bloggers there were busy trying to help a new user choose a distro — to the tune of nearly 600 comments.

Is “choice” out of control in the Linux world? Is the Linux desktop a “mess”? Down at the Punchy Penguin, bloggers have had little else on their minds.

‘One to Rule Them All’

“When a question is asked in a headline, the answer is almost inevitably no,” offered Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza, for example. “In this case, a creative reread such as, ‘do we need to force more standardization’ is required for that to be the case.”

The Linux desktop has “trended towards standardization even as it has remained fragmented,” Espinoza asserted. “All the major desktop environments, for example, will read the .desktop files which are now used to describe programs to launchers.”

Because open source software promotes interoperability, “there’s really no need for one desktop environment to rule them all,” he added. “So long as I can run the same programs under each of them, their diversity represents strength rather than weakness.

“Major organizational problems may hamper a typical operating system controlled by a single corporate master, but the Linux world resists such failure through its very lack of homogeneity,” Espinoza concluded.

‘I Do Think We Need More’

“‘Need’ is a strong word, and very subjective,” Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone pointed out. “Linux has been doing fine for the last two decades without desktop standardization, and without desktop standardization Linux will continue to do well over the next two decades as well.”

Of course, “if we want Linux to see more enterprise adoption, which I think is key to the home user market, then unfortunately yes, I do think we need more standardization,” Stone opined. “For enterprises, training becomes an issue even when they decide if they’re going to upgrade their Office suite, or allow for a new Web browser.

“Throwing multiple desktop environments into the mix can cause an enterprise IT manager’s head to explode — most of them don’t even like having two different versions of Windows,” he added.

‘They All Reinvent the Wheel’

“I really don’t mind that there are so many desktops,” offered consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack, for example. “What bothers me is that they all feel the need to reinvent the wheel.”

For instance, “there is no reason there can’t be a common library for things like file managers or terminal emulators that everyone simply makes a wrapper for making one place to add new functions rather than 10,” Mack explained. “And while I’m at it, there is no reasonfor things that boot before the desktop environment, such as desktop managers, to include the entire dependency chain for GNOME or KDE.

“I also doubt each window manager needs to implement its own cd burning tool or photo editor,” he added. “I don’t mind multiple app options, but per window manager is just silly.”

‘There Is Going to Be Trouble’

Windows and iOS are “monolithic, because they are owned and completely controlled by a company,” suggested Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien.

Linux, on the other hand, “is open, and part of that is that anyone can do what they want,” he said. “There is no possible way to force all of the distros to agree, and I don’t know that I want them to.”

For example, “LSB specifies RPMs for packages, but I happen to think DEBs are a whole lot better,” O’Brien explained. “Is someone proposing that I be forced to switch to RPMs? Because there is going to be trouble if you do that.”

‘We Need Some Pattern’

Diversity is good “for both the growth and the strength and security of GNU/Linux as a whole,” Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. told Linux Girl. “Several minds think and create better than just a few.”

However, “to conquer the common users as well as enterprise users, we need some pattern,” he added. “Hence, I also advocate for some standardized choices — three or four families (by architecture), or some common ground for distros with the same DE — so users know what to expect.”

For instance, “all the .deb distros can agree on something, as well as all the .rpm distros, so the packages are made for all of them,” Gonzalo Velasco C. explained. “If this happens, a user of Debian, Knoppix, Ubuntu, Mint, Bodhi, Poseidon, etc. — or Red Hat, Fuduntu, Mageia, PCLinuxOS — all will have the same packages and the same tools to solve problems.

“A user (home or professional) can switch from one distro to the other without any problem, then,” he noted. “That’s a thought.”

‘Right Now, This Is Hit and Miss’

For Google+ blogger Brett Legree, “consistency” is what’s needed, and that “requires adherence to some standards, of course,” he told Linux Girl.

“What I believe we need is consistent core stability, consistency across distros externally, consistency between upgrades internally, and consistent sensible defaults,” Legree explained.

For example, “if I install Fedora, openSUSE and Ubuntu on a certain piece of hardware, and all three versions I use have the same main kernel version (e.g. 3.x.y), then I expect that they will behave the same way,” he said.

“Power management should be identical, driver support should be identical etc., and if the hardware works with one, it should work with the others,” he added. “Right now, this is hit and miss in my experience.”

‘Linux Could Deliver All of These’

Consistency across distros externally, meanwhile, “is critical when it comes to wider uptake going forward, for third-party application developers and users,” Legree told Linux Girl. “This is where package management comes into play: too many moving targets make it challenging for application developers to provide support.”

In a perfect universe, “Linux could deliver all of these: consistent core stability, consistency across distros externally, consistency between upgrades internally, and consistent sensible defaults,” Legree concluded. “World domination will go to the first one to deliver this :)”

The best part, meanwhile, is that “the tinkerers will still have their rolling release bleeding edge tinker-toys!!!” he added.

‘A Hobbyist Operating System’

Standardization in Linux is “not going to happen,” began Robin Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor.

“What should be done instead is to stop lumping all the Linux distributions under the name ‘Linux,’ and just call them Red Hat, Fedora, Ubuntu, Mint and so on,” Lim offered. “They are that diverse.”

In fact, “if we woke up tomorrow and only one desktop Linux distribution was left in development, we would all be better for it,” Lim opined. “It would be a point of focus for app developers and hardware manufacturers. Instead, we have a hobbyist operating system.”

Operating systems are supposed to be “nearly invisible,” Lim concluded. “Linux distributions are focused on creating the ultimate Linux distribution. This has resulted in a diversity of choices that do little for user productivity.”

‘It’s Been Tried Before’

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet took a similar view.

“Linux and standardization? Yeah hold on to that dream, pal, it’s been tried before,” he said. “Linux isn’t an OS, not really; it’s a bunch of teeny tiny fiefdoms each ruled by some massive egotist and they all use the same kernel…that’s it, that is ALL it is.”

That’s why, “even after MSFT puts out the flop of the decade in Windows 8, nobody is selling Linux laptops,” hairyfeet added. “That is why all the OEMs and B&M stores treat it like the plague, as you will NEVER get that many ego driven guys on the same page — it’s like herding cats.”

Some think Linux’s diversity is a strength, but “I think it’s a mess that insures MSFT can flop like a fish and all that will happen is Apple and Google will take the business,” he concluded. “And for the one billionth time, Android is NOT Linux — they use their own kernel, they don’t care what up or downstream does, it’s Google’s way or the highway.”

‘That’s Not a Mess’

Last but not least, blogger Robert Pogson saw it differently.

“The GNU/Linux desktop mess is imaginary,” Pogson told Linux Girl. “Take any distro and its desktop is usable and easily learned in a few hours. It’s the same as each new release of that other OS.

“The confused remain confused and the inquisitive become accustomed,” he added. “That’s not a mess. It’s just the way a GUI works.”

The mess, however, “is in the market, where competition is not allowed by OEMs and retailers catering to M$’s whims,” Pogson asserted. “That’s slowly being remedied by Android/Linux, showing the world that M$ has no monopoly on innovation nor performance but delay in the arrival of competition has cost the world dearly.

“Just get GNU/Linux on retail shelves and many problems will be solved by users enjoying proper IT,” he concluded.

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


  • I never quite understand this. What is the "Linux community"? Exactly who is promoting Linux? What is the Linux Desktop Mess? When was a number of choices a mess? I use Mint Gnome, Debian XFCE, SuSE KDE without fear or confusion. The so-called "mess" I’d prefer to call "choice". And it’s free.

    • I said it was 5 years 2 years ago and I stand by that statement so 3 years and counting down. I would be happy to give you a quarter but sadly its quite hard to get any info on H.265 and I haven’t had a chance to take a hard look at any of Canonical’s SEC filings but I haven’t seen anything to make me doubt my original time table.

      Just as I said they are flopping from one idea to the next, just as i said they are trying to "me too!" their way into a product that will make enough to keep the lights on, etc. The simple fact is there is really only 3 ways to survive with FOSS, the blessed three, 1.-Selling support/services, 2.- Selling hardware, 3.- the tin cup. Desktops don’t sell support contracts in a high enough number to keep them afloat, their attempts to sell hardware have crashed and burned, and the tin cup won’t give them a steady income at a high enough rate to keep the lights on.

      I’m sorry but Canonical will in less than 3 years join Xandros, Linspire, mandriva, and all the rest that tried to make desktops into a business. If they would have been smart they would have copied Apple and used BSD, that way they could have kept their GUI proprietary and gave back changes for the underlying subsystems but its too late for that now, unless Shuttleworth breaks out his wallet Ubuntu will be history in 3.

      • OK. So at least you’re able to predict that by the end of 2016 Canonical will have ceased operations. Is that right?

        "Before December 31st 2016 Canonical wil have ceased all operations and if Ubuntu still survives it will be supported only by a community". Can you sign that statement YES or NO?

        I don’t give you any credit about what they should have done or not. Let alone any "analysis" of their current direction or lack thereof. You can keep al that nonsense to you or keep publishing it (I just can not-read). What I want is for you to be serious enough and make sure you won’t change predictions in the middle of the road from here to 2016, so be serious and let everybody know your prediction with a deadline on it. Feel free to change Dec. 21st 2016 to any other deadline you consider safe, but DO SHOW a date (keep in mind this is not the exact date where Canonical fails: this is a date at which Canonical will have failed already. Meaning Canonical could fail in 2015 and you would be equally right.)

        • By Dec 2016 Canonical will "Give Ubuntu to the community" (translation, abandoned) and will possibly try to make a last stand with the server edition but if they do that it will only buy them an extra 2 or 3 quarters at most, otherwise Canonical dead by 2016.

          Oh and just FYI but so far out of the predictions I’ve made in the last 7 years the only one I was off on was windows 7, i thought after MSFT burned the hardware manufacturers by changing the driver model at the last second that support for Win 7 would be slow coming but I didn’t see the software companies jumping onto windows 7 and supporting its features so quickly which helped get the hardware companies on board. I’ll be the first to admit I missed that one but there was zero indicators before release that the software companies would embrace Win 7 so quickly.

          But I predicted Vista would go down in flames based on the indicators and nailed it, Vista at its highest was a lousy 17% before falling like a stone when the beta for Windows 7 came out, I predicted that Win 8/WinRT would be a megaflop which it is, that WinPhone would go nowhere and it has, and that Ubuntu netbook Edition and Ubuntu TV would go nowhere which is exactly what they did.

          So considering I’m hitting 8 out of 10 (missed the hardware and software groundswell for Win 7) I’m pretty confident in that number, all indicators show Canonical to be blowing more than they are taking in and Shuttleworth has already said he won’t be sending any more million dollar checks which at this point is the only thing that could buy them more time.

  • i like dolphin, vlc, muon is ok but I like synaptic better. but i like K3b over brasero. i like gparted too. but are they the best apps for what they do? i also like stuff that pretty much everybody uses, wine. grub customizer. and we all use just about the same underlying kernel, right? i don’t like unity. but just about any other window manager works. and when unity first came out my thoughts were just WHAT are "they" thinking? I’m STILL wondering what are they thinking?

    anyhow its she says he says I say. I think its what’s the most intuitive for YOU. what works for YOU. sometimes you’re forced to use somebody else. at least for awhile. when ext4 first became stable gparted didn’t support it. I went somewhere that did. but I kept checking back. now they support it so I came back. see over here we have so many choices! look at libre, open office. they come straight to mind because we ALL need an office product. but I’m certain there are others. however libre does what I need it to do, see? some of these distro’s may not install some of these by default (ubuntu doesn’t install dolphin… but its available within their repository).

    anyhow my argument is that more choice is a good thing. and if you happen to hear about something new, different, whatever well hell go ahead and try it! for example I tried several PCB drawing packages. but all of them had major issues so I chose a windoze app and loaded it up under wine. runs great and at a modest price. sometimes we gotta do that. but not too often. hope this helps somebody make a decision. just try it.. whatever "it" may be.

  • Standardization

    1. Take away from innovation.

    2. Just another way to dumb down an OS like MS.

    3. Just another way of being a bully.

    4. Lack of vision.

    If there ever was a standard Gnu/Linux OS.

    I would use NON_STANDARD Gnu/Linux Distro.

    Instead of trying to force Standard for Gnu/Linux OS.

    Think outside the box !

    Think of an Open Source Project

    it could be called (App Manager)

    that can be install into different distro

    that allow you install 3rd party package verified by App Manager that manage it own dependecy and libraries with out interfering with Distro packages management.

      • Do you already have a date for the death of Canonical? I’m eagerly waiting your prediction. Give us at least a quarter.

        I can see you’re now talking about the death of the entire Linux desktop, not just Ubuntu. Do you have a date for that too?

        To Ms. Noyes: I understand you ask for different point of views about the subject of your articles, but asking this comical troll is beyond any logic and conventional wisdom. You wouldn’t ask a paranoid OS X fanboy (or childish MS hater, the end result is the same) about Windows 8, would you? There.

        • Exactly. Actually, for everyone but geeks, Ubuntu IS the Linux desktop. No manufacturer would consider other option to pre-install. Ubuntu going solo in many areas (display server, desktop environment, etc.) only reinforces the idea of a company committed to its product. Sure, it isn’t the way geeks want it to be, but Canonical simply can’t wait for the ultra-slow decision making of the standard Linux development process. (I’m VERY critical for some decisions Canonical makes and especially those attributed to its owner, but I’m positive that any Linux desktop needs a company behind and take their own decisions as fast as possible, leaving the endless mailing lists discussions for the geeks.)

  • There is no linux desktop mess. Of course, a mess or not a mess is just like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder.

    I like the idea of being able to to choose my own desktop session, and if it changes in a way that I do not like, I can simply choose another. I am not forced to put up with something that I do not like.

    I would like to see a few more really good applications in the greeting card area and tax preparation area. Those are the only things that I use windows for right now.

    I think that it is good to have a well known and popular distribution, such as ubuntu. It may help with getting applications ported to Linux. But I would not like to see any distribution become dominant enough to dictate the type of desktop that other linux distributions would have to use.

    Smme more basic underlying standardization would be haelpful, but I want to be able to continue to choose the desktop I want and the distribution I want.

    Right now I am happy with XFCE and I am back using pure Debian (unstable).


    • Meanwhile I can take the disc that came with my four year old graphics card, slap it and hey, guess what? it WORKS in Windows, Apple has the same ease for the user, Linux? You’ll be lucky if that driver works for a year. Linux drivers go bad like day old cheeseburgers.

      This is why MSFT can put Windows stinkbomb edition and you gain NO share, and no Android is NOT Linux, its controlled by Google, it does NOT allow any GPL V3, its as much a Linux distro as that router you got online.

      But hey, you don’t NEED the masses, right? You don’t NEED those "noob" consumers, right? I don’t know whether to laugh at the freight train that is about to run or be sad at all the wasted potential, but the future outside of server rooms? yeah…you’re not gonna be in it, sorry. Apple is gonna push DRM into HTML with MSFT of course supporting them because "its one more thing we can copy from Apple!" and Google WILL lock down Android because they know that if their OS can’t play Netflix or browser games or anything else that has this DRM baked in their OS is as dead as BeOS and that is gonna be that.

      I mean why do you think Apple demanded (and got) H.264 into HTML V5? Because while you guys are still acting like its 1997 and Gates is running Redmond Cook and Co are playing to WIN. They know that since FOSS and DRM simply can’t go together it will leave them with only MSFT as competition and lets be honest folks, Ballmer couldn’t catch a cold with a GPS unit so their only real threat is Google and they most likely figure they can back Google into a corner with the mandatory DRM.

      So enjoy it while you can kids, the future? game consoles, NOTHING but game consoles. heck Intel is even talking about soldering the CPU and memory to the boards so you won’t even be able to add RAM without buying a whole new unit, it will ALL be black boxes and locked down and thanks to DMCA you’ll be a criminal if you even attempt to bypass it.

  • Yes, there should be more standards in some areas, but to my "normal" needs Ubuntu (and it’s flavors) are the face of "linux". I haven’t distro-hopped in 5 years!

  • LXDE or XFCE

    A decent browser

    A decent word processor

    Sensible power management

    I don’t really mind whose distro is underneath.

    Thats all I need, I suspect most "civilians" are likewise.



    PS I usually end up back on Lubuntu when I do distrohop though.

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