The Linux Desktop: Not Dead, Just Broken

Faithful readers of the Linux Blog Safari column here at LinuxInsider may recall the woeful report a few weeks back that a murder had been committed — by Apple, no less! — and that the Linux desktop was dead.

It was a distressing report, to be sure, not least because there was no corpse in sight. Linux Girl had her funereal-black Tux cape cleaned and pressed, just in case — but without a body, the funeral had to be postponed.

Good thing, too, because since then new reports have emerged, and they’re much more encouraging!

The good news: The Linux desktop isn’t dead after all. Hoorah!

The bad news: It is, however, apparently broken.

‘What’s the Missing Piece?’

“The fact remains that there are not a lot of popular applications ported to Linux,” wrote Brian Proffitt over at ITworld. “How do we solve this problem?

“Pretend you have unlimited resources (human or otherwise) and could implement a solution for the Linux desktop,” Proffitt went on. “Big, small, out-there, or realistic: what’s the missing piece in solving the problem of the Linux desktop?”

More than 100 comments appeared in the story’s comments section before the discussion moved over to Slashdot as well, generating more than a thousand more.

“How would you fix the Linux desktop?” was the question at hand. Only trouble was, not everyone agreed that it’s broken.

‘My Elderly Aunt Could Run It’

“The GNU/Linux desktop is fine,” shot back blogger Robert Pogson, for example. “All it needs are good salesmen and some retail shelf space.”

Fortunately, “it’s getting that today, thanks to persistence by Dell, Canonical, Positivo in South America, and even Linpus Technologies in China,” Pogson pointed out. “All the major OEMs will ship GNU/Linux if large customers demand it.”

Pogson recently installed Linpus in a virtual machine, in fact, “and it is so simple my elderly aunt could run it,” he told Linux Girl. “It worked flawlessly.”

In short, “these folks are putting workable desktop experiences based on GNU/Linux in consumers’ hands — something few bloggers and cranky developers do,” Pogson concluded.

‘Just an App Launcher’

“Linux just needs more apps,” opined Robin Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor.

“A few years ago I would have said Linux needs more of the popular apps to come out with Linux-compatible versions,” Lim explained. “Today, with the advent of iOS and Android, people are now used to trying apps whose names they have never heard before: Documents to Go instead of Word, PicSay instead of Photoshop.

“The exception would be games — you need the blockbuster game titles on Linux, not just nearly similar games,” he added.

In the end, however, “a good OS is just an app launcher,” Lim concluded.

‘Ordinary Users Will Go Elsewhere’

“The biggest problem is the ‘works out of the box’ factor,” suggested Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien.

“Not all of this is easily fixed — e.g., playing DVDs or MP3s still requires proprietary drivers — but I’m reminded of a joke from the TuxRadar podcast when someone said that Linux on the desktop would never succeed as long as Pulse Audio still existed,” O’Brien added.

“That may be an undeserved slam on Pulse Audio, but all too often audio does not work ‘out of the box,'” he pointed out. “Geeks will mess around and fix it, but ‘ordinary’ users will go elsewhere.”

‘There Is Some Room for Diversity’

Indeed, “stop trying to innovate and spend more time making sure that what needs to work does work and works efficiently,” agreed consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack.

“I care more about whether sound and auto-mounting works than I care about spinning cubes and other eye candy,” Mack added.

Of course, “the desktop is not a unified market,” noted Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. “People use desktop systems in many different environments, and requirements — including UI requirements — are often different between markets, so there is some room for diversity.”

‘GNOME 3 Is a Tragedy’

What there isn’t room for, however, “is the abandonment of models that work for many people in favor of more specialized models,” Travers asserted. “The moves from GNOME 2 to GNOME 3 and Unity come to mind.”

In fact, “to me GNOME 3 is a tragedy because, while many of the concepts personally work for me, I cannot recommend something that requires that sort of learning curve to most users,” he explained. “It’s better to give them something they can quickly and easily figure out on their own, even if this is limited in some areas regarding use cases.”

Last but not least, Slashdot blogger hairyfeet had an even stronger view.

‘They Just Want to Get on the Internet’

“STOP with the CLI already!” hairyfeet exclaimed. “It’s a server tech — it’s built for servers. Do you see Compaq or Dell putting Powershell on new home systems? No.”

The things that one uses the command line interface for are things “home users NEVER EVER do,” he added. “They aren’t writing scripts, or making batch processes, or automating squat, they just want to get on the Internet.”

In short, “it all falls down waaay too often and requires too much high level skills to fix,” hairyfeet concluded. “Get rid of these problems and you’d have a network of shops across the country selling and supporting Linux.”

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+.

1 Comment

  • Which is thus: if I ask you to paint me a picture or write me a song for free? i’ll get several to choose from, and some will even be good. if I ask you to come fix my nasty busted toilet for free? yeah good luck with that.

    The simple fact is that QA and QC and regression testing along with bug fixing is boring, tedious, thankless nasty work and since you have to work for free…it just doesn’t get done. Check your favorite bug tracker and see how many multi year old bugs are still around. 2 years? 3? do i hear 4? Ubuntu has 6 year old bugs still waiting to be fixed!

    In the end I can show conclusively that these bugs make it unsuitable for the average user, just by offering the "Hairyfeet challenge". Just to make the challenge more fair I will take the WORST MSFT OS release this decade, Windows Vista RTM, and will place it in a dual boot with ANY Linux released that same quarter…your choice. We’ll make sure all the drivers are working and then update to current..know what will happen?

    The Vista will be running just fine, all drivers functional and all software working, the Linux? BROKEN, horribly broken. the video will be trashed or the DE wonky or Pulse will puke and WiFi you can forget about, it’ll be completely trashed.

    If you want to compete we retailers need a product that can update for SEVEN years without a SINGLE driver failure, not one, and it needs to work just as well after 3 or 4 years worth of patches as it does on release. Servers get guys that have been educated to deal with these issues, home users do not get such luxury. believe me I’d like nothing more to offer linux next to my Windows boxes, especially now that XP is ending, but I can’t. You just don’t have a product suitable for home users period.

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