Where’s the Progress?

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 5:02 AM

Those of us observing GNU/Linux over the past decade have spent so much time talking about how “next year is Linux’s year on the desktop” that it has become more of a humorous cliché than a useful statement. Nevertheless, while every year the Penguin has disappointed us in not quite readying itself to compete against Apple and Microsoft’s systems, at least in the small office and home office market, we can always cling to the eternal hope: next year. Or can we?

Though I backslid away from the Free Software desktop into Mac OS X a few years ago, I have not given up on the idea of the GNU/Linux desktop that I spent many, many hours promoting in the past. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel that the system remains far away from the elusive goal of reaching the average user out of the box. Sure, GNU/Linux worked fine for me, but it never seems to reach the state that the average novice can sit down in front of an untweaked copy of a major distribution and do everything he or she wants.

If Linux would be just a bit less behind Windows and Mac OS X in usability, it would have sailed comfortably into the number two slot in desktop OS sales several years ago. Stability, price and freedom (perhaps from copy protection, primarily, for the average user) are appealing, but not when it does not offer the functionality people demand. I’ve been able to get people successfully to switch to Mac OS X, because it can usually do everything Windows does and it tops that off with the ever-amazing iLife suite. Conversely, every user I tried to switch to GNU/Linux either switched back to Windows or went to the Mac (just as I did) because they were seeking the cohesive, easy to use integration of everyday tasks with multimedia that is still immature on the Free Software desktop.

There is a difference between a good value and something that is cheap, and while Linux can appeal to the former on the server, it usually qualifies as the latter in the desktop user’s eyes. But, next year, in 2002, KDE 3.0 will make it all OK. Wait, I mean 2004 and GNOME 2.8, with its sleek dialogs and bundling of Novell Evolution. Uh, maybe 2005 and the second Ubuntu release will solve our problems? Oh, right, it’s 2006.

I do not think those of us who spent so much time predicting the impending desktop-readiness of Linux were entirely crazy. The progress from KDE 1.0 in 1998 to KDE 2.1 – the first really usable KDE 2.x release – in 2001 was absolutely jaw dropping. With Microsoft staggering toward its first Windows NT-based consumer OS and Apple still hoping to put its 17-year-old Mac OS Classic to rest sooner rather than later, things looked really bright for the darling of the computer media. Suddenly, the world had a server strength OS with a friendly face on it – something neither Apple nor Microsoft had at the time – and all that needed to be resolved were a few “minor” details: problematic third party package installation, difficult hardware configuration, continuing non-integration of some applications’ user interfaces, and less than stellar answers to upcoming multimedia apps from Apple and Microsoft.

Five years later, it seems like very little progress has been made. It is still a challenge to install third party packages, something lessened a bit only by the fact that companies like Corel, who were releasing third party shrink wrapped software, threw in the towel. It is still difficult to install the latest hardware without fighting difficult driver installation situations. It still seems to be necessary to use a mixed bag of applications that differ dramatically in the way their user interfaces work. And, it is still difficult to even come close to the package of multimedia applications, for example, in iLife. The problems that were solved in 2002 remain solved, but the amount of progress toward leading, rather than following the other OSes seems only marginal. The basic user interface methodology that dominates on the Free Software desktop continues to differ little from that which Microsoft premiered eleven years ago in Windows 95.

Looking, for example, at the latest Mandriva release, I find myself wondering exactly what has improved in the last few years. How does it really look or act differently than it did back in 2004? There are improvements, don’t get me wrong. And, I’m convinced that Ubuntu has made some good strides at producing a flavor of GNU/Linux that actually feels unified. Nevertheless, as my clients continue to demand more in the way of easy video editing, powerful photo organization and completely plug-and-play operation of the latest hardware, I find less and less times I can say, “maybe you should consider GNU/Linux.” These are the kinds of weaknesses I lamented several years ago; and while yet another iTunes clone may be somewhat worthwhile, there are much bigger hurdles to reach the level that users demanded a year or two ago – much less a year or two from now.

This should be the winter of the consumer’s discontent. Vista is delayed and Apple is in the process of a major transition, which, while mostly complete from the company’s perspective, is still only beginning for users of the PowerPC platform. This is Linux’s chance to swoop in and gain some serious market share, just as Firefox has garnered a foothold in the browser market while Microsoft let Internet Explorer rust. However, GNU/Linux must first reach parity with the 2006 operating system scene. If Apple continues to pull off its Intel switch as well as it has so far, and Microsoft doesn’t stumble too terribly with Vista, the two leaders in the market will have extremely mature, multimedia rich OSes unlikely to breed too much unhappiness among users. So long as that’s true, the amount of defections to Linux will not be all that great.

I concede that a few well-known Mac OS X users have switched to Ubuntu lately, and I would suspect that this point will be used to refute my argument. All I can say is that they are not the target market. Technically inclined users can make the Linux desktop work today, just as we have done in the past. The real issue is attracting those who use a computer as a means and not an end, and that issue looms as large today as ever.

Timothy R. Butler is editor-in-chief of OFB. You can reach him at tbutler@ofb.biz.

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13 comments posted so far.

Re: Where�s the Progress?

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Posted by melon - Oct 16, 2006 | 8:05 AM

Re: Where’s the Progress?

You’re looking for progress, and expecting it to match the past.

Linux has a better system for installing software than manually installing packages. Take a look at a debian or ubuntu system with all major repositories enabled. It lists all of the software available, and lets you install it at the click of a button. No browsing through websites, no filling in agreements before downloading, no different install procedures with each application. What’s more: it does this WITHOUT and dependency problems, without messing up your system, without advertising product names in your start menus (applications are ordered by category, not by the manufacturer’s name). Uninstalling software is equally integrated and simple.

Secondly, KDE 3 is a massive improvement on 2. The improvements are more subtle and refined, but compare how KDE’s kontact works, with Microsoft’s Outlook, for instance. Compare development time, too. Kontact was developed very quickly, by merging kmail, knews, kaddressbook, etc. into one application. This was VERY quick, and only possible through all the hard design work that went into KDE 3. What’s more: the integration is dynamic, so you can start kmail to read your mail, or you can start kontact, and have kmail work as part of your PIM application. This is way more advanced than Windows (or OS X) PIMs right now. In fact, some of the features that were used to do it are the same sort of features that MS is working on (and advertising as a new, powerful feature) for Vista. KDE developers have had it so long, they’re getting bored with it, and moving on to KDE 4’s improved version.

Maybe the problem is that you’re using Ubuntu, rather than Kubuntu. GNOME is great; they’ve done very hard work in terms of supporting complex world languages like Arabic, Chinese, etc. They have a nice accessibility framework, which can read the contents of the screen to blind people etc. Some of this is real progress. But for a modern, useable desktop, that outstrips OS X and Windows by a long way, look to KDE. And I mean… look under the hood as you use it over months, because the developers like to make features subtle and discoverable, rather than glaringly up-front and intrusive.

Posted by Anonymous - Oct 16, 2006 | 8:28 AM

Re: Where’s the Progress?

Progress is there but it is slow. To think that Linux will one year just take over the entire market is such early 90’s thinking. As pc Market mature, it is harder and harder to see major changes and developments. To use the obligatory car analogy, Toyota has had bette value for decades, but only recently is it surpassing GM in terms of market share. And toyota cars are a drop in replacement of GM cars.

I do not think that Linux will take over or make any major progress, but 2010 may be a linux decade :)

Posted by Mirza Borogovac - Oct 16, 2006 | 9:53 AM

Re: Where’s the Progress?

What the hell are you talking about? Sorry mate, but Linux is 10000 times better than that Windows sh*t. Where is the XGL in Windows? Where are the FREE firewalls? Where is the protection? Where is the non-defrag filesystem? Where is the FREE software? Even Apple sucks, because the money I give on an iMac for example, I buy 2 high-end P4 computers, put Linux on them and I “rock” the internet. Also there is a LOT of Apple software that cost money, which sucks again! So? Where is the M$ progress, I ask you!

I have a background of 8 years in Windows and 5 in Linux… now I use only Linux, ‘cause I can do anything I want/need to in Linux. Ofcourse, no games… I have a PS2.

Posted by MN - Oct 16, 2006 | 12:48 PM

Re: Where’s the Progress?

You’re kidding, right? First of all, the “average novice user” faces a learning curve on all operating systems. No one is going to sit down to any computer and become instantly proficient.

Secondly, the Linux desktop is so far advanced beyond Windows it’s a joke to even compare them, and the Mac does not take full advantage of its BSD Unix underpinnings:

-multiple virtual desktops -true multi-user -completely customizable -actual meaningful strong security out of the box- users don’t have to become security experts or install hundreds of dollars’ worth of security software, which doesn’t work all that well anyway -multiple window managers and desktops to choose from -extremely stable -thousands of free-of-cost quality applications, lots of nice commercial apps too -Secure remote administration, and secure remote graphical desktops that are dead-easy to set up and use, far superior to the expensive suckage that passes for these services on windows

Problems with installing software? Hellooo, you have heard of Yum, aptitude, and all the related dependency-resolving installers? What could be easier than installing applications over the Internet? Corel?? Come on Mr. Butler, it’s 2006. Third-party proprietary apps can still use RPM and deb packages, and sizable number have figured out how to distribute self-installers like Nvidia and Moneydance.

Full-fledged multimedia does require a bit of extra hassle in the community distributions, because so much of it is non-Free and proprietary. But these are your clients- can’t you figure it out? Isn’t that your job? Or use something like Xandros or Linspire that embrace closed, proprietary drivers and codecs. How many Windows or Mac users install and configure their operating systems? Installing Linux these days is a lot easier and faster anyway, and has been for several years.

LiveCDs and bootable USBs that don’t require hard drives, specialized distributions for security, system administration, old feeble PCs, multimedia, thin clients/terminals, Internet kiosks, network attached storage, troubleshooting, and everything else under sun- what does Windows or Apple have that even comes close?

Sorry, but you need to spend more time actually using Linux instead of occasionally observing it.

(apologies again for the test post- the preview doesn’t show any formatting)

Posted by ellen mohr - Oct 16, 2006 | 8:09 PM

Re: Where’s the Progress?

I use linux for 2 years now and I can’t stand using windows anymore, but I see some major problems in suggesting linux to the average user. Out of the box, linux demands some tweaking, that the average user don’t want to do. Examples:

Display configuration : you will have to edit your xorg.conf some day (if you want a smaller resolution/dual monitors/disable tapping in your touchpad/acceleration). If you (or any third party software) made some mistake, you’ll have to edit xorg.conf

Software installation : No distro on earth have all the software you want available to install out of the box. You’ll have to edit apt.sources (after finding the correct source), or you’ll have to install by hand (compiling and dealing with dependencies.

Wireless and modem drivers, some printers (lexmark) and scanners: they are a pain in the ass, and will be forever. If the user has a computer, he will demand that his devices work properly, and won’t buy something new if the older was working under windows.

Too much security to desktop users: every distro I know asks a password to change the clock, for example. It is also an annoyance to simply share a folder.

Some configurations work on some situations, some don’t: eg. I have a laptop, configured to work with dual-monitors. But Xorg doesn’t work if there’s no monitor connected on it. And my computer hangs. What average joe could do in that situation? Nothing different from format, reinstall and reconfigure everything… unless he knows that he can type ‘i’ while the system is booting, and choose not to start X… and work in text mode to recover the xorg.conf file.

Mounting can also be a pain. You need to mount a device (especially CD and DVD drives). And if something wrong happens meanwhile, and you can’t unmount, and you’ll have to turn off your computer just to open the tray.

Sometimes, X hangs up, and there’s no way to kill it.

The rest are issues about compatibility with proprietary formats, win32 softwares, etc. But that’s not the main issue. The greatest problem is to make linux EASY to use, without the aforementioned issues. If you want to convince someone to use linux, and that someone is lazy (to ask for help, to search for answers) as many users are, there’s no way to make s/he change his/her mind, because there will be some new (and stupid) annoyances.

Posted by Jerônimo Backes - Oct 16, 2006 | 8:45 PM

Re: Where’s the Progress?

The Linux desktop progress has been painfully slow. There are a number of problems with the Linux development model: lack of a stable base, different pieces being developed by different groups with less than perfect cooperation, the obsession with new “distro”s rather than working on an existing distribution, lack of design and direction etc. It looks like the Linux crowd more or less gave up on the real problems, and are making progress where they can. Linux had its chance before Windows 2000 was released, but Microsoft’s products have improved by leaps and bounds, while Linux has improved only marginally. Even if Vista is not perfect out of the gate, people will just stick with XP until Vista becomes good enough. Linux desktop is destined to remain a footnote in the history of personal computing.

Posted by deepsuspicion - Oct 16, 2006 | 9:52 PM

Year of the Linux desktop?

To answer the question: When will Linux be ready for the desktop? I have the answer. It was February 2005. That was when I installed Linux on my home computers. So for me the year of the Linux desktop was 2005. The year of the Linux desktop was today too when I installed PCLinuxOS on a friends HP4500 laptop. It will be the year of the Linux desktop tomorrow too when I install Linux (Puppy Linux?) on another friends laptop. It’s been happening for years now and is accelerating. I don’t buy the complaints about Linux being too hard to install or tweak because I’m there to install and tweak on each computer. Windows and OS X comes pre-installed and tweaked, so does Linux. And as far as upgrading it will take me all of 45 seconds to teach someone how.

Your objections might be valid in your world. But that world is shrinking. I use linux exclusively. If I did not have access to it or it was taken away, I would not use computers at all.

Posted by Richard Chapman - Oct 16, 2006 | 10:16 PM

Re: Where’s the Progress?

Another poorly written article. To me it looks as if the author has copied pieces of other articles and pasted them together. I have read everything he writes at least two dozen times, and I am not going to give the same answer as you have read already a hundred times. Enough time wasted.

Posted by Nikkels - Oct 17, 2006 | 1:01 AM

Re: Where’s the Progress?

Well in general I can agree with the intent (the historical issues posed by Linux) of this article, but in all fairness to Linux, although it is true that the majority of Linux distros are not suitable for the mass market so that the casual user can have a great out of the box experience without having to “resort to the freedom” of having to go the last multimedia-mile themself, I would cite two Linux distros that clearly are ready for the mass market: (1) Xandros and (2) Turbo Linux.

Posted by Anonymous - Oct 17, 2006 | 1:07 PM

Re: Where’s the Progress?

I’ll tell you a big reason why Linux has not taken off: Nobody can trust Linux advocates.

I see irrational comments like the ones here all over the internet from, supposedly, pro-linux people.

If you want Linux to be a success on the desktop please, please think about what you tell people and be honest about its limitations. People are trying Linux and being extremely disappointed because of gradiose expectations put into their heads by people like you. And frankly, you give rational Linux advocates a bad name.

Posted by Andrew Betts - Oct 21, 2006 | 12:44 PM

Re: Where’s the Progress?

Great article by the way Timothy. I think you have accurately described where Linux is right now.

I’m somewhat doubtful if Linux will get the investment it needs on the desktop to get it to a point where it can actually compete. All the desktop linux vendors are burning money right now, so additional investment seems unlikely. Nobody really knows if desktop Linux will ever be a success or will remain just a niche haven for the ‘anything but Microsoft’ crowd. (But even they may start moving to Mac OS instead.)

Posted by Andrew Betts - Oct 21, 2006 | 1:08 PM

Re: Where�s the Progress?

Its not a usability issue it is not a features issue.

Nobody trusts the linux advocates, at least from a business point of view. And I believe the linux advocates starting with RMS himself have done a HUGE dis-service to their cause.

Business needs stability and the chaos and vagueness created by the linux crowd gives at least the impression this is an immature group.

You want linux to be accepted? Then look at it from a business point of view. Until it is accepted in the boardroom it won’t be accepted in the spare bedroom.

1) Call things by normal names, all these edgey names just serve to re-enforcement the notion this is dormroom stuff and not ready for the boardroom. 2) Write licenses that people can understand, not written by anarchists. I have over 28 years of experience in industry I have read hundreds of contracts. I can not understand the GPL. And that fact that there are 1,000s of websites giving their version of what it means PROVES it is vague. If I have to call in a lawyer, FORGET IT. RMS is Ballmers’s/Gates’s best salesperson. 3) Drop the “FREE BEER” thing, again it sounds like a dormroom project. 4) Get rid of the chaos. Business is not chaos, business is structure, processes, systems, people bringing home paychecks and feeding/housing their families.

The linux aura must grow up. Otherwise it will continue to be fringe. I have to wonder if Novell/IBM have to be questioning their linux moves.

Posted by Bob - Oct 27, 2006 | 2:05 PM