foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world

Linux still not ready for the masses?

, posted: 14-Aug-2008 10:06

Every couple of weeks, or so, someone out there in the land of journalism volunteers their opinion about Linux supposedly not being ready for the mass market, being complicated and complex, stating that nothing works and complicated hacking is required to get things going, etc. Just today, we find a piece like this here.

This truly surprises me, and I wonder what distro the author has been testing lately? For example, implying that the GNU/Linux desktop doesn't offer eye candy, the article states:

Like it or not, eye candy, special effects, translucent windows, etc, are inevitably going to attract 'normal' PC users.

The effect of these seemingly nice-to-haves should not be under-estimated in the battle to attract the masses to a new operating system.

Uhm... I wonder if the author ever heard of Compiz? Isn't it enabled by default in the latest version of Ubuntu? He should have seen this, if he would have tested a recent distro, no? Apparently, he hasn't.

The article then continues:

Seriously, installing applications on Linux is awful. Don't flame me or berate me with examples of how easy it is - it's not.

Half the time it's full of trials, tribulations, problems, and manual hacks - this is simply not good enough for a simple non-technical user.

Well, seriously: Installing applications on GNU/Linux (especially modern distros) is incredibly easy and straight forward. Don't flame me or berate me with examples of how difficult it is - it's not! In 99.9% of all the cases, the applications you want can be had without any trouble at all from the official repositories of the distros, which makes installing them a one-click affair. This is simply perfect for the simple, non-technical user.

Sarcasm aside: Maybe someone should tell the author about those repositories? I have a small tutorial on software installs for Ubuntu here, which might be just perfect to illustrate that point. Have a look and let me know how troublesome that really was.

The article suggest something interesting, though:
It's pretty hard to support every device and manufacturer out there, but the Linux distributors could at least focus on supporting the major OEM product lines with installs that work correctly out of the box.
Microsoft has the advantage that the hardware vendors themselves will fiddle with the Windows distro until it runs well on their hardware. But most of the OEMs are not yet doing this for GNU/Linux (some rare exceptions aside). So, the author is calling for the distributions to do this job themselves.

Yes, I agree that it would be great to be able to download a version of your favourite GNU/Linux distro, fine-tuned for your favourite hardware. I just see scalability issues here: Even within a single product line of many OEMs you often have different configuration options to choose from (different types of graphic cards, wireless chips, etc.), which can lead to an explosion in different device configurations you'd need to test and support.

For the time being, though, the market power of Windows will win out: OEMs will jump through hoops to make Windows work with their hardware (without Microsoft having to do much at all) ... and then consider their work done. In light of this, I have begun to just pick my hardware ahead of time specifically to work well with GNU/Linux. This is another way to affect change: The consumer can support with their wallet the hardware vendor that is supporting free software. Such hardware for which the interfaces have been freely published generally then works very well with modern GNU/Linux distros.

Finally, the article concludes with a suggestion I can support:
The Linux community should find common ground in the issues above, unite, and subsequently resolve the inherent, unaddressed problems with desktop Linux for the good of the masses - who are calling out for a usable, unbroken (read: Vista) operating system. ... Stop splintering, fragmenting, and focusing on non-core issues...
That has often been critisized about the free software world: There are just too many replicated efforts in similar projects. If people could just join their forces the end results would be even better. There are a lot of different GNU/Linux distros with many people working on the same thing in different projects and it's easy to say that we would have a better GNU/Linux distro if they could all pool their efforts. But consider this: Many of those people are only working on this, because they specifically want to do their own thing to start with. So, just calling for all to just get along is problematic.

Clearly, there is a splintering of efforts in the free software world (not only in GNU/Linux distros). The resulting diversity is powerful and weakening at the same time and offers oponents of free software and angle of attack. As I said here: Diversity can be a good thing, but sometimes standing divided makes it so much easier to be conquered.

Usability and also specific applications could indeed benefit from a more coordinated effort by all the smart people who currently work on their own, separate projects. Maybe people with vision, such as Mark Shuttleworth, who also have the respect of the community can inspire such cooperation.

So, while there is definitely lots that can be improved and lots that definitely needs to be improved in the free software world, we have come a long way already. And specifically for GNU/Linux, the installation of new software and eye candy on the Desktop have been sorted and are non-issues. It's time we stop rehashing this type of lame old FUD and focus on more pressing issues.

Other related posts:
Munich already saved millions by switching to Linux
Smooth sailing with the Karmic Koala
A Linux distro for Cuba

Comment by Roy Schestowiyz, on 15-Aug-2008 09:28

You're feeding a flamer/troll. Why bother? It's the same dead horse being kicked again.

Comment by timestyles, on 19-Aug-2008 18:17

Most of the people I know are useless with computers.  If only Linux were marketed as a MacOS clone - I'm sure many people would jump ship. Then again, look at BeOS.  Nice idea but it just didn't happen.

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New Zealand

  • Who I am: Software developer and consultant.
  • What I do: System level programming, Linux/Unix. C, C++, Java, Python, and a long time ago even Assembler.
  • What I like: I'm a big fan of free and open source software. I'm Windows-free, running Ubuntu on my laptop. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also follow the SaaS industry.
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