The GNU/Linux Desktop: Nine Myths

Myths like “not enough software” and “must use the command line” reveal that there’s a good deal of misinformation about the GNU/Linux desktop.
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Nobody questions whether Mac OS X is ready for the desktop. Never mind that switching to it involves learning different assumptions and tools and a new desktop. It has a reputation for being user-friendly, and is backed by a proprietary company, just like Windows.

With GNU/Linux, however, the story is different. For over a decade, columnists and bloggers have been explaining how GNU/Linux isn't ready for the desktop -- and, despite all the progress in the operating system over the last ten years, the arguments haven't changed much. Moreover, increasingly, they're outdated when they're not based on complete ignorance. In fact, I often get the impression that those who pontificate on GNU/Linux's inadequacies have never tried it.

Often, of course, the criterion for desktop-readiness is subjective. What is a bug to one user is a feature to another: for example, having to log in as root to install software is an inconvenience to inexperienced users, but a security feature to those with more knowledge.

Often, too, complaints about GNU/Linux are actually complaints that it is not exactly like Windows. Never mind the fact that, unless it did things differently, there would be no reason to switch in the first place. Or that anyone who expects to use a new application or operating system without a learning period is arrogantly provincial. The fact that GNU/Linux is not completely familiar is more than enough to damn it in the eyes of some critics.

Then there are arguments that involve a rubber ruler. That's where someone claims that GNU/Linux will never be ready until it has a certain feature, then, when the feature is pointed out or developed, changes directions and insists that another feature is essential. You can never win against such arguments, because the criteria for judging them keeps changing.

However, in addition to all these arguments are the ones that invalidate themselves primarily because of error, incompleteness, or misrepresentation. These are nine of the most common factually incorrect ones:

1) Distros are too forked for easy compatibility for developers

This claim is popular among software vendors explaining why they don't make versions of their products for the operating system. It is based on the fact that all distributions do not follow efforts at consistency like the Linux Standards Base, and often put files in different locations. In addition, distributions use a variety of package systems, so that widespread support can mean building packages in several different formats.

These problems are real, but the claim exaggerates the difficulties they create. Universal installers like InstallBuilder and Install Anywhere offer vendors installers that are similar to those on Windows. As for building several different packages, if community projects have no trouble doing so, why should a software company?

But, really, the largest problem with this claim is that it attempts to impose the Windows way of doing things on an existing system. In GNU/Linux, the creators of an application don't support different distributions or packaging formats -- the distribution does.

This system works because, with free software, the distribution can make whatever changes it needs to make the software run. It is only a problem for proprietary vendors. If they aren't willing to work with the system and release their code as free software, that is their choice -- but then they shouldn't complain that the system isn't set up for them.

2) No migration tools exist

True, GNU/Linux might benefit from a wizard that would import e-mail, browser bookmarks, IRC channels and other personal information from Windows. But the same could be said of Windows. At least GNU/Linux co-exists with other operating systems and can read their formatted partitions so that you can manually migrate some of this information.

3) There's no hardware support

In the past, hardware support for GNU/Linux was spotty. More often than not, it existed because of efforts by the community, not the manufacturer, and its early stages were incomplete.

However, in the last three or four years, community drivers have matured, and more manufacturers are releasing GNU/Linux drivers along with Windows and Mac drivers. The manufacturers' drivers are not always free software, but they are free for the download.

Today, cases of incompatibility for basics such as hard drives, keyboards, and ethernet cards still occur, but are rare. The problem areas are likely to be peripheral areas like scanners, printers, modems, and wireless cards. However, you can hedge your bets by a few tactics such as choosing a postscript printer, which always works with the generic postscript driver, or buying from companies like Hewlett-Packard, which has a long history of supporting GNU/Linux printing.

Some people even maintain that, because GNU/Linux generally retains backwards compatibility, it actually supports more hardware than Windows. I wouldn't quite go that far, but, on the whole, driver problems on GNU/Linux seem only slightly more common than the ones I used to find on various versions of Windows.

Today, too, you can sidestep hardware compatibility entirely by buying GNU/Linux pre-installed from companies such as Acer or Dell.

Next Page: The dreaded command line, and software...

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Tags: Linux, Windows, Linux desktop, OS X

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