I like to think of myself as a relatively long time Linux enthusiast. In fact, I feel like a fish out of water when asked to work on a Windows box or with a Mac.
Like most of you, I can certainly make the adjustment for a day, but I always come away feeling a little stranger from the experience. Guess this happens when you’re bound to a single way of doing things for an extended period of time.
Now let’s flip the coin for a moment. Despite the many successes seen from the desktop Linux camp over the years, there are some areas that continue to be left largely unchecked. Rather than automatically painting my findings with a negative brush, instead let’s examine each issue closely.
Let’s see if there is in fact a real problem at all. In this article, I’ll tackle specific concerns I’ve noticed and focus on whether these issues present any real concern for us in the long run.
User adoption – the good, bad and the ugly
Most people agree that desktop Linux adoption is up. We just don’t really know by how much. And with new people making their way into the Linux way of doing things, there comes many questions and plenty of new user frustrations. Many of the concerns expressed by new users are easy enough to overcome.
One of the simplest ways to overcome new user issues would be to purchase PCs with a little sticker attached that says “your distro here.” Don’t laugh, they exist.
Yet oddly we still see many new users wanting to try and make their “made for Windows” computers work instead. I suppose one can hardly blame them, what with a tight economy and the desire to get the most out of the computers they already own.
But what I find frustrating about the entire process is that nearly all of the Linux distributions targeting new users don’t bother to explain the challenges that exist with using “made for Windows” hardware combined with their distro. Sure, for you and I it’s a snap. For a new Linux user, however, this is not clearly spelled out. Often, selecting video or wireless chipsets can provide hours of unneeded frustration.
Distro developers have done their jobs well. So have those who are working to promote their distributions throughout the various channels, for the most part. But where I see the ball being dropped early on is with clear guidelines as to what new users should expect.
I’m sorry, but I think in 2011 we have outgrown statements like “it’s not Windows” and “visit the forums for help.” Providing a simple notice on the distribution websites indicating that self-installation is to be an “as is” type of deal, would provide some much needed reprieve for newbies everywhere.
This is especially true when followed up with a list of links where they can purchase Linux pre-installed desktops and notebooks as an alternative.
The state of Linux pre-installed
If you’re someone who purchases their computers online, finding computers with popular Linux distros installed is fairly easy. If however, you’re among those who have never even heard much about Linux on the desktop, you can thank the lack of visibility in local big box stores.
Now I’m not saying that this is a show-stopping issue and that it’s going to create a massive problem for existing Linux users. Fact is, that’s not going to happen. But I do think this lack of local pre-installed availability is a crying shame and really stacks the deck against non-geeky adoption.
Now I think it’s awesome that there are a small handful of reputable vendors selling desktop Linux PCs online these days. Unfortunately this does nothing for the casual user who will never discover it. Up until recently, Dell was the closest shot we ever had with a big brand retailer. Visit Dell.com/Ubuntu today, however, and behold a complete lack of any actual products offered running Linux on the desktop.
It’s truly sad that Dell dropped the ball like this. There was a time when Ubuntu PCs were even seen in Dell circulars! Well, it was fun while it lasted.
Now many of you will be “chomping at the bit” to point out how various community groups and so forth are fulfilling the need for local Linux marketing. I would respond by stating that this is nonsense and further point out that out of 100 random people familiar with OS X and Windows, I’d bet my left kidney that none of them even know what Linux is.
Offer an experience, not just another OS
Accepting the reality that we may never see a foothold at the local big box level has me pondering about what the alternatives may be to a necessary evil at this juncture. I believe another approach is in order.
Remember the concept behind Zonbu? Clever idea with a horrid execution that wasn’t planned out very well. What Zonbu did right was the idea of selling people a worry-free PC that just worked and also happened to keep all personal data safe “in the cloud.”
Where Zonbu completely dropped the ball, however, was in selling cheap computers that had no long term value. Users couldn’t even operate a scanner with Zonbu, for Pete’s sake! It was really poorly thought out.
The idea of a worry-free computing experience is still obtainable, thanks to services that use Amazon S3 type methods of data storage. But the real value is in remote desktop support. I’m willing to bet this would make the idea of “software as service” suddenly quite viable for the non-enterprise and enterprise desktop Linux market.
Offering a “do it all” type of distribution isn’t a bad idea. They main key is to simply provide better execution than past efforts while ensuring that the needs of many Windows users aren’t being ignored. Considering the vast number of great applications available for the Linux desktop, I think a large number of existing Windows users could indeed make the switch with the proper support in place.
Linux brand peripherals
Printers, webcams and most other USB devices work great out of the box with today’s modern Linux distributions. Sadly though, wireless chipsets remain hit and miss. This problem doesn’t exist because of a lack of developer focus or a lack of driver support. No, instead this issue is ongoing because everyone buys from vendors that choose to support Windows users exclusively.
Imagine if Novell, Red Hat and Canonical got together and approached some big-name vendors to license a set of known-to-work chipsets in USB dongle format? The issue of compatible wireless devices would be solved overnight.
Remember that working chipsets do exist. It’s just that companies use a revision number on top of a device type that then creates the problem. The same device type often comes with a new chipset. This makes the idea of hardware compatibility lists nearly impossible when it comes to wireless networking gear.
Will this alliance ever happen? No, not in a million years. It’s much easier to have dated documentation point to poorly maintained compatibility lists with claims that NDISWrapper handles wireless compatibility just fine. Well, guess what? There are countless forum threads out there filled with individuals who might be inclined to disagree. Brand it, support it, and the problem can truly be solved in a duplicable manner.
Swallowing our pride and accepting reality
Many of you reading this are thinking “who cares?” because you have been able to overcome these issues just fine. And I’m included in this list – I’ve found work-a-rounds and various ways of overcoming simple issues that should have been fixed years ago. However, despite the tremendous power the Linux desktop has to offer, there’s always room to make things more fluid and logical.
I’m not talking about dumbing anything down, mind you. No, I simply want to see all of us decide that we either are going to start taking our platform seriously or opt to forgo the usual long-winded speech about how superior it is in comparison to the alternatives.
Why not provide a simple means of using already supported wireless chipsets? Why not decide that we’re willing to reach out to people who want a Zonbu-like experience even if it means including less geeky users?
And lastly, let’s stop buying computers only to then remove Windows and install Linux. This is the single biggest gripe I have. If you choose to ignore every other point, please at least hear me on this one. Build your own desktop PCs and buy your notebooks with Linux pre-installed.
If we’re ready to stop talking and would like to put our money where are collective mouths are, perhaps more PC vendors would start taking us seriously in the future.
Remember, it’s a numbers game. Even with the gains we’ve made over the years, too many of us are still buying products not supporting the Linux lifestyle. I happen to think it’s pathetic and really needs to stop. Well, either stop or keep drinking the Linux Kool-aid about “community” and the “open source eco-system.” It’s put up or shut time, people.