Technologies Holding Back the Linux Desktop

A combination of hardware and software challenges slow the adoption of the Linux desktop.


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Posted December 1, 2009

Matt Hartley

Matt Hartley

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Even after considering the success seen with Linux on netbooks, there is really no question that it feels like something ominous is holding back desktop Linux from the masses.

In the past these hurdles have been attributed to familiarity, legacy Windows software and even a lack of a perceived collaborative effort from a business standpoint. Based on my own experience however, there may actually be issues that come up for new users before even hitting any of these hurdles.

In this article, I’ll exploring some of the challenges that I feel are indisputable headaches, while also offering possible solutions.

Linux wireless

Atheros, Intel and Ralink: each company provides decent Linux wireless for the most part, despite running into occasional bugs. Despite the level of support shown from each, it still frustrates me that wireless options like Broadcom wireless remains the gold standard in most notebook computers sold today.

Even with the hard work that has gone into providing support for these problematic wireless chipsets thanks to projects like b43, most people still find that they are relying on NDISWrapper and windows drivers anyway.

It's nearly 2010 and we are still fighting Broadcom wireless hassles – just search Google for an abundance of examples. The work behind b43 is great, but I think it’s not really addressing the larger issue – the lack of natively working Linux ready wi-fi devices offered pre-installed on most notebooks.

What makes matters worse is the amazing inconsistency I have seen with natively supported devices using chipsets for 802.11n. One USB Ralink wireless device I own, for example, works out of the box with Puppy Linux – yet falls on its face in the latest release of Ubuntu. Linux should be a more uniform experience, yet sadly this is simply not always the case.

In my view, the solution to these problems is a simple one: Support wireless chipsets that support us as Linux users.

I don't really care so much about how firmware is licensed, I simply want my wireless to work. Then get something consistent going on with the version of the working drivers from one distro to another. Assuming the same kernel version is being used, perhaps a stronger collaborative effort is needed here?

Video cards in Linux

Compared to even just a few years ago, video card driver support for most Linux distributions has come a very long way. So far, in fact, that the installation of NVIDIA and ATI proprietary drivers is a brainless affair. Job well done there.

What makes this even more exciting is that I am still free to install these same drivers the old-fashioned way! So my freedom of choice on how I deal with this has not been inhibited at all.

Where things fall apart, however, is that not everyone is using Intel, ATI or NVIDIA for graphics. Some lower-end PCs and notebooks still use VIA graphics. And this sadly translates into using OpenChrome drivers.

In some cases, using OpenChrome works fine. But it's no secret that OpenChrome is about effective as the valiant efforts seen with B43 in the wireless realm. Users are still relying on the hard work of others to make a poorly supported chipset work "most" of the time. This doesn't make sense.

But since VIA wins on market share, this means many of us are stuck with that lousy chipset when purchasing low cost notebooks. With cost being a consideration here, I'm not sure how this can be overcome outside of saving a few more dollars and then purchasing the better notebook.

Restricted Codec Handling

Any Linux user who has been on a Linux desktop for at least a month likely understands why restricted codecs are not generally provided by default. It can fall into conflict with the US patent laws.

Windows and OS X provide freedom from this hassle out of the box. The arrangements have already been made behind the scenes, legally, to ensure these users have access to most restricted codecs with no extra effort required.

With desktop Linux distros on the other hand, everyone is on their own to figuring this out. Some distributions include restricted codecs by default while others take Fedora's approach in making them available...if you pay the license fees required before installing them.

Next Page: Then we have Ubuntu...

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Tags: Google, wireless, Linux desktop, Intel, Broadcom

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