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Is Linux Desktop-Ready Yet...or Not?

Point-Counterpoint Special on the state of the union so far as Linux on the desktop is concerned

James Turner: "Linux is nowhere near ready for the desktop"

In the spirit of the new Linux desktop initiatives that have been announced over the last few weeks, I took another try at getting my laptop to run Linux tonight.

I had only two criteria:

  1. My DVD player needed to work
  2. My SMC 802.11g card needed to work

Well folks, I can report that Linux is as useless on an off-the-shelf laptop as it was six months ago.

To begin, I had to go through several hours of downloading, configuring, and installing to get my laptop to even begin to talk to the networking card. This involved running configuration scripts, compiling packages, and figuring out where things needed to be installed. And at the end of the process, it looked like I had actually gotten it installed. That is, until it started hanging the connection after 5 or 10 minutes of use...

The front DVD-wise was even worse. The distribution I was playing with, like most, took the safe route and supplied a version of the Xine DVD player that doesn't include the DMCA-violating dvdcss libraries. This means that all it's good for is playing unencrypted DVDs, like the Bar Mitzvah video your uncle Charlie gave you, but definitely not "Charlie's Angels II."

Sure, I could have (illegally) downloaded the libraries, rebuilt xine and maybe been able to watch the DVDs I wanted, but with the network cutting in and out, it wasn't worth the effort.

So what does Linux need to do to become a real operating system?

  • It needs to work for everything out of the box. This means no kernel recompilations. A server may be set up once and forgotten about, but people add and remove hardware from their desktops and laptops constantly. Really, in order for this to happen, we need to get to a single Linux distribution. That way, device drivers can be written and packaged up to automatically install and remove themselves, and be available in precompiled binaries that can be automatically downloaded from the net. In the current situation, you often find that your distribution doesn't have a precompiled version of the driver you need, meaning you need to build it from sources.
  • The major killer apps need to work seamlessly. Right now, browsers and e-Mail are in pretty good shape. But DVD playback and high-performance games are in abysmal shape. I want to be able to pop a DVD in my laptop and get an experience at least as good as with WinDVD on the same hardware.

So, in the spirit of getting things moving, I offer the following challenge to the distribution builders. The winner gets the official crown of "First Usable Desktop Linux". I wish I had millions of dollars to throw around like the X-Prize sponsors, but I don't. Maybe the folks at Sys-Con will kick in a prize if I guilt them enough.

In any event, here is the 4-point challenge.

  1. The target hardware in question is a Toshiba Satellite 1805-S204. (You can look up the specs on your own time.)
  2. The distribution must ask no questions during install that my mother can't figure out. (I reserve the right to have my mother do the install.)
  3. At the end of the install, my SMC2835W 802.11g card must be up and functioning, have negotiated a DHCP address and be active on the network. This means that during install I must have been asked for my WEP information.
  4. At the end of the install, I must be able to put a commercial DVD into the DVD-ROM drive and have the movie start and play without skipping or stuttering.

Frankly, I think my (non-existent) money is safe. I've been waiting for Linux to become usable by the non-geek community for years, and though it's getting closer, it's nowhere near the Windows level yet (sounds cruel, but it's true.) Telling people to buy specific hardware because Linux supports it places the Linux community in with the Mac folks, not the Windows masses. Linux needs to run well on any system that could run Windows XP. Out of the box. Period. No excuses.

Because if I have a hard time getting this stuff to work, imagine how my mom would feel?


More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Vice President of Community at Cloud.com. the maker of the open source cloud computing management software, CloudStack He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

More Stories By James Turner

James Turner is president of Black Bear Software. James was formerly senior editor of Linux.SYS-CON.com and has also written for Wired, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. He is currently working on his third book on open source development.

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