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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

Mark R. Hinkle: "Linux is ready for the desktop"

In my view, Linux on the desktop is a viable operating system.

It offers many features that are more innovative than commercial solutions. Virtual consoles, secure remote access solutions, true multi-tasking, and the ability to use robust journaling file systems all come to mind. Despite these advanced features, I have also noticed some parallels between Linux and some earlier versions of Windows. Let’s term these similarities as “growing pains.”

I do feel that there are many cases today where Linux is an inadequate solution, specifically in the area where James Turner's complaint lies - in laptops(docking is my pet peeve) and multimedia. However, I believe James to be a high-needs user; it’s my contention that much of the computing world comprises low-needs users. These terms should not reflect poorly on either group, but one group is definitely in the minority.

I think that Windows for example has made convenience an expectation of all users - but that comes with a price. Tight integration between office suites and the operating system have made viruses via Outlook a major productivity concern among MS Office users. Automated installation of software has made it so hard to remove some applications that there is a cottage industry dedicated to “cleaning up the OS.” Particularly insidious applications like spyware are difficult to detect and often even more difficult to remove. Centralized configuration repositories like the registry are often so complex that it's a major chore to fix or change settings that rip(out) and reinstall seem to be the only options. However, despite these serious usability and security concerns, Windows is considered to be “ready for the deskop” and is the unarguable market leader.

I believe that, since we have come to expect these problems, we as users have become inured to these obvious flaws. I liken this situation to automobiles. As I was growing up my father owned a car repair shop and auto sales lot. In those days it was not uncommon for us to fix a car in the driveway. Most anything could be repaired with basic tools. He and I were once incredulous at the fact so many people choose to pay to have minor repairs done. Now it’s almost impossible for the average person to repair modern cars because of the computers, sensors, and the complexity that includes features that my father probably would never have dreamed of when he bought his first car in the 1960s.

These features come with a price, as they have with my significant other’s car, a sporty German model with a glowing blue dashboard and features of all varieties. She recently had an annoying problem with her emissions sensors. The local repair shop ‘fixed’ the problem and she brought the car home. Once again the problem resurfaced and persistent error messages caused her to return for repairs. After multiple visits the solution was simply to reinstall all the parts because they were too complex to troubleshoot the root of the problem. This disposable mentality disagrees with me. This is the problem I have with Windows: it’s often too complex to fix the problem; the alternative is to try to rip out and replace. This method is often less than foolproof. With my Linux PC it’s very seldom that I can’t repair a problem and a re-install is often much less complicated than in the alternative “ready for the desktop” operating systems.

On my desktop I have installed many variations of Linux including Lycoris and Xandros. I have to say that after installing both of these distributions I had a much more pleasant experience than I ever did installing other OSes. Then again my concerns were very simple. I needed e-mail, Web browsing, office applications and instant messaging. One thing that I also liked was that I very seldom rebooted. In Windows, I felt like I rebooted constantly and memory usage for even the simpler apps could skyrocket right off the chart, grinding my PC to a halt.

As far as Linux on the desktop goes, I think the operating system is very good - it works well, despite some warts. And at the rate it’s improving, those "warts" are disappearing quickly. The limiting factor as I see is “application availability.” I think this is truly where James’ frustration primarily lies, as does mine. Today the availability of well-developed applications as compared to other operating systems is much lower. However, I have a “Field of Dreams” mentality for the Linux desktop, I can hear the whisper through the cornfields saying, “if you build it they will come.”

The key is to get application vendors, as the community has already done, to start to make software for Linux on par with their Windows offerings. I think there's a tremendous opportunity for commercial apps on Linux including legal DVD software, personal finance and sales contact managers such as ACT! and Goldmine. Not only do these applications need to address their intended purpose but they need to be easy to install. That end of the business is being addressed somewhat by Lindows with their Click-N-Run Warehouse, but there are not user oriented solutions such as Click-N-Run for Fedora, Mandrake, SuSE and others.

In summary, is Linux on the desktop today a universal solution that is appealing to all? No. Is Linux a solution that can address the needs of a large portion of desktop users? Absolutely. Will Linux on the desktop be the universally accepted solution of tomorrow? Maybe.


See next page for the Counterpoint by James Turner...
Linux Is Nowhere Near Ready for the Desktop

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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