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Is Linux finally ready for the Desktop takeover?

This is a repost of an article I wrote for a newspaper in my country. Its an enjoyable read, and I got quite a few retaliatory comments. It was published under the tagline:

“By attacking from the bottom, where Microsoft can no longer successfully compete, Linux will finally cut itself a large slice of the desktop”

Everyone with even a minor experience in computers knows what Linux is. It is a remarkably complete operating system and is one of the most prominent examples of free software and open source development. It has, in fact, more than one beautiful Desktop Environment (DE) available, that gives it the point and click capabilities that one expects from a graphical operating system. Actually, Linux is just a ‘kernel’ (a core base) around which the operating system (OS) is built. This means that, unlike the popular Microsoft Windows OS, there is no single distributor of Linux. Many companies and developers use it to build operating systems known as ‘distros’ (short for ‘distributions’). Spearing a thrust that aims to make Linux available to the average end user are the major distros. So why would the common home user choose one of these distros over the much more common Microsoft Windows (and Mac OS, which is itself a close relative of Linux)? One of the major reasons would be that Linux is Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). This means that the full software is not only available for free, but the code used to make the OS is also openly available to everyone to view and modify. This translates into unbelievable stability and security: no more crashes, hang-ups, or viral threats. Linux is faster than Windows, more adaptable, and highly customisable.

It was always that much. These are the reasons large and powerful companies like Google, Yahoo, IBM and others adopted it. These are the reasons nearly all higher end network servers are run on Linux. But these reasons are not enough to entice the average user to start using Linux.

The clinching point now is the manner in which the Linux DEs and Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) have evolved. They are in no way lesser than their Windows or Mac cousins. They are fully functional, powerful, intuitive, and to top it all off, can be stunningly stylish. They can mimic the behaviour of the Windows OS, or work in absolutely unique ways. Gone are the days when the command line text was necessary to use. Even the installation procedure, once the most intimidating part of the Linux experience, is now so easy, that the Windows installation seems downright complex by comparison.

That would mean the Linux is finally ready to take over the average Desktop. A very recent adoption of Ubuntu by the French National Assembly is an indicator of how things are going. After the phase over, the politicians are unanimous in their opinion of how much better the new system is.

However, one is tempted to ask, “if I’m paying big money for something (Windows, Mac OS), there must be a reason.” And there is. Unless you get a commercial version of Linux (which indeed is available), you do not get any official support, even though there is plenty of community support available. Moreover, everything from Microsoft Office to professional development tools to graphical software to web browsers to media players has its fully functional (and often even more powerful) equivalent in Linux, yet the fact remains that most of the Windows software you are familiar with will not run in Linux.

But the biggest obstacle in large scale common Linux adoption is the hesitation in getting used to an entirely new way of thinking. Not much in Linux works in the same way as Windows. You do not double-click an executable to install something, you use a package manager. You do not have a C: and a D: drive, you have a structured filing system. Softwares do not usually come on a CD or DVD, you usually download them from online ‘repositories’. Window management is spread across ‘workspaces’. Not that the Linux Desktop is difficult to use, it’s just different.

In the end it comes to down to how ready the common user is to accept something new. Those who manage to get a Linux system up and running never look back. The now legendary unreliability and clumsiness of Windows is just a reason to change over. Also note that most distros can be easily installed alongside Windows in ‘dual-boot’ configuration: Linux is perfectly happy with that. You can get a ‘LiveCD’ and actually try out the OS without even touching your hard disk.

Linux is ready to take over the Desktop: of that, there is no doubt. The ever increasing number of users adopting Linux is testament to that. Whether it can complete the takeover, is something only time will tell.

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  1. martin
    27 May 2009 at 7:14 PM

    “Everyone with even a minor experience in computers knows what Linux is.” – i hate to say, but this is not true. ask 10 average people and most of them won´t know anything about linux.

    “no more crashes, hang-ups, or viral threats” – again unfortunately incorrect. there is no os wihtout crashes and viruses (and there probably won´t be one)

    as a happy linux user (for almost 2 years now) i understand and apreciate every form of enthusiasm about linux and foss, but i think that it would be much better to actually improve/support foss instead of just writing how good it is.
    martin

  2. 29 May 2009 at 1:14 AM

    @ martin: It is depends on the part of the world where you live, perhaps. Here, in Pakistan, computers are used only by those who understand some English. And those that understand English are fairly well read people. They usually do know about Linux. And by simple extrapolation, this should apply to most of the world’s non-english speaking population.

    When I talk about “no more crashes, hang-ups, or viral threats”, I talk in relatives terms. And in that context, I doubt if anyone would disagree.

    And finally, remember that this article was originally written for a newspaper. I tried to make Linux as attractive as possible, so that people would try it. I am not a hardcore C programmer, thus cannot support FOSS in that way, but I can persuade people to jump aboard. Wouldn’t you agree? 🙂

  3. Yonah
    29 May 2009 at 4:39 AM

    “I tried to make Linux as attractive as possible, so that people would try it.”

    Translation: “I lied to make Linux as attractive as possible, so that would we buy into the hype.”

    And you did lie, why? Because you care more about advocacy than journalism, and you aren’t alone.

  4. 29 May 2009 at 3:34 PM

    @ Yonah: Not lied at all. Point out one incorrect statement, opinions aside. But as to the opinions, they are rather subjective, are they not?
    And yes, wherever in doubt, I would prioritize advocacy over journalism.
    Do you use Linux?

  5. 31 May 2009 at 7:32 AM

    Martin,

    As a long time Linux user, I was surprised to see you claim that their are viruses affecting Linux. Just what virus did you have an experience with? Talk about it in detail.

    Yonah,

    What hype? Everything Muhammad said was true.

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