May 17, 2008

It's time to retire "ready for the desktop"

Author: Jeremy LaCroix

Quite a few reviews of new Linux releases these days try to determine if a distribution is "ready for the desktop." I myself have probably been guilty of using that phrase, but I think it's time we officially retire this criterion.

What defines an operating system as being ready for the desktop? Surely everyone has a different opinion on the actual definition. While my search for an official definition or list of guidelines has failed, to me this phrase means that the OS is usable by everyone, meets everyone's needs, and is able to do everything that everyone wants it to do. In that regard, is any operating system truly ready for the desktop?

I'm an IT technician, and clients bring PCs to me for almost any reason, including defective hardware and software not working correctly, among other things. This is regardless of the OS, though Windows XP is among the most common that my clients bring to me for help. This does not mean that Windows XP is a bad OS, it just raises the question that if XP is "ready for the desktop" to the point where it serves as the main comparison point of many Linux reviewers, why am I getting so many machines that run it to fix, and why do I get asked constantly to train people on how to use it or its applications? The fact is, there are just as many people out there who have difficulty using Windows as there are who have trouble using Linux.

I understand that comparing Linux to Windows is a hard situation to avoid, especially considering that Windows is the dominant OS in the market. But I think we should compare them less often, because Linux needs to stand on its own legs rather than in the shadow of its more popular competitor. Each OS has its merits, yet each is separate, caters to different types of users, and has independent strengths and weaknesses that complement each other. Windows has a large collection of commercially supported applications, Mac OS X focuses on usability and supported hardware, and Linux focuses on freedom, stability, and scalability. Since each OS caters to a different audience, there will never be "one OS to rule them all."

Another overdone review trend in the IT press these days is getting a person who is not very computer-savvy to sit down in front of a Linux distribution and seeing how well he (or more likely, she) is able to use it, as a way of determining how ready the OS is for the desktop. If one person is not able to be productive in Linux, does that really mean anything to the rest of us? Each of us has grown accustomed to a certain way of doing things, and each of us has our own preferences. I use Linux because it does everything that I want it to do. I like the way Linux does things, but not everyone is going to agree. If a user has difficulty with Linux and a reviewer grades a distro badly because of this, the review doesn't help Linux users to know whether the distribution would make a good switch from our current one, has great features, or contains any severe bugs.

While I don't feel that naming an OS as being ready for the desktop is a fair argument, I do believe that Linux needs to continue to make strides in usability in order to have a wider audience, such as a focus on getting Windows games to work, and less need for the command line. But assuming that Linux needs to cater to the entire PC world is silly. As it is now, Linux is a very viable option on the desktop. While it's not for everyone, Windows and Mac OS X are not a good choice for some people either.

The truth is that no OS is ready for the desktop, and never will be. An OS that was ready for the desktop would put people like me out of business, because it would be theoretically perfect. Since each person uses his computer in different ways, it's impossible for one OS to cater to everyone. Therefore, you shouldn't ask if an OS is ready for the desktop; rather, is the OS ready for your desktop?


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