August 5, 2004

Linux desktop viability myths exploded

Author: Kevin Mills

If you look on the Web you can find many examples of experts claiming that Linux is not ready for the desktop. Headlines like Why Windows still beats Linux and Why Linux isn't ready for the Desktop are all too common. In some cases, the commentators have valid points, but often they perpetuate myths that simply are no longer true -- namely, that Windows is easier, and that Linux application software is lacking. The problem is, the pundits are comparing apples and aardvarks.

Myth #1: Linux is harder than Windows

The argument goes basically, "I tried to install Linux and <insert from list below>. Therefore Linux is hard and not ready."

  • My modem was not detected
  • Wi-Fi networking was not configured
  • There was no hardware acceleration with the
    generic onboard $9 video chipset
  • I could not understand how to partition a drive

All of these are valid concerns, and often frustrating, but they fail to make the case against desktop Linux, because they fail to compare apples to apples. When you buy a new PC, Windows comes pre-installed on it. You don't have to go through the process that Linux requires. The hardware manufacturer already rejected modem X, figured out that Wi-Fi adapter Y is the one to
include with the computer, etc. The OEM did all the hard work for you. Even when you give a user the Windows XP CD to install, he is already ahead of the game in that he knows the OEM
already configured the hardware to work with XP.

When we compare the installation experience of XP with Linux, we find some different testimony:

Windows vs Linux - Which is easier to install?

So, in Windows she failed to do 4 things. In Mandrake Linux 9.2 she
failed to do 3 things. Considering all the extra stuff she pulled
away from her Mandrake installation, I'd say that Mandrake kicked the
living *ass* out of Windows. And that's in spite of the fact that she
didn't have working email. She *does* have a hotmail account, so
technically she had working email as soon as she had a Web browser,
but the Challenge was to check her email with a mail client, not a
Web browser. (She pouted over that)

Linux vs.
Windows installation comparo, Part 3

The bottom line? Another win for
Red Hat Linux. It is the smoothest and easiest Red Hat installation
I've seen yet. Not perfect by any means, but definitely better. Chalk
this victory up to a big advantage in time and a narrow margin for
ease of installation. If Microsoft had a better mechanism for
applying updates, it could have been a different story.

I could find more examples, and to be fair, I could probably find
examples where XP or W2K was reported easier to install than Linux, but at least
these people were comparing apples to apples.

Unfortunately, finding computer hardware with Linux pre-installed is hard, but when an
experienced installer gets the computer up and running, taking all the pain away, Linux is more than friendly enough.

In an ideal world, you could buy Linux pre-installed from every vendor from which you can buy Windows pre-installed. Until that happens, however, the reality is, installing the operating system is an extra task would-be Linux users must undertake. No, it's not apples to apples, because Linux's apples need to be peeled before use.

Myth #2: Lack of Applications

A wonderful excerpt from the first link above is this:

The ready availability of applications makes Windows superior
as well. Go into your local computer store, or visit an online
retailer. How much software do you see being sold for Windows? How
much for Linux? An operating system is only as good as the software
that runs on top of it. There's so little easily available software
(the key here is "easily") for Linux that it doesn't
measure up to Windows.

Case made, close the book -- hold on a second. This is another fatal flaw regarding comparisons. With Windows, you get an OS, a browser, email client, notepad application, and little else. Other applications may be added by the OEM (there's that magic OEM again), but the user generally has to acquire many additional applications to get a complete system that does everything he wants. By contrast, with my version of SUSE 9.0, I got 5 CDs with every application that I needed -- no trips to the computer store necessary.

In fact, trying to sell most Linux software in stores makes no sense. Imagine I wanted to sell open source software, and I try to sell K3B or GnomeMeeting at the local computer store. The only people dumb enough to purchase the retail applications would be, probably, Windows users who assume that they need to purchase it. When the distro manufacturer includes virtually every app that Mr. and Mrs. Average need for their home desktop, and when additional apps are available for free via easy update utilities, there aren't going to be a lot of sales of boxes on computer store shelves.

NOTE: Games are the exception. Linux is Windows' poor cousin when it comes to games.

I telecommute using Linux, and I use more applications than the average home
user, yet I have every application that I need. Here's a list of what's included with my SUSE 9.0 distro, which would also be available from an OEM that bundled SUSE:

OpenOffice.org

Replaces Microsoft Office. Works just fine with .doc, .xls, and
.ppt files.

The GIMP

Never used, nor now do I need Photoshop.

GnomeMeeting

Compatible with Microsoft NetMeeting

Mozilla, Opera, Konqueror

Installed all three because I could. Take your pick, all are good.

KMail, Evolution, Mozilla Mail

Once again, I installed all three. Take your pick.

VNC

Remote desktop sharing

K3B

CD-burning software. Could it get much easier?

Gaim, Kopete

Installed both. Does virtually all flavors of instant
messaging.

KOrganizer

Complete and fully featured organizer

KMyMoney2, Gnucash

QIF-compliant personal finance managers

GTKam, Digikam, gphoto2, kalbum, gqview

Have several digital cameras

...

Simply too numerous to mention.

Well, you get the idea. I didn't and haven't gone looking for
software at the store because I already have all I need.

When I set up a desktop computer for someone, I install everything I think they
will want, so that when they call and say, I want to record my
albums, I tell them, drag the Audacity icon to your desktop and have a
blast. The number one observation from the people I OEM for is not,
wow, it's stable, wow, nothing breaks, wow, it looks sharp, but wow,
all this software is included free?!?.

Myth #3: It's hard to install software

Writers who say it's hard to install applications obviously have a hard time find the "Install and remove software" option under Config -> Start menu, and decided not to learn how it is done but assume it is exactly the same as Windows. It's not, but it's just as easy.

Conclusions

If they wish to avoid appearing clueless, desktop Linux pundits should tackle their reviews of Linux with the following conditions:

1) Buy a Windows box with hardware that is known compatible with Linux, just as if a manufacturer were OEMing the system using Linux.

2) Contact a local LUG or solicit volunteers to install whatever flavor of Linux you want on your system and create a dual boot configuration for you, so that you can directly compare Windows
usability with Linux usability. That puts the Linux installation on a par with the pre-installed Windows setup.

In the meantime, I'm off to OEM Linux for another friend. Cheers.

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