June 25, 2001

A personal ode to the much-maligned Linux desktop

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
After all the "Linux on the desktop is dead or maybe it was never alive" articles I've read lately, I am relieved every morning when I walk into my little home office and find that my work computer is still happily running Linux, and that all my favorite Linux productivity applications are still doing their jobs.
Yes, there have been a few rebuttals out there. That's nice. I'm glad to see them. But the overall attitude toward Linux as a desktop OS seems to be much gloomier now than it was a few months ago. A lot of this depression seems to have something to do with the demise of Eazel, a company that was supposedly going to suddenly, magically make Linux easy to use for the MacWindows masses.

I never tried Eazel. I never felt any personal need for Eazel. Sure, their Nautilus desktop looked cute, but I couldn't see that it had any functionality or customization possibilities I don't already have with KDE. If I click on a .doc file in the KDE (graphical) files manager, it automatically opens in StarOffice. MP3 file? Click on it, and it plays. Graphics file? Click, and I see the picture. If I want to move a file from one directory to another, I put my cursor on it and hold my left mouse button down while I "drag" the visual file representation to the folder where I want it, then choose whether I want to move it to the new location or just copy it there. To install a downloaded RPM software package, I click on it, enter my "root" password in a little form, click on "install," and that's that. Delete a file? Right-click on it, answer "Are you sure?" with "Yes," and it's off my hard drive for good -- and with no annoying Windows-style registry detritus left behind; when you delete software in Linux, it is plain-and-simple gone!

None of this is rocket science. It is point, click, drag, and drop. Let me give you a little demo: I'm suddenly in the mood for a little Bach. Glenn Gould's 1956 piano version of The Goldberg Variations ought to do it. Click! And it's coming out of my nice speakers, clear as anything.

There is nothing dead about my Linux desktop. It sings, it dances, it keeps my personal and small business books with GnuCash.

I have given public demonstrations of Linux on the desktop in front of Windows-using audiences, and they are always amazed by the fact that I can do the same office-type tasks they can, just as easily if not more so. Another jaw-dropper for many of them is that during my demonstrations I call up a terminal window and display a command line only to show them I have one, but otherwise I never look at strings of goopy little non-human characters or do any of that geeky stuff. A lot of people seem to have been told they can only use Linux if they master a lot of Unix-style text commands. This may have been true in 1997 or 1998, but it is no longer true in 2001.

Another funny thing is, even though the commercial GNU/Linux distribution I use on my laptop (Mandrake 8.0) is a practical package that contains not only the basic operating system, but all the software I need to do all my work, most of the ultra-geek Linux users I know sneer at it precisely because it is so easy to install, configure, and use. I think they are scared of watching the masses (people like me) use Linux without problems, and they feel it takes away from the essential hacker club nature Linux had back in the old days, when it could take days of installing and tweaking and symlinking to get a usable Linux desktop going.

Linux users no longer form an elite club. The crowd that wants to use GNU/Linux just to prove they are hard-core are moving on to the various BSD Unixes, which still take work and knowledge to get installed and fully user-operational on a typical PC desktop (or laptop).

Perhaps, to the super-hacker crowd, Linux on the desktop is now dead. And perhaps it was never alive for those who were only willing to try Linux if they could get something like Eazel's slick-looking Mac-alike file system, and were too snobbish to truck with anything plain and workmanlike like regular old Gnome or KDE.

But for the rest of us, Linux on the desktop is a practical tool, perhaps not full of frills, but more than able to handle almost any normal home or office computing job -- except virus-spreading, which is the one popular workplace computer task Windows does perfectly but Linux can hardly do at all.


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