Chad Perrin: SOB

19 July 2009

How do you really know it’s desktop ready?

Filed under: Geek — apotheon @ 11:56

I had an epiphany the other day about this whole “desktop ready” thing that everybody goes on about all the time. I realized how we can recognize desktop readiness — or, at least, I realized one way to know for sure that something is not desktop ready. Since MS Windows is basically free to home users anyway, “desktop ready” seems to be pretty important to widespread adoption of open source software; the price argument just isn’t important enough to overcome a lack of “readiness”.

Over and over again, the question “Is Linux ready for the desktop?” comes up in the trade press. It comes up all the time in the constant, ongoing flame wars between Linux and Microsoft fans, too. Interestingly, nobody in the BSD Unix community seems to give a crap — but that’s not really relevant.

I don’t know that there’s really a clear way to explain what it takes to make an OS “desktop ready” in the way everybody means that phrase (with variations to suit one’s desired answer, of course). The general meaning is the same as the “Aunt Tilly” test: Is this thing “good enough” (at whatever) to be able to stand alongside MS Windows and MacOS X as an operating system for the masses?

How do you define the criteria for something like that? The entire reason there are such raging, unchecked flamewars on the subject, and the reason it can come up day after day, month after month, and year after year, as if it’s a new subject every time, is simply that different people have different criteria for “desktop ready”.

If your primary criteria are particular to the gleam of fancy, flashy tricks and bells and whistles, OSes that use the X Window System are more than desktop ready, if MS Windows is considered desktop ready. The glitz and glamour of Compiz puts Aero Glass to shame.

As my Adventures with Desktop Ready Linux pointed out, Linux-based systems are not ready for the desktop, if your criteria include both having the “benefits” of MS Windows superficial shine and the technical benefits that make it worth your while to switch to Linux — but if you only need one or the other, you’re golden.

I think there’s a lot more to being “desktop ready” in a market- and mind-share sense than any measurable criteria, though. The evidence is clear in the fact that MS Windows apologists often claim Linux isn’t desktop ready because you have to do stuff like issue shell commands and edit configuration files to get the system running the way you want it to. The fact of the matter is that you only have to do any of that if you want benefits above and beyond what MS Windows gives you; if you’re willing to settle for an OS with all the same problems MS Windows has, you can get a “user friendly” distribution and never look under the hood at all. Then, if something breaks, do what you do with MS Windows: pop in the CD and reset to zero, or live with it, or pay someone else to fix it for you, or throw the computer away and get a new one.

The fact that people never think “Woah, this is exactly like MS Windows, except I have the option of doing more to try to fix it if and when something goes wrong, and the option of doing more to customize it to my preferences — if only I have the desire and determination,” well . . . the fact people never think that is a pretty good indicator that there’s something much more keeping any open source OS from being considered “desktop ready” than merely objective criteria. Maybe the OS has to be different, to “advance” (or at least change) somehow, to become ready for the desktop, but that’s not all that has to change. Probably more important than any specific changes in the OS itself is the necessity of people’s perception of the OS changing significantly.

Give me availability of an open source OS preinstalled on consumer-grade desktop computers somewhere in the same league as MS Windows availability, and give me a general perception of the OS that’s roughly equivalent to that of MS Windows (or at least MacOS X): with those two things, you could probably even roll the state of the art back about half a decade and still be taken at least as seriously as MacOS X right now, as a “desktop ready” operating system.

What I’m looking for as a sign that this fateful day is finally approaching is a substantial change in the way people write about open source OSes. I believe that no open source OS, regardless of its technical superiority or user-obsequious behavior, will ever be “desktop ready” in a market- and mind-share sense, until the mainstream press talks about it more in terms like the way it talks about MS Windows.

Linux will never be ready for the desktop the way people mean it when they talk about it in the mainstream press until the way we talk about Linux is the same as the way we talk about Windows. Let’s compare.

Linux and open source technical how-to:
  • Setting up a dynamic DNS service part 1: named

  • Hacking Vim covers the basics and reveals tips for power users

  • Use Makefiles for more than handling source code

  • Manage dotfile configuration with subversion

MS Windows technical how-to:
  • How do I … change the Product Key in Windows XP?

  • How do I … blog from the Windows desktop with Live Writer?

  • A computer geek’s guide to building a 64-bit server on a budget

  • How do I… Use the Windows Common Feed List to manage RSS feeds?

Keep in mind this is stuff on a site that serves as a resource for IT professionals. The MS Windows stuff is, in essence, superficial stuff that can be picked up by Aunt Tillie. The Linux and open source stuff accomplishes much more interesting things, but also requires a much more interested, knowledgeable user. In other words, the Linux and open source how-to stuff is for experts, and also requires experts, while the MS Windows stuff is for “power users”, and requires nothing more than a mouse and rudimentary hunt-and-peck typing skills.

Okay, let’s talk about topics from the same two sources that discuss another topic.

Linux and open source market share:
  • What does Google Chrome OS really mean for Linux?

  • Celebrating freedom with open source

  • Will Microsoft threaten open source C# implementations?

MS Windows market share:
  • Microsoft Windows 7 pricing deals spark interest and controversy

  • IT professionals will not drop Windows XP quietly (if ever)

Did you notice the way the Linux and open source stuff is all about how competitors serve as potential problems (or boosts) for market share, while the MS Windows stuff is all about how MS Windows is competing with MS Windows? There is a definite disparity in how the trade press treats each of these software families. In one case, people are eager to talk about how it’s up-and-coming, a real contender, but potentially faced by game-ending challenges. In the other, nothing in the world exists but the software family in question. Any time there’s any comparison of the two, it shows up in the Linux and open source area.

Just to be painfully clear and obvious about all this:

I’m not saying open source software doesn’t measure up to the crap rolling downhill from Microsoft’s offices in Redmond. I literally don’t trust closed source software, because I know the failings of the model for someone who cares about security and privacy in any nontrivial manner quite intimately. I used to be eyebrow deep in the Microsoft Windows Registry all the damned time, professionally. I write about security for money. I have some inkling about the subject, and I can tell you that the worst thing you can do for security is start by choosing closed source software to handle anything that involves, or is capable of, communication over the Internet. This isn’t because open source software is necessarily written better (though, all else being equal, it would statistically be better); it’s because security you can’t trust for any objective reason isn’t security at all.

. . . but that doesn’t change the facts. The facts very plainly point out that Linux and other open source OSes simply aren’t “desktop ready” in the ways that matter for market- and mind-share. The very fact anyone still argues about whether or not it’s “desktop ready” is the only proof we need of that fact.


  1. This is a smart post.

    In my experience Linux is quite as ready as Windows; it is not quite as stable with a laptop not designed for it (I had to disable the wireless adaptor, otherwise the computer would randomly freeze), but finding functional software is much easier. With Windows, one must search for functional PDF readers, media players, text editors, antivirus software, internet browser and probably other stuff I am not remembering right now; with Linux you can find pretty good programs in the repositories. No need to search the web or memorise a bunch of programs and start googling for them. Maybe add a repository or two if you want more options.

    For normal desktop use I don’t see many differences in the actual experience of use.

    Comment by Tommi — 19 July 2009 @ 09:15

  2. This is a smart post.


    For normal desktop use I don’t see many differences in the actual experience of use.

    The differences I see are almost entirely positives for open source OSes, and (by contrast) negatives for MS Windows. Of course, the reason I see any substantive differences at all might be bound to the fact that my own sense of normal desktop use is not a normal sense of “normal desktop use”.

    Comment by apotheon — 19 July 2009 @ 11:41

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