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What Linux Needs To Win on Desktops

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on November 04, 2008

The Register, a snarky British online tech publication, has a great example of the challenges facing Linux if it is ever to make real progress displacing Windows or Mac OX X on desktops. The problem is that an extremely solid core operating system is crippled by a user interface that requires too much knowledge and too much patience for most users to master.

The Register's Ted Dziuba wanted to install OpenOffice, an open-source office productivity suite more or less compatible with Microsoft Office, on a PC running Ubuntu Linux. One problem you immediately encounter with Linux is installing third-party programs. At best, it is a much more difficult process that with Windows or a Mac. The process is complicated by the fact that each "distribution," or version, of Linux uses its own installation packages, except for those programs that you have to install by compiling the code yourself. And as long as an installation requires opening a command-line window and entering such commands as

sudo apt-get install ia32-libs
sudo dpkg -i --force-architecture *.deb

Linux will not be a mass-market product.

This is why I am watching Hewlett-Packard's Mobile Internet Experience project with intense interest. The MIE is a mini-notebook, due out early next year, that is based on Linux but that comes with a suite of applications that keep the ugly geekiness of Linux completely out of sight of the user. The goal is to keep Linux on the MIE as deeply hidden as it is on a TiVO set top box.

Apple has already proved what can be done by keeping Linux far int he background. Mac OS X is built on top of BSD Unix, a close relation of Linux, but it is hidden by a beautiful and highly usable interface. The problem is that Linux development efforts are dominated by engineers who hold the firm belief that real men use command line interfaces.

HP has the talent and resources to change this. That's why I think the MIE project is a big deal.

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Reader Comments

Jose L. Rodriguez

November 4, 2008 09:41 PM

I have been voicing the same complaint for years on different tech sites. If I have to use a command line to install the most mundane applications, Linux will not be an operating system for the masses. I am sorry for all those who have been making great progress in providing ever-more beautiful desktop themes for all Linux distributions. It only amounts to putting lipstick on a pig! Wake up!


November 4, 2008 11:36 PM

You don't have to use a command line to use apt. or install a deb. Heck, installing a deb is like two clicks most of the time.
Yeah, compiling software is different. But the "you need CLI to install apps" is mostly wrong nowadays.


November 5, 2008 01:56 AM

Packagekit which is being developed mainly by RedHat & Fedora is a very promising approach to simplify program installation. It is a front-end that can be used by all distributions, regardless of the back-end they choose (deb,rpm,etc...). This way the end users of all distros will see the same application for program installation! This will be a huge step forward in terms of usability for Linux.

P Sams

November 5, 2008 03:14 AM

Ted's article in The Register sounded as if he didn't know how to install OpenOffice-3. It's pretty simple to do on Ubuntu, Debian, and other Linux distributions. Most mainstream Linux distributions are very easy to use and installing software is very easy. The command line argument is wildly over blown. It's very easy to find documentation on how to install software on linux, it's just different from Windows or Apple. I don't know Ted's technical expertise, mine is limited and I have had little trouble installing software. Ted should do more research so that he can write articles that are accurate, not just rants.

Felice Sobrero

November 5, 2008 03:47 AM

Just a tiny detail: OpenOffice is natively included in Ubuntu Linux since years, and if it would not, installing it'a simple point-and-click in the comfortable graphical interface. It it free of charge, and multilanguage.
Is Mr.Wildstrom paid by Microsoft, or simply does not know how to use a PC ?


November 5, 2008 06:33 AM

Why should Linux become a “mass-market product"? I'm not against the idea, but not if it would kill off what makes Linux unique. My core concern with complaints like this one is that it's not based on profound understanding and appreciation of the nature of Linux, hence trying to force Linux to become something that wasn't and isn't what the core users and developers try to accomplish. I'm not talking about some elitism here, but more from the perspective that some wish to see Linux become easier only because they don't want to pay for software, not because share the ideals and ideas of Linux.

It's easier to criticize Linux now when it looks more mainstream and choose to neglect its great struggle up to this day. Quite similar to how many choose to ridicule Stallman – not because you should agree with everything he stands for – without acknowledging how his greatest achievement, the GPL license, has protected the Linux kernel and other Linux related software from being robbed and crushed. Criticize is easy, but do it with a balanced perspective and constructively isn't as easy.

Since you address the needs of the audience with less computing know-how, it would probably be fair to realize that those users usually aren't in need of anything beyond the huge repositories available in even smaller distributions of Linux. Maybe a more urgent need is simply tutorials about what available programs are able to do. I'm primarily using Arch, a smaller distribution, and I've come to realize that the repositories nowadays consists of about everything I ever need. In rare occasions there are some exotic programs I need, usually not related to the desktop experience. Besides there already exist distro-agnostic installers. If you go to aMSN's homepage you see the following:
[quote]These generic installers were created with Autopackage. This is a new Linux technology to create distribution independent packages, with an installer with a user-friendly look. Check by yourself !.[/quote]
It works very well, and could well be a solution for this pure desktop applications that change protocols frequently. Otherwise you need to understand the superiority in managing software through repositories: less risk of installing bade malicious code. Microsoft is now after several years of hassle trying to make software developers to respect the guidelines for how software should be installed, and also getting driver developers to distinguish and use the advantages of user space, instead of pushing everything into system space. Therefore before complaining about some disadvantages without appreciating the advantages take some time to evaluate the disadvantages of a different approach. There's no clear cut case here.

I'm afraid you're not interested in what really is the beauty of Linux since you write that Mac OSX "is built on top of BSD Unix... but it is hidden by a beautiful and highly usable interface". Furthermore Apple has a much longer history on desktop than Linux, even to the extent that it's weak on the server side. Apple is a well established company on pretty secure ground. On the contrary Linux isn't a company, and the progress into the desktop market is still very dangerous, so dangerous because of unfounded threats by Microsoft that Red Hat openly says there's no way they can take on Microsoft on equal terms at the moment, thus sticking to their server market. The server side though has such a grip on that there's nothing Microsoft can do. I'm not writing this as simply "one more MS basher", no just to give your complaint some perspective.

To sum up: Linux has to progress and there's a lot of ways to do that. Nevertheless before publish a complaint it's good to examine one's perspective and reasons.

John McCain

November 5, 2008 06:40 PM

I'm John McCain and I approved this FUD.


November 6, 2008 01:21 AM

Stick to writing you may know something about and stay away fro the technical stuff before you hurt yourself.

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