“The year of Linux on the Desktop.” Typically, these articles show up near the end of the year. They always cause a big debate “Will 200* be the year of Linux on the Desktop?!” is the headline, followed by comment wars. The comment wars break down like this. Linux vs. Windows users, Mac vs. Linux users, a branch war of Windows vs. Mac users, KDE vs. Gnome users, Ubuntu lovers/haters, Compiz vs. Beryl, pro/anti DRM people and the list goes on and on. A consensus is never reached. Some concepts show up over and over. This editorial addresses those concepts.
Dear Old Grandma
“Linux will never be ready until my mom/grandma/aunt can use it!” It is funny to me that it almost always is a female. Linux is ready, since this mythical female only uses the computer to do email and browse the web. Linux isn’t ready because this same female won’t understand the package manager or this or that. Once everyone agrees that this female can use Linux, the heavens will open and finally, Microsoft’s monopoly will be over. This concept is fundamentally flawed.
When speaking of the mom/grandma/aunt, people are really speaking of “normal” everyday users. I’ll refer to them as older people for the sake of this article. The goal is to get Linux to the point where older people can use it. Oddly enough, we are pretty much there. For simple and basic computing tasks (think internet appliance) there is no reason why Linux isn’t appropriate. If the old person isn’t going to play games or run Photoshop, modern distros provide everything needed. Firefox and Thunderbird give you a great web browser and email client. OpenOffice.org covers word processing needs. There are plenty of other great programs, including Gaim (now renamed Pidgin) for instant messaging, GIMP for photo editing and plenty of card games. They will run into trouble when they try and download “The Prize Machine” or some other junk from a website, but for all intents and purposes they are covered. Linux can handle, very nicely, their basic computing needs.
That doesn’t mean they will switch, though. These people have a different mindset than you, the person reading this. They want to stick with what is familiar to them, what is known. Do you have a relative that refuses to switch from AOL, even after they have gotten broadband? I do, and I bet there are plenty out there. You can tell them all you want about the security of Linux, how it is “Free as in Freedom”, how they won’t really notice a difference, but it will fall on deaf ears. In their mind, Linux is this weird thing that they are better off not taking a chance on. These are the people that are happy to pay the Geek Squad to install an anti-virus on their Windows 98 Celeron box, rather than get something better, for free, from you. That is fine. When their ten year old motherboard fails, they can’t fault the “Linux you installed on it that broke it”. After all, it was working fine until you got to it.
Let them be. They can be someone else’s problem. If you’ve ever lived the nightmare of free phone support to these people then you know you are better off staying away.
Me: “Click ‘file’ which is on your top toolbar”
OP: “Toolbar? I don’t have a toolbar!! What does it look like?”
Me: “It should be near the top of your screen, above the navigation buttons…”
OP: “Navigation buttons? You mean at the bottom?! I don’t see any buttons. You mean on the keyboard?”
God forbid they accidentally delete their Internet Explorer icon from the desktop. They no longer have the internet!
The times are changing. Leave the old people that aren’t technically inclined to their comfortable existence, with its viruses, spyware and network of zombie drone machines. You can’t really teach an old dog new tricks. A lot of effort is being wasted on preparing something for people that do not want it. Imagine if video game manufacturers said games won’t be ready until their grandma can play them.
The YouTube Generation
Younger people are different. The world they know is different than the one most of us grew up in. Music for them isn’t something you go and purchase at the store. Cheap thrills don’t come through the underwear section of the Sears catalog, they flow freely through their torrent clients. It isn’t the number of signatures in their yearbook that count, it is the size of their friends list on MySpace. Technology isn’t some newfangled thing to gripe about, it has been part of their existence their whole life. A lot of these kids are trying Linux. They may not know that Ubuntu is a Debian derivative or have read the GNU manifesto, but they are installing and running Linux. They run MythTV. This is our audience. These are the people to court.
The 3D desktop in Linux is pulling these people in. Flaming window animations, spinning transparent cubes, wobbly windows are catching people’s imaginations. This is completely unscientific, but will illustrate my point. A search for “Beryl” on YouTube gives 4,120 results. “Compiz” gets 799. “XGL” nets 2640, “AIGLX” 500. “Ubuntu” gets 3240. “Aero” gives 3,900 with a lot of non-Windows results. “Aero Vista” gives 167. “Kelly Ripa” gets 352, so Beryl is immensely more popular than Kelly Ripa on YouTube. At this point, it isn’t trivial to install Compiz or Beryl but these people are doing it. Not only are they doing it, but they are taking the time to take video of their screens and promote it on YouTube.
The more technically inclined of this group is fiercly anti Digital Rights Management (or Digital Restrictions Management). They want their media on their terms. Piracy is rampant. Paying for software is a concept to be mocked by some of them. They want bling. They want speed. They are installing Ubuntu and Sabayon and aren’t concerned about how Flashplayer or their video card drivers fit into the Free Software world. Free Software is familiar to them from Firefox, Wordpress, Drupal and to a lesser extent, Blender. They game on their consoles.
These people will make excellent converts to the cause. If I were running a distribution targeted at them, like Linux Mint or Sabayon, I’d make education part of the Distribution. Include links to the Free Software Foundation, the GNU project and the Electronic Frontier Foundation prominently in Firefox. Get some documentation out saying that while you include MP3, Flash and Nvidia/Ati drivers by default, here is why people are against doing that. Promote the fact that they are running a legitimate operating system and why this is better than just pirating XP or Vista. I admit that this sounds cheesy, but I believe that we can gain some traction here. As dark clouds gather, with Trusted Computing, DRM and Patent disputes on the horizon, we need as many people as we can behind us. Now is the time.
But… My App Won’t Run
One thing I read consistently is that this or that app doesn’t run on Linux. Photoshop, CAD Software, I even read a complaint that Visual Studio doesn’t run on Linux. Wine has come a long way, and you can get some programs running with it, but it is mostly irrelevant. Cedega from Transgaming has done nice work getting games to run on Linux. Still, Photoshop does run under Linux. Any Windows program you name does. All you have to do is install a Virtual Machine, be it VMware, Xen, QEMU or whatever, then install Windows. You can then run Linux, and easily run any Windows native program you need. This solves the perceived hassle of dual booting. Linux doesn’t require complete monogamy.
I have run Linux almost exclusively for the past ten years. I love it. It does just about everything I need, and more. It still did not save me from the hand of the Great Monopoly, though. When sending out my resume, most employers requested it in Word format. Using Open Office and saving it as a .doc screwed up the formatting, something unacceptable to future employers. After trying a few things, I finally had to bite the bullet and use Microsoft Office. OpenDocument (.odt) is a great format, but it isn’t widely known and accepted. Did I sell out? Possibly. The way I looked at it, I had to use the right tool for the right job. I needed to create a perfect looking Word document, so I used Word to do it.
This is changing, as well. There are great free online office suites. Google Docs and Spreadsheets work well. Zoho Office is amazing. Offline, Open Office, Abiword and Kword all do a very good job, a hell of a lot cheaper than Microsoft Office. If you have basic word processing needs, I can easily recommend all of the above.
Educate. As new users enter the fold, let’s make sure they understand the importance of why they are able to freely use what they are using. Most may not care, but the ones that do can help to be influential. The stakes are high, and we should make sure they understand what they are.
We welcome our new Google Overlords. Google Docs and Spreadsheets and Zoho Office are our best chance of breaking the Microsoft Office monopoly. Picasa and Google Earth run on Linux. The move away from applications being OS dependent will only help us in the long run.
Compiz/Beryl/Compositing Community. It is still early, and the 3D desktop on Linux is working very well. There are a lot of great changes coming in the near future. I have seen nothing excite normal people the way this has. It may be frivolous to have all of these effects running, but overall people like them. The days of Linux being disregarded as some UNIX dinosaur that is a nightmare to use are over. Things are moving rapidly in this space, and it is great to see.
Virtualization. You can now run Windows fairly easily within Linux using any of the Virtualization tools out there. You can also dabble in Solaris or any of the BSDs. If you have to run something that will not run on Linux, fine. Boot up your VM and run the program from there. Obviously, the reverse is true. If you are afraid of getting rid of windows, go ahead and install VMware Server and try Linux out inside of it. Hell, install Linux, then Windows in a VM, then install a VM in windows and install BSD, repeat until you reach infinity.
Keep the Faith. Since I’ve long past gone out on the limb of sounding cheesy, I’m going for broke. There are a lot of challenges ahead for Linux. There is also nothing out there like Linux. It has been an exciting ten years, watching this thing grow and improve almost daily. First and foremost, it is an operating system written by nerds for nerds. That is our greatest strength. Infighting in the community is good, when it displays the passion people feel for a particular piece of software. In my eyes, all of this choice is a good thing. As Linux continues to evolve, things will fall into place. We just need to stay vigilant. The year of the Linux Desktop is here, for those of us that use it every day.