Why Linux on the Desktop is Alive!
While helping to edit last week’s Ubuntu Weekly Newsletter, I came across an article written by Tony Bradley of PC World entitled “Why Linux on the Desktop Is Dead”. In it he cited his “30 days with Ubuntu Linux” test as proof that Linux on the desktop is not, and will not be a credible option for users.
I don’t often use this blog to take exception to things I read (otherwise it’s probably all I’d ever do), but in this case, I felt that I had to respond.
Firstly my own experience of Linux on the desktop has been overwhelmingly positive. All of my hardware works out of the box, and within a few short weeks of having Ubuntu installed, I happily deleted my Windows partition and I’ve never looked back. That’s over 5 years ago. Now, it could be argued that as an IT professional, Linux would be more accessible to me; however I’ve also installed Ubuntu on my wife’s netbook. She downloads music, browses the web, sends emails, uses productivity packages, prints documents, watches videos, and makes video calls – and has absolutely no problem with the operating system whatsoever.
So, what were Mr Bradley’s main issues? I read through the entire 30-days article, and the five things he hated most about his Ubuntu trial were:
1. Inability to sync and update his iPhone
To me this is a weak dislike. This is not Ubuntu’s or Linux’s fault. Plus the ability to update iOS over the air has now all but removed the need for me to connect my iPhone to my computer.
2. A dislike of the Banshee music player
There are many more music players in the sea, and writing off an operating system as “dead on the desktop” because you don’t like one application is really grasping at straws. If my reasons for giving up Windows were that I didn’t like Windows Media Player, then that would be a really petty argument.
3. Difficulties with Wine
Wine can be tricky, I admit; however installing any compatibility layer to run code that’s native to another operating system is going to be error-prone. Wine does a very good job at providing access to some Windows-only applications, but in my opinion it’s better to find a Linux alternative, and only go down the Wine route if you absolutely can’t live without a certain Windows program.
4. The feeling of “swimming upstream”.
I really did take issue with this one. As someone who has struggled with (and blogged about) certain vagaries of Microsoft programs and operating systems, this rankled. Ubuntu’s job is not to be a Linux-based Windows look-alike. Many things are, in fact, easier with Ubuntu – setting up and publishing websites for one. If there’s a problem, then a huge community is instantly accessible to provide help.
When you are using a different operating system it is only to be expected that certain things don’t operate the way you would immediately expect. “I really hate my new Ford because it doesn’t look like my old Toyota” would be a foolish comment, but not when it comes to computer operating systems it seems.
Mr Bradley’s comment that “if Ubuntu Linux was a microwave–I would have to first research obscure types of food uniquely crafted to work with the Ubuntu Linux microwave, then press the magic button enabling the food to be cooked, and search through forums and online help to find the specific way to rewire my microwave to work with that particular food” is just plain wrong. This is based on his attempts to get his VPN connection working. I don’t think that it’s counter-intuitive to type “VPN” in to the Ubuntu Software Center if you’re looking for…ummm…a VPN client!
As a 100% Linux user, who occasionally has to use Windows on another PC, I now find the Windows way of doing things to be counter-intuitive, unhelpful, nagging, and awkward. When fixing a friend’s Windows 7 installation recently, I couldn’t wait to get away from the busy, irritating, pop-up dialog boxes and back to the calm and elegance of my Linux installation.
5. Linux flamers
True, there are some. Mr Bradley describes them as “arrogant, self-righteous jerks”, and there certainly are many of them out there – in support of whatever operating system or gadget you want to choose. Critically, though, I think many were taking exception to his desire for Ubuntu to be an identical-looking slot-in replacement for Windows. This is never going to be the case – and shouldn’t be, either.
A further factual inaccuracy in the 30-days article had to do with the comparative file-sizes of ODT vs DOCX files. Mr Bradley states that his ODT file was 500% larger than the DOCX. That may be true for small files, but as the file size increases, the ODT format becomes much more economical. A 764k DOCX file would be only 438k as an ODT, for example. The article states that for an organization with thousands upon thousands of files, those KBs will add up, and no organization wants to have to purchase or maintain five times more storage capacity for the exact same data”. True, but not true – since the overhead only seems to be an issue with small files.
I suppose I’m really wondering why the follow-up article was written. The original 30-day test was performed with Ubuntu 11.04 in June of last year. This article was written on March 24th of this year, and didn’t really seem to add anything to the debate. The headline, though, is certainly attention-grabbing enough and guarantees a few page-views.
While he acknowledges Ubuntu’s wonderful and knowledgeable users, he also says that “it’s often difficult to find them through the sea of self-righteous flamers who berate you for not knowing what you’re doing”. That’s not true or fair at all – the Ubuntu Forums are a treasure trove of genuinely helpful folks. These people give their time and expertise for free to help out other users, so occasionally an element of frustration can creep in when a user wants a Windows clone, and acts like you owe them something because they decided to try Linux.
For those of us who get on perfectly happily with Ubuntu “it doesn’t change the fact that you’re part of a negligible market segment”. I don’t recall making any decision in life based on belonging to the biggest market segment. History has proved time and again that the majority can be very sincerely wrong. Also, since Linux is not a commercial project, it doesn’t actually need a large market share to succeed.
In the end, I just feel frustrated, because I don’t consider these type of articles to be helpful at all. It seems to be Linux-bashing for the sake of readership figures. I’m not saying that Ubuntu is better than Windows, but I do feel that, after giving Ubuntu a 30 day trial and only being able to come up with five fairly weak reasons for disliking it, Mr Bradley is drastically exaggerating when he proclaim’s Ubuntu’s desktop death. The death or life of an operating system depends on those who use it – and with tens (possibly hundreds) of millions of desktop users, I think that indicates that Linux on the desktop is very much alive.