Why Linux isn't ready for desktops

Why Linux isn't ready for desktops

Summary: commentary After reading Massimo Sandal's recent article, The Firefox Target And The TuxMini, I knew I was going to be in trouble because I just had to blog my contrary position. This isn't a point by point reply to Sandal's article, but rather a more general disagreement based on my experiences with Linux, Mozilla and Firefox.

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Asa Dotzler, Mozilla Foundation commentary After reading Massimo Sandal's recent article, The Firefox Target And The TuxMini, I knew I was going to be in trouble because I just had to blog my contrary position.

This isn't a point by point reply to Sandal's article, but rather a more general disagreement based on my experiences with Linux, Mozilla and Firefox.

It's probably worth pointing out that I'm not a "Linux person." I've only been using Linux for about six years. I've been using Windows for about twice that long, and I've been using Macintosh for about 20 years. I'm not really loyal to any one OS; I've used what my employer or school offered or required and when that wasn't a consideration I've used what I thought was most convenient.

OK. So what's wrong with Linux that makes it not ready for the desktop?

I've tried KDE and Gnome desktops but my latest is FC4 so my criticism is focused on that (and Gnome) but I think KDE distributions suffer just as bad if not worse. The issues fall into four basic categories: migration, stability, simplicity, and comfort. These issues each cover both technical capability shortcomings as well as usability failings.

The first issue, migration, is pretty serious.

For "regular people" to adopt Linux (which usually means leaving Windows), it is going to need a serious migration plan. The OS will need to install on machines next to Windows, leaving that completely intact and easy to return to, and carry over all or nearly all of the user's data and settings.

These users may be willing to take a look at Linux, but as long as all of their data and settings still 'lives' in Windows, they're not going to stay very long no matter how appealing it might be. We learned this lesson in the Mozilla world. It wasn't until we implemented a very capable migration system in Firefox, which carried over the user's IE favourites, cookies, history, passwords, etc, that regular people started moving over in serious numbers -- and staying (and bringing others over). Linux needs to do the same.

It's clearly a much bigger task for an entire OS and all of its major applications to accomplish, but it simply has to be done.

When normal users fire up the Linux desktop for the first time, the browser, office suite, e-mail client, instant messenger client, file manager ... each need to carry over as much as possible -- from the Windows application settings to all or very nearly all of the user data. Without this, the hill is just too steep to climb and these users will not make the climb.

The second problem that blocks massive Linux desktop growth is stability.

I don't mean the "not crashing" kind of stability. I'm talking about a stable API that doesn't require the user jump through hoops when they want to download a new application from Download.com.

A user should be able to install Fedora Core 4 and go grab the latest Firefox release from Download.com and have it work without the need for finding and installing compat-libstdc++ or whatever.

Developers may think it's cool to reuse as much code as possible but the user doesn't care whether it was Linux that failed to include the necessary compatibility components or Mozilla that failed to make the build work for that particular dot release of libstdc++.

Regular users expect to be able to download software, install it, and have it just work. Asking them to figure out complex system library and kernel compatibility issues is a one way ticket off of their desktop.

The third issue is a lack of simplicity.

Just because you can include a feature doesn't mean that you should. Just because you can provide a user preference doesn't mean you should.

I don't want to start a desktop war but I really gotta say to the distros, pick a desktop and be happy. Normal users shouldn't have to (guess or learn enough to) choose between Gnome and KDE when they're installing your product. They don't need 15 to 20 mediocre games in a highly visible Games menu at the top of the Applications list.

And what is a user to think when confronted with a choice between Helix Player, CD Player, and Music Player? Does the Music Player not understand CDs? What's "Helix" mean? Gedit has about 30 user preferences spread across 5 tabs in a preferences window; Notepad has about three.

You and I know that the difference between Settings and Preferences is that one is system wide and one is per-user but regular users don't know that and shouldn't need to know that. If they don't have access to it because it's a system wide setting, then why put that entire menu of options in front of him? If normal users have equal access to both, then why are they split? It's just a confusing mess.

The final major issue is comfort.

Linux must feel comfortable to Windows users. Most people using computers today have been at it for a while now and they've been at it on Windows. Don't mess with their basic understanding of how things work. Regular people do not know what it means to "mount a drive" and they shouldn't have to.

They don't want their OK and Cancel buttons reversed -- tossing out years of finely-tuned muscle memory. They shouldn't have to learn what /home means or how it differs from My Documents. They don't want two clipboards that seem to constantly overwrite each other.

Linux UI fundamentals need a reworking to match the habits that Windows users have been building over the last decade. Get the users first, then try to teach them a better way (if you've have one). Putting things in the "right" place for Windows users will go a long way. You can never do too much to ease the transition.

I think of Linux today the way I think of Mozilla 1.0 from just a few years ago: a very capable product with a very limited audience. If Linux makes major inroads on the desktop, it will probably be as a result of the same kind of focus that put Firefox on tens of millions of desktops, a focus on migration, stability, simplicity, and comfort.

biography
Asa Dotzler is a Mozilla Foundation staff member.

Topics: Open Source, Browser, Hardware, Linux, Reviews

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  • Linux is ready for the desktop.

    The major computer manufacturers are protecting Microsoft's desktop monopoly.That's the main reason
    holding Linux back.

    Don't buy from them if you care about choice.

    If you look hard enough you can find smaller companies that do offer a choice other than Microsoft.
    anonymous
  • Oh god, here come the conspiracy theories. Did you READ the article, anonymous? It said Linux is preventing istelf from succeeding on the desktop because it fails to provide a migration path for Windows users, changes too often, is too complicated and is needlessly and deliberately obscure and different to other operating systems users are familiar with.
    No conspiracy of computer manufacturers. No litany of "factual" and "logical" errors to get indignant about. No evil Micro$oft bribing journalists or secretly commissioning analyst reports. Just an informed article written by someone who works for a company that writes open source software.
    Linux on the desktop is still a toy operating system for tinkerers. Why don't all the pimply, pubsecent posters who are going to get outraged about this instead devote their energies to go and write a decent operating system?
    anonymous
  • > Just an informed article written by someone who works for a company that writes open source software.

    Informed? You mean from the guy that picks Fedora and judges the fate of the Linux desktop? The distro for community and by community in the constant state of flux? The one where in version 4 major improvements includes server side technologies like GFS, clustering and Xen? Yeah, that's informed.

    And what's he moaning on about software installs without knowing how it's done in Fedora at all? What's with the blather about download.com?

    Next thing you know, I'll be writing articles about nuclear physics :-)

    If he doesn't like Linux on his desktop, he's free to give it a pass. In the meantime, the community and companies will keep improving it for the rest of us that know how to use it. Sure there are things that suck and don't work the way they should. That doesn't mean we should listen to someone that has no clue about it.
    anonymous
  • My wife and I are using both Linux and Windows.
    I used to be an IT staffmember, she used to be a computer-illiterate.

    Her comment is very true.

    Both Windows and Linux are user-unfriendly,
    both are a menace to use if just want work done.

    Bets thing to do is not to copy Windows but take more from Apple which is and alway was more userfriendly.

    IT professionals should listen a bit more to simple users.
    anonymous
  • "Linux must feel comfortable to Windows users."

    And right there is the flaw that makes the rest of the article irrelevant. Go get Lindows.
    anonymous
  • I have to disagree with you on your thinking that Linux is not ready for the desktop. IF you had said Fedora Core 4 was not ready for the desktop, I would agree. I personally have never thought any Redhat is for the desktop, just mainly for servers. For the desktop I would choice Suse 9.3, which is what I install and have found most clients adopt rather easily, Ubuntu, or even Linspire. Just like Microsoft targets differant versions of Windows to differant markets, linux is, perhaps without knowing it, down the same way. Now this all is based on the fact a person either will not or can not purchase a Mac, Mac mini anyone. If they can do as I did, and go from Linux Suse, I still have a box, to a Mac, and have the best of both worlds
    anonymous
  • Interesting: considering that I am using Linux as my desktop even as I write this brief feedback, but then again, we need this dielectic trite between these two camps to benefit whom? I have been familiarizing myself with GNU/Linux since RedHat 5.0 and have been using windows since MS-DOS but who's is counting: I cannot tell the number of times I have had to reboot, reinstall, rely upon tech support, recall windows just to get their products to work, but who is counting: I cannot say what would be the result, (i.e. If GNU/Linux or Windows would dominate) if the install OS was done by choice but then again, can you?
    anonymous
  • Lets ger rid of the myth's. First of all Linux have been ready for the desktop atleast one year.

    1. My grandma can install Linux whithout problem.
    Can she put in a DVD in the dvd/cd tray.
    oh yes she can. We have kids in school who can by themself install a complete webserver.

    2. KDE, Gnome and so. Are as easy as Windows. I can put anyone infront of it and they handle KDE/Gnome in a matter of seconds.

    3. Software. Today there are no software that Linux lacks. You can replace every expensive Windows/Microsoft product whith an opensource one.

    So why isn't Linux gaining so much ground on desktop then ?

    Well the most important thing is that Microsoft still have the monopoly in the desktop market. The customer still can't choose what OS they would like to have pre installed. Second. RPM install still lacks behind the beutiful APT-GET method of installation/upgrade. Third. There is still no real movemment in the desktop market. There is a huge need of commercials, mouth to mouth and action against Microsoft.

    So take action. Refuse to repair virus infected bloatware Windows. 'Force' your customers to try out Linux. Make small education event how to use the Linux desktop. Have seminars how to switch from buggy Windows to Linux and so on.

    Its time to make a change;
    anonymous
  • What a crock.

    Too many settings. Waaa. Cancel button in looks like its in the wrong place. Waaa. New software needs libraries to be updated. Waaa. Windows settings are automatically loaded into linux. Waaa Waaa.

    The fact is the author wants what nobody else does. Windows running on a linux kernel. Linux is different for a reason - and lots of time spent learning to do things the windows way is lots of time wasted with respect to linux.

    So what?

    I'm tired of boring articles stating the mass of computer using zombies wants things simpler.

    These people don't need an upgrade to their OS - they need to upgrade their brains.
    anonymous
  • I disagree with most of what Asa's article says. Linux CAN'T be used the same way you use Windows simply because the philosophy of Linux is DIFFERENT. I've been a Linux user for about 5 years now. I definetely abandoned MS Windows over two years ago and I don't miss it at all (exept for the games, perhaps). Currently I'm using Libranet Linux, which is very easy to use.
    Windows is made for people who want their work done easly, while Linux is made for people who want to fully control their machine and don't want to worry about system failures or viruses.
    On Linux, you don't "install" programs. You compile them and copy the spawned files into the proper directories. To "uninstall", you just delete those three-four files, period. Can it be easier? Yes, if you want an automated system that works without telling you what's going on (just as Windows does). Windows users know the consequences.
    Miss a library? Dependencies problems? Better those rather than software conflicts and system instability, typical of Windows. The former problem, with a bit of patience, can be always easly solved, while the latter.... well, you all know the drill.
    The power of Linux is based on its TOTAL configurability. You can configure and tweak every aspect of your system, down to its very behaviour, something impossible to do with "easier" OS'. Obviously, that implies a different approach to computers which can't be for computers dummies (those who use the computers just to surf the web, play games and write stuff with MS Word or equivalent).
    Surfing the web to install new programs is a Windows/Mac thing. Unix/Solaris/Linux users rely on repositories to aquire their needed packages (.deb, .rpm, .tar.gz, etc.). Again, it's a different philosophy, a completely different approach to your desktop system. Personally, I don't miss Windows at all. Ok, sometimes I may find annoying the fact that I need to resolve some dependencies to compile and use a program I want badly. But, I don't consider myself to be a lazy person...
    To me, Linux IS ready for desktops. It's just a matter of who uses it. Obviously, I'd never recomend it to my grandma. For people like her, Mac OS-X is the best way to go. ;-)
    anonymous
  • I migrated to Mozilla Firefox a few months ago, from IE, and it's worked fine since. The migration process worked, I didn't need to know anything or decide anything, except that, yes, I did want all my IE settings transferred.

    Linux - I've been pondering switching from XP, but, having just seen this article, I'm definitely put off, and I'm a reasonably experienced desktop user. I really do need a simple migration process, otherwise I won't do it, and nor, I imagine, will anyone else. Thanks for the article, you've possibly saved me a lot of headaches!
    anonymous
  • Compile code, move files etc etc. Sorry Mate that isn't what a novice home user wants to do...they don't care less about this stuff. They want a CD or download a program hit install and have it operational. It is fine for the geek world to compile code, copy it about multiple directories etc etc but in a home or commerial use world this just isn't appropraite.

    In fact you have just put yourself out of business if I had to pay for your flavour of linux. Return on investment, Cost of operation has to concider every aspect of owning an application. If your is manual and process required versus automated install and manage you will never win. You have to forget your tinkering background and focus on what is important especially in a corporate world. 1st Applications that work 2 Applications that integrate with all Applications around them 3 ability to deply and manage them without lots of manual intervention. 4 Ability to train users in the applications so they can become self sufficiant. Whilst there is no one platform that can offer all this, some do it much better than others.
    anonymous
  • I would agree only to certain aspects.
    1) UI of Windows and Gnome or KDE might be different but thats because people had been used to it. Right from your school you use Windows so generally we feel that windows is easy to use.
    2) Updates and installing new packages this days is fairly simple. You got a very good synaptic package manager which is very much similar to Windows Add/Remove programs. (Infact handles things better). Also apt-get rocks.
    3) You can't judge OS with one release. Try Ubuntu. I had been using RedHat since version 5. Recently 3 months ago I shifted to Ubuntu on my desktop and it seems to me a perfect desktop.
    4) Only the drawback of Linux in desktop environment is the hardware devices support. Support for Digital Cameras, Video Cameras and Multifunction printers is not available from all the vendors. Here again I see they support the OS which people are using more. So if people start using more Linux and there arises demand for support for this H/W on Linux they will have to start providing the same.

    Last but not least after all its the security that this OS provides when on Internet. Running Linux meaning I don't have to worry about viruses and Trojans atleast on my computer.
    anonymous
  • This article has it all wrong. This writer is implying that normal people need some kind of migration wizard and a windows look so on and so forth. I ask why this kind of crap is needed when microsoft does not realistically have these features in its own product. Lets face the real facts: the type of people who would need these unnecissary features are the same persons who would never use anything other than what comes with their computer originally. They are incapable of installing ANY operating system, so please do not attempt to scare off those who could easily make linux work for them. This guy is too much a programmer and too little a sysadmin. Don't assume need or difficulty where there is none; what Linux needs is a spot on the major vendors desktop slot. It won't be 'ready for the desktop' until then, and that's up to the community at large instead of the developers.
    anonymous
  • Excellent! Absolutely correct!
    anonymous
  • I couldn't agree more with this article. I've read most of the articles and I find that the comments made are from 99.9% IT Professionals. I myself am an IT Professional and I'm also upset with some of the points made. You have to view this article from a Marketing perspective. If you want people who have been using Windows or not using a computer at all to become Linux users. You have to make it simple. Let's face it, when Linux boots, what do you see, all kinds command line parameters being loaded. WHO THE F#$* CARES!!!! next thing, when you install software, IT SHOULD JUST WORK!!!! oh god, if Firefox needs a component, WHY DOESN'T LINUX ALREADY HAVE IT!!! better yet WHY DIDN'T FIREFOX ADD IT TO THE INSTALL!!! Oh this is my favorite one of all time.

    Question: "I can't find drivers for my hardware." Response: "Then your gonna have to write them."

    WHAT!!!!!!!!!!!! Are you telling me I have to write drivers for my hardware to work. Excuse me, um... you expect people to become software architects just so there soundcard will work in Linux. This response got my linux slackware cd install thrown out the window. Windows may have it's problems, but it closest to a user-friendly system running on an IBM-PC today.
    anonymous
  • Try a different distro!

    I use SuSE Linux and things get better with every release.
    anonymous
  • I have to disagree with you on your thinking that Linux is not ready for the desktop. IF you had said Fedora Core 4 was not ready for the desktop, I would agree. I personally have never thought any Redhat is for the desktop, just mainly for servers. For the desktop I would choice Suse 9.3, which is what I install and have found most clients adopt rather easily, Ubuntu, or even Linspire. Just like Microsoft targets differant versions of Windows to differant markets, linux is, perhaps without knowing it, down the same way. Now this all is based on the fact a person either will not or can not purchase a Mac, Mac mini anyone. If they can do as I did, and go from Linux Suse, I still have a box, to a Mac, and have the best of both worlds
    anonymous
  • If everything was implemented into GNU/Linux that Asa wanted it would be a bloated piece of crap like Windows.

    GNU/Linux, like any OS, is a work-in-progress and it gets better every day.

    The solution to Asa's problem is really very simple: if you don't like GNU/Linux, don't use it.

    Last time I checked, the only OS that anyone is trying to force you to use is Microsoft Windows.
    anonymous
  • Compile???? Call in the "Myth Busters".

    I've been using Linux for 11 Years.
    I have NEVER NEEDED to compile anything.

    That is just a FUD tactic from the Microsoft crowd or people that don't know what they are talking about.

    I CAN compile any part of a Linux distro IF I WANT TO, if I want to squeeze out a little more performance.

    I used Debian Linux. To add and remove software applications I use synaptic.

    http://www.nongnu.org/synaptic/action.html

    Synaptic is a dead simple point-and-click interface that automatically resolves dependencies.
    A nice side effect of synaptic is that it patches your machine up to date.
    anonymous