The OS should be invisible to the user - Is Torvalds right?

Is Linus Torvalds right? Should the OS should be invisible to the user? How invisible? Is he speaking about the kernel specifically or the distro as a whole? Given the emphasis that popular Linux distros such as Ubuntu place on the UI, is Torvalds' views too caught up in the kernel?
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Contributing Writer

The Sydney Morning Herald has a Q&A with Linux kernel creator Linus Torvalds.  It's an interesting read, but one part more than any stood out for me:

"An o/s should never have been something that people (in general) really care about: it should be completely invisible and nobody should give a flying [expletive deleted] about it except the technical people." [emphasis added]

Note that Torvalds said "o/s" and not "kernel."  Given Torvalds' credentials, I find it hard to believe that he made a mistake here.  Since he made this remark is response to a question about the press that Windows and Mac OS gets, it's fair to assume that he's talking about distros here and that the OS on your system should be invisble in the way that the road you drive on, the water supply that you drink from and the electricity supply that you tap into is.

This is an interesting point of view.  I guess that what Torvalds is doing here is stripping the OS to the absolute basics and saying that the core should be invisible to the user, and since the only time that most users get to glimpse as deep as that is when things go wrong, I suppose he's right.   In Torvalds' world users would download the very basic OS and build on that.  You'd choose each aspect of the OS and customize it to suit your needs, starting with the kernel.

But ...

That's a developer's view of the world, and it's a view that just wouldn't get very much traction in the real world where users have a hard enough time finding the on switch or understanding why their digital camera won't let them take another snapshot. 

I am, in part at least, a Linux convert, and that's largely because of what's happened to Linux over the past few years.  I'm not dismissive of it, neither do I believe that it is a path to computing utopia.  Years ago when I began dabbling with Linux distros, it was, without a doubt, a geek's play thing.  I can't speak for others but for me it was an OS where I spent much more time working on the system than with the system and there's a point where that became unsustainable - I didn't really need Linux as a hobby.  Not only has the Linux kernel improved dramatically, but so has the GIU and the applications that go into turning that kernel into a distro and a workable OS.  

Then businesses became involved and created distros that are "user friendly."  These businesses believe in open source, but they also believe in making a profit.  To have a chance of turning a profit, a company needs to see a broad user base.  That's why Dell ships Ubuntu. 

My take is that Torvalds is torn between two camps - in the one camp you have those that believe that Linux is a niche OS and only needs to appeal to sub 1% of users, and in the other camp you have those that want Linux to go mainstream because there's money to be made.  To go mainstream is seems that the distros need to put a lot of effort into the GUI.  Similarly with mobile devices, adoption of the Linux kernel requires a GUI and applications to go with it.  Maybe it's just me, but it's  certainly interesting that what's giving Linux a shot at grabbing market share both on the desktop and mobile devices is companies and the desire to make a profit.  It seems that you have to have a balance between the kernel and the rest of the OS (the GUI, applications, drivers ...).

A part of me likes the idea of building my own custom distro, picking the best parts in the same way that I do when I build a new PC, but I don't have the time.  I could ask the question "what's the best distro for me?" but I end up with at least a dozen suggestions each time.  I've chosen Ubuntu for desktops and notebooks running Linux, but for all I know PCLinuxOS or openSUSE might be better.  I dunno.  I wish I had the time to find out.

Note:  I've read and re-read what I've written here several times and there's one thing I want to get clear before I close.  This post is not intended to be flamebait.  It's not.  If you feel that it is, I encourage you not to contribute to creating a fire.  Close the browser and forget what I said.  I'm writing this because of my interest in what Torvalds said and what others feel about this.


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