With Canonical working hard on trying to popularize their flagship Linux distribution, Ubuntu, and all the major Linux desktop environments recently having gone heavy changes, desktop Linux has become a much smoother experience than ever before. Once reserved only for the nerdiest of us, I can say things have come a long way, to the point where even my dear mother (a pianist, by no means at all tech savvy) uses Linux for her day to day web browsing and email. That said, is our beloved penguin operating system really ready for the average Joe? Unfortunately, I have to say, not yet.
A couple days ago, I saw a post on OMG Ubuntu stating that Dell and Canonical are now distributing systems with Ubuntu pre-installed in India, to go along with the distribution in China. Coupled with the Ubuntu App Showdown and the partnership with Microsoft to deliver Ubuntu on Azure, the distribution is really making it’s move. Several other distributions, such as SUSE and CentOS are also in with the Azure deal, but I’ll talk more about these later: I think it’s fair to say that Ubuntu is among the most active distros in trying to gain it’s market share among general users. Canonical and the Ubuntu community have been working hard to make Linux user friendly and easily accessible to new users ever since it’s conception back in 2004. The installation process streamlined, boot time improved (and then worsened), things are a lot better now than they were even just a couple years ago. So, what’s still not right?
Let’s start with what a new user might see after immediately having installed an Ubuntu system. Sure, Unity seems to make quite a bit of sense at first: hit the internet icon to surf the web, the document to start a word processor, and the folder to browse through files. That’s easy enough, and props to Canonical for making that much intuitive. The problem is, what happens when the user wants to do something more? The first question I get after introducing someone to Linux is often the same: “I want to install XYZ but the .exe won’t run.” There is no obvious explanation to users that first, Linux requires Linux software and that it doesn’t run other pieces of software (I know, there’s Wine, but that’s not exactly newbie friendly), and second, most Linux distributions install software through some package manager. The Ubuntu Software Center is easy, but new users are not aware that they should be dropping the idea of going to a website and downloading installers for everything they want to run. Some sort of “first run tutorial” would be a godsend for new users. Linux Mint has a bit of a “Welcome Screen”, but that doesn’t help the new user very much. It’s a small thing, but I think that the desktop Linux experience would benefit a huge amount from such a utility.
Another enormous problem is that Linux breaks. A lot. Since the system is much more open, new users can accidentally break their system to the point where they cannot boot to a visual desktop without even realizing. I know that may sound a little far fetched to some, but I’ve had to diagnose XOrg configuration and Grub problems on many, many computers. Official updates can render pieces of the system unusable, and that’s a problem. Of course, there are distros that specialize in the breakage department, such as all the enterprise distros like Red Hat, CentOS, and SUSE, along with certain branches of Debian. Most users aren’t using these systems for every day desktops though. While popular as server and enterprise operating systems, they never have gotten the same desktop attention that distributions like Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora, and OpenSUSE enjoy.
The Linux desktop lacks a uniform feel. KDE does a good job with it’s software compilation to really bring a unified experience, as does the Elementary project. Gnome and Unity do not however sport much of a consolidated feel. The problem is, most of the leading distros have one of these two (or a spin) as the default desktop. Both Mac OS X and Windows have smoother and tighter integration.
Another problem is polish. While most Linux systems these days do have a fairly polished feel, there are pieces that definitely lack in the aesthetic department. Take a look at Grub for instance. My question is, why did BURG style bootloaders not kick off on a frenzy? rEFIt for Mac looks great. Why can’t I use my mouse in my default Grub screen? Even some BIOS have mouse driven interfaces.
Apart from the few problems that I’ve mentioned, Linux has a boatload of other flaws that make it not ready for the regular user. Hardware compatibility is still a big problem. More preinstalled systems is a definite must. But things are definitely looking a lot better now than they did a couple years ago, and will hopefully continue to look better in the future.