Linux on the Desktop

This is something I started several months before completing and posting here. To understand this article you should know a little about Linux, but can get by without. I decided not to explain the topics completely to keep the discussion on track. There were many places in the article where I wanted to compare to other operating systems and companies, but I refrained to again keep the discussion on track. Enjoy.

Joseph Monti

— 2002

Will GNU/Linux ever take over the desktop PC? This is a question that I have seen asked many times. Unfortunately, the answers that I have seen to this question have been clouded with misconception and idealistic views. Nobody can agree, and nobody is willing to admit defeat. My answer is, no, Linux cannot take over the desktop in its current state.

The reason I say this is because Linux is just not ready for desktop users. There are too many complex issues and concepts to deal with when running a Linux system for the average desktop user. Linux, at least on the desktop, is for geeks. The learning curve for Windows is linear, while the learning
curve for Linux is logarithmic. Linux provides a great programming environment, as well as gives users the control to do anything their skills provide; they sky is the limit. For Linux to be ready for the desktop, there are several improvements that need to be made as well as many issues and concepts that need to be made transparent to the novice user while still keeping the power and flexibility available to the advanced user.

As far as improvements go, there are incompatibilities between programs because of the split in popularity of window managers. This is a problem because programs are written specifically for a particular window manager. So in order to use a program written for a different window manager you must install libraries for that window manager. This is not a difficult task, but is not something the average user should need to perform.

Another improvement is the managing of programs. The standard UNIX way of installing an application is to download the source, and run a few commands to configure, compile, and install. While this may seem simple to even semi-intermediate Linux users, this is not what an average desktop user wants to do. They want to download, click a few buttons and be done with it. There are installation managers, but the standard is still compressed source code.

Now for the transparency of the not-blatantly-obvious aspects of the operating system. The biggest step is creating graphical tools to manage the system. No average user wants to edit a configuration file to change a setting, never mind the steps to learn the syntax and location of various configuration files. This step has been started by distribution makers, who have created some useful configuration tools.

Another transparency to discuss is the directory structure. The Linux directory structure is cryptic to the unfamiliar. It is formatted for command line use; short names for quick typing. The average desktop user is not going to know what they mean, and is not going to want to use a command line. The best solution would be to create a straightforward and powerful interface, and not just listing the directories in a graphical file manager. Provide an abstract means of accessing the data contained within the directory structure in an easy to use and follow manner. This is not to say that the current structure should be changed, just abstracted for desktop use.

What I suggest is to start from scratch; the Linux kernel and a few good programmers. The problems discussed could be resolved using the current setup, but builds on outdated, misdirected code. The idea is to simplify the desktop, not patch the current. It has been done in the past and was proved a failure. Starting from scratch gives us the ability to make it the way it should be made, not they way it fits with the old.

The most difficult hurdle is incompatibilities. For the changes to truly be made we must not bring with us the cruft of old. People find it hard giving up what they have known for so long, even though it is truly ‘better.’ Whenever large changes have been made to the way we use computers it has been a slow transition, however at this point it is even more difficult because it has become so common. We must bear with the changes for they will bring us freedom, freedom on the desktop.


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