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Is Linux Ready for the Desktop? -- by James Cherryh
Monday, March 07 2005 @ 02:57 AM EST

Is Linux ready for the desktop? Whose desktop? Many Groklaw readers use it as their desktop, so clearly it's ready for some desktops. What about yours? Read on and see.


Is Linux ready for the Desktop?

~ by James Cherryh

We're often told by pundits that "Linux is not ready for the desktop". I've always found this statement a bit odd, because I've been using Linux on my desktop for about seven years now, so clearly it's ready for my personal desktop. In my opinion the software available for the Linux KDE and Gnome desktops broadly matches that available for other proprietary desktop environments.

So I started thinking about desktop environments I've used in the past, to try and understand what the pundits thought might be missing from the Linux desktop. I cast my mind back to 1998 when I was working for a multinational insurance company who, along with many other small and large businesses around the world at that time, used Windows 3.11 as their desktop environment, and the pundits weren't complaining about that, so presumably Windows 3.11 was ready for the desktop.

Yet by just about any measure I can think of, my current Linux desktop environment is superior to Windows 3.11 -- so what can commentators actually mean by saying that "Linux is not ready for the desktop", if a clearly inferior environment WAS, then, ready for the desktop?

I thought that perhaps what they were actually rather snidely suggesting was that Linux didn't natively run Microsoft Windows compatible software - but then, neither does the Apple Macintosh, and I've never heard anyone saying the Mac isn't ready for the desktop.

Then I thought that perhaps the phrase is a cipher for saying that you can't run Microsoft Office on the Linux desktop, because that is available for the Mac and would explain why they critique Linux particularly. I know that you can buy third party software to let you run Microsoft Office on Linux, but it doesn't support it natively.

I thought this latter meaning was the most likely meaning for the phrase "Linux isn't ready for the desktop", and spent some time being cross about it. If it was their true thinking then Linux would never be ready for the desktop, because the chances of Microsoft releasing Office For Linux are pretty low.

It would also mean that however advanced Linux desktop environments became Linux would never be considered ready for the desktop, which is an odd position to be in - why don't they just come out and say "Linux won't be ready for the desktop until it runs Microsoft Office natively?".

The thought that perhaps pundits don't really know what they are talking about flashed through my brain briefly - but that couldn't be true, surely?

Then, one day, the answer occurred to me, prompted by this exchange written by the great Douglas Adams in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy".

Deep Thought : [...] I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is.

Loonquawl : But it was the Great Question! The Ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything.

Deep Thought : Yes, but what actually is it?

Phouchg : Well, you know, it's just Everything. Everything...

Deep Thought : Exactly! So once you do know what the question actually is, you'll know what the answer means.

Perhaps, I thought, the commentators don't really know what they mean when they say "Linux is not ready for the desktop".

If this is the case -- then, I asked myself, could there be an answer? A real answer to this question? And then it struck me: although commentators talk about "The Desktop" and when Linux will be ready for it, there actually is no such thing as "The Desktop". Everyone's requirements for their desktop environment are different. In order to know whether Linux is ready for "A Desktop", one has to know some more about the desktop concerned.

In this document, I look at the desktop requirements for some classes of users, judge whether Linux is ready for them, and provide suggestions where it is not. I haven't done this in an exhaustive feature-tick driven manner, but rather approach the problem by looking at what some classes of people want from their desktop and considering whether Linux can provide what they need.

Superuser Jenny

Jenny is studying towards a Masters degree in computational fluid dynamics and works as IT support in a local call centre part-time to support herself.

Jenny runs leading edge Gentoo Linux on her AMD-64 at home, which she uses to run simulations for her coursework. Most of her code uses C code libraries which are well supported on Linux.

Jenny currently runs the latest version of KDE on her box. She spends most of her time on her machine in Emacs editing code. She has ripped her CD collection to disk and plays them on her computer while she is working. She uses when she needs to word process documents.

Jenny is an atypically knowledgeable personal computer user. She uses Linux because it is free and does everything she needs and lets her have total control of her computer. She knows what options exist under Linux for desktop environments and has swapped between KDE and Gnome as each leapfrogged the other in terms of features. Her computer runs flat out for weeks at a time - if she isn't running a simulation for her course, she's doing a Gentoo "emerge world" and compiling all her software from scratch.

Grandma Gretel

Gretel uses her computer for web browsing chess-related web pages and the family web pages of her children, to send email, organise her photos, and compose family and business letters using a word processor. She currently uses an old Window 98 box which is maintained by her granddaughter Jenny.

Jenny is getting tired of cleaning worms and spyware off Gretel's machine, and she decides that the Linux desktop is now good enough for Gretel.

One day while Gretel is at the local chess club (she teaches on Tuesdays), Jenny backs up and rebuilds Gretel's machine using Mandrake Linux. Jenny sets up a firewall and installs 2 for word processing. She enables SSH so she can maintain and back up Gretel's machine remotely.

In the process Jenny finds that Gretel's dusty old scanner is not supported under Linux, so she nips down to the shop and buys a new USB one that is supported. Jenny labels the Firefox icon on the desktop as "The Internet" and the icon as "Word Processing", and she cleans out the menus to remove apps that Gretel isn't likely to need. Jenny also installs GNUCash to help Gretel manage her finances.

When Gretel gets home Jenny tells her that Jenny has updated the machine and helps her settle in with the build. Gretel has to call Jenny for help a few times in the next week, but once she's settled in her computer works more smoothly for her than it did before.

Call Centre Greg

Greg works in a call centre for a financial institution. They have several call centres scattered across the country, with hundreds of staff in each one.

The call centre uses custom intranet-based software for their staff, running in Microsoft Windows, and the operators make light use of word processing and spreadsheet software. Supervisors use some extra software which is only available for Microsoft Windows.

The call centre machines are leased and have reached the end of their useful life. IT support for the call centres have seen support costs increase due to worms, viruses and spyware, and would like to centralise management of the machines.

Jenny does some work which helps IT support decide to move to a terminal server environment using the Linux Terminal Server Project. Most of the new machines are purchased without an operating system or disk drives and the support staff load a customised Linux boot environment which connects to the terminal server and runs software from there. The few supervisor machines are kept running Microsoft Windows like they did before, and the IT staff contact the vendors of the Microsoft-only software to tell them that they're looking for a cross-platform replacement for their supervisor software.

When call centre staff boot their machines they transparently load their Linux operating system from a small number of servers. They use Firefox for the intranet software which works fine.

IT support find that their workload is greatly reduced with the new architecture. Broken machines can be simply swapped out for a replacement which reboots directly from the server. Centralised administration of the software load on the servers means software updates can be delivered by installing on a single server machine. Use of diskless Linux on the desktop means that the virus, worm and spyware problems disappear.

Greg doesn't see any of the IT support benefits. He reboots his machine on Monday morning and sees the intranet icon in the middle of this screen as promised in the email about the changeover. He normally runs his web browser full screen. In a few moments of quiet time he looks through the Gnome menu at the bottom left of his desktop and sees that IT support have installed a few simple card games on the desktop for just such an occasion. Greg really doesn't know much about his new desktop system, except that he was told it was being installed to save money. It works enough like the previous one that it doesn't affect him unduly.

Greg Gamer

When he goes home at nights Greg is a hard-core PC gamer. He'll drop $500 on a new graphics card to increase his frame rate without a second thought. Greg runs whatever variant of Microsoft Windows he needs to make his games work. Greg doesn't do much with his computer other than gaming - a little web browsing and some web email using Google Gmail.

Although it is feasible to write cross-platform PC games that run under Linux, the Linux market isn't big enough yet to convince most games companies to do it, although some do and (for example) Doom 3 was released for Linux as well as Microsoft Windows.

Greg knows a little bit about Linux, but as far as he's concerned until it runs today's number one games out of the box he won't even consider it as his desktop. The financial cost of running Windows is trivial compared to the amount of money Greg spends on games and new hardware.

Michael Gamer

Michael is a gamer, though not as hard-core as Greg. Michael refuses to run Windows for personal reasons. He has a subscription to TransGaming which sends him Linux software which allows him to run some popular Windows games which he has bought for his Linux box. Sometimes Michael and Greg get together with the boys to spend an evening shooting things on their computers. When it's a game that doesn't run on his Linux box Michael is happy to munch on pizza instead. It's a personal thing for him.

Michael also uses his computer for web browsing and email and to compose the occasional letter. When he needs to email a document to someone else he sends it as a PDF which writes out for him.

Angela Accountant

Angela is a senior partner at a large accounting firm (the same one Greg and Jenny work for). She uses Microsoft Windows on her machines because it's what she's used to. The senior partners use Microsoft Office extensively and have a variety of custom macros and other Microsoft Windows software they use regularly.

Cost isn't an issue for Angela and her colleagues. What they have works, and there is no reason to change it.

Matt IT Manager

Matt is an IT manager at Angela's firm. Apart from the partners (who basically get whatever they want or need), Matt is under pressure every year to cut costs.

Matt has a pilot project to investigate Linux and open source software for the staff whose computers he supports.

He has already identified that version 2 looks like it will meet the word processing, spreadsheet and presentation needs of about 95% of the staff, at significant cost savings over their existing proprietary software. Matt likes this idea because runs on Microsoft Windows as well as Linux, and hence it doesn't require much change in their desktop operating systems, and Matt might be able to get this organised in time for their next software upgrade.

Matt has identified that replacing their Microsoft Windows file servers with Samba on Linux will provide some significant savings in Microsoft Windows Client Access Licences, and has a pilot project underway to test this, that is going well.

Looking further ahead he can see some more cost savings in replacing Microsoft Windows with Linux on the desktop, just like they've done for the call centres. There are some problems here though, in that the firm has a number of custom built applications that only run on Microsoft Windows.

Matt has introduced a policy that all new applications must be intranet based, so that the client that runs the software is not important - all it needs is a web browser.

In addition, for the next three years he has allocated budget money to convert all the existing in-house applications so that they are intranet based.

At the end of that time there will only be small islands of staff in the company who will be using applications for which there is no Linux equivalent. If they move to Linux desktops Matt intends to support them using a mix of terminal server or virtualisation software, so they will be running their Microsoft Windows applications from within a Linux desktop. He has approached a number of the firm's vendors to tell them he is in the market for cross-platform or web-based versions of their software.

Matt hasn't locked himself into running Linux, but the moves he is making towards intranet-based software will reduce his support and deployment costs regardless of which desktop platform the company moves to.


What can we conclude from this? Well, as has been said before, one can prove anything by concocting suitable examples.

What I think some thought shows though is that the pundits really are wrong. There really isn't anything called "The Linux Desktop". Whether Linux is useful or suitable for you depends on what you want to do with it. The decision is different depending on what your requirements are.

Some people may feel they are better off staying with whatever desktop environment they have now. Other people may choose to move to Linux because it will save them or their companies huge amounts of money. As has been said, moving to Linux is a one-off cost that saves you money every year forever after.

The choice, if you feel you need to make one, should be made on the basis of what your requirements are and how well Linux meets them, just like any other decision you need to make.

James Cherryh is an IT systems designer and programmer in Canberra, Australia.

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