It’s the year of the Linux desktop! A statement I’ve seen thrown around for many years now. It’s basically at the point where the running joke is that “year of the Linux desktop” is CurrentYear+1, a fantasy wonderland that remains ever so slightly out of reach.
So how is Linux to use on the desktop going into 2016? Let’s find out.
Linux User Experience
One of the major advantages that Linux offers, which I am definitely a fan of, is the amount of customization options available. There are different distributions with different combinations of display managers available which allows you to tailor things to how you like them.
Unfortunately this can also contribute to a less than desirable user experience when moving between different distributions or display managers, it’s harder for people to know where everything is and be able to easily navigate around as things change between them.
This leads to the type of questions that I’m sure we’ve all seen quite frequently from new players, “which Linux distribution / display manager is the best?”, however the problem is of course that “best” is subjective, which leads to a lot of arguments within the Linux community.
While this fragmentation is essentially part of what makes Linux great, it also helps prevent wide spread adoption, leading me to believe that it’s therefore difficult to claim “year of the Linux desktop”. Having so much choice at your fingertips can be both a blessing and a curse.
Of course with Linux there’s always going to be the issue of users not being tech savvy enough to download and install their own operating system which is primarily how Linux is currently distributed, however there have been strides towards resolving this. This isn’t necessarily a problem with Linux, if you gave a Windows ISO to an end user they would likely be left scratching their head in the same way. This problem can be addressed by vendors offering pre-built Linux desktops/laptops.
This way end users need not concern themselves with the technical details required for installation and configuration but should still be able to navigate within the user interface and get done what they need to, be that sending an email or browsing the Internet. It would also mean not having to worry about hardware compatibility in Linux as the vendor will have already taken care of that, however this is definitely much less of a problem these days than it used to be.
Consider the amount of Android devices and users out there, these are Linux based devices with an easy to use interface that has essentially brought Linux to the masses, at least in the mobile device space. Providing similar options for the laptop or desktop may also be a good way forward to introduce people without an in depth technical knowledge.
While the option to deeply customise is something great that Linux offers, it’s understandably more difficult for someone new coming in to be able to use it well straight away. Perhaps if say everything defaulted to using GNOME 3 (or something else, so long as it was at least somewhat standardised) and then you could change it as you prefer afterwards.
At least then those that did not know what they were doing would be able to navigate around and use the system machine to machine and have a standard experience, in a similar way that the Windows desktop environment (for the most part, with the exception of the Windows 8 Metro disaster) has been successful and easy to use in the enterprise world for so many years now. Perhaps a similar interface could offer a less scary entry path to new users while still providing what current users have come to expect.
Linux Business and Enterprise Support
Of course desktops are not only used by home users, but also extensively throughout the business and enterprise domains. Having used both Linux and Windows in an office environment I do not personally believe that there are many differences between using or managing either option at a basic level.
In terms of vendor support I don’t think operating system support is too much of an issue in the enterprise space, there are companies like Red Hat that offer their own distribution of Linux and provide full support for both server and desktop systems in a similar way that Microsoft does with Windows.
Despite this Windows still dominates these areas, most likely because a lot of users know how to use Windows, even if this is at a very basic level. They go home and use their desktop or laptop which probably has Windows installed. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that people generally do not like change. For a great case study just take a look at the user backlash that resulted when Microsoft introduced the Windows 8 Metro graphical user interface.
Suddenly things were different and people certainly didn’t like that! Overall the interface has remained the same for the most part over time at least when compared to the differences available in Linux. Again having lots of customization options is both a blessing and a curse as it allows Linux users to pick what they want to use, yet can scare away new users.
Linux Software Support
This is a classic one, and one of the reasons that I myself have not moved fully to a Linux desktop environment. The simple fact is, there are a large number of programs that have been designed for Windows and not Linux, as Windows is a more mainstream and widely used operating system, at least for the moment. Of course there are a lot of really good open source alternatives available in Linux which is really awesome, however I’d still prefer to use certain programs that are not currently available in Linux, such as the Adobe Suite, without having to run up a Windows virtual machine.
When was the last time you heard someone say “Can you port that to Windows?”, probably never! It’s always “Can you port that to Linux?”. While there are some useful options such as WINE available, a lot of things simply don’t properly work without the full Windows operating system.
Linux Gaming Support
This is something I’ve seen come up more and more over recent years, at least on Twitter where people will continually tweet at game developers asking if Linux support is planned or coming in the future for game xyz. While personally I don’t play very many games, I think that offering games across multiple platforms is great for those that want to play them. Too many people seem to be tied to Windows due to various different games that are not supported anywhere else, which is a little sad to see.
There are some great Linux options out there though, Steam for instance offers over 1,000 games to Linux now which is a great movement and a step in the right direction. Hopefully this number continues to increase in the future with more larger titles joining in.
While Linux has less of a market share when compared to Windows it will make sense for Linux titles to receive less developer dollars. This kind of leaves us in this chicken or egg like situation, where there aren’t a large range of games available due to the lower market share of Linux, but at the same time a lot of people aren’t willing to move to Linux purely due to lack of support for their favourite games. When it comes down to it, large game publishers are in it for the money, and at the moment Linux simply isn’t as profitable of a platform for them to invest in.
More and more games do seem to be coming to Linux which is great, I’m definitely a fan of having games and programs available cross platform as it allows the user to pick the operating system that they want to use and not be forced into something simply due to the programs or games that they want to run. Until the majority of AAA title games are also available in Linux I don’t think we can really shout out “year of the Linux desktop!” just yet, regardless of whether or not you yourself are a gamer this is an activity that a lot of desktop users are involved in.
Graphics card driver support in Linux is a whole different discussion…
Microsoft seem to continually shoot themselves in the foot by pushing Windows 10 so hard and fast I have seen a lot of people seriously consider Linux as an alternative. To these people I would suggest to test in a virtual machine first before completely jumping ship only to find that you’ve missed your mark and ended up flailing around in the salty water. It’s important to test things out and see how you like them before blowing everything away, try different distributions and display managers to find something that works well for you, there is a large abundance of tutorials and guides online available to help.
As a server operating system, Linux is definitely high up there for me. It works great and is extremely reliable and I prefer using, managing and supporting it over a Windows server any day of the week.
However on the desktop I’m not completely sold, I don’t personally use Linux full time at home just yet. I’m using CentOS 7.2 day to day in the office and it has been working pretty great since the update to 7.2, prior to this there were some serious problems and bugs in 7.1 and others even before this. It’s fair to say that it’s come along way but I wouldn’t say we’re in “year of the Linux desktop” territory just yet for the reasons mentioned above.
While CentOS is primarily used as a server operating system, I find that it makes for a good desktop experience when compared to something more bleeding edge like Fedora. This is likely owing to the stability of the packages that are used in the environment, sure they are a little older and this may be a problem if you desire the latest and greatest, however it is definitely capable of getting the job done. A personal dependence on various Windows specific programs will for the meantime keep me at least somewhat dependent on running a Windows system, whether that be as a full PC or virtual machine experience.
While Linux is definitely improving as a desktop OS and the user base is increasing over time, it definitely has plenty of hurdles that it needs to overcome primarily in the realms of user experience and program support if we really want to start claiming “year of the Linux desktop”.
In the end it comes down to having the right tool for the right job, and at the moment Linux simply is not that tool for a lot of users. Linux is not Apple or Microsoft and nor should it try to be, in my opinion it’s what is different about Linux that makes it great and it’s also this that prevents it being a major player on the desktop.
A lot of the things that make Linux great are the reasons that it isn’t the year of the Linux desktop, and that’s ok.
So what is your favourite distribution of Linux and ideal display manager? Be sure to let me know as this seems to be quite a wide topic for debate, nearly as much so as the classic Vim vs Emacs wars… Oh no, what have I gotten myself into?