Saturday, September 22, 2007

Why Linux Hasn't "Made It" to a Desktop Near You

There is a column over at DesktopLinux.com titled 13 reasons why Linux won't make it to a desktop near you. The author's main premise is that Linux will never truly infiltrate the consumer desktop because Linux isn't a "normal" product in the sense that you can easily market and brand it, and even if it were, it is far too complex and there are too many choices for consumers. I think he's way off-base. I've talked about this issue before. What's killing desktop Linux is Microsoft's lock on the OEM market.

Here's a quote from the article:
Even basic things like partitioning, windows managers, file managers and software update processes are not standardized across our shortlist of user-friendly Linux distros. To varying degrees, you will strike problems getting Linux set up correctly if your PC has an LCD screen that is large or wide, or if you have a fancy graphics card (NVIDIA or ATI) or you want to set up WI-FI or play video clips out of the box.

And if you're installing Linux on the same hard drive as Windows XP, you'll need to create a new partition or two. That's a knee trembler for simple users, a leap of faith of the white knuckle kind. It's a good idea to make full backups before you do this, yet the process can be quite straightforward. For example, Ubuntu offers to shrink your Windows partition to your chosen size and to create the additional partitions you need automatically.

It's not that it's hard, just that it's unfamiliar. Linux doesn't know about C, D and E drives and Windows will show up as sda1/dev or hda1/dev in the partitioning table. What's missing is a simple explanation of these basics, and none of the Linux desktops provide that. You're traveling in a foreign country and you have trouble reading the road signs, and there's no helpful traffic cop to be found. It spoils your trip.

Comparing the ease of use of Windows with Linux by saying "Linux is too difficult to install" misses the point - that few users ever have to install Windows. Their PCs come pre-loaded with the operating system. You could replace "Linux" with "Windows" in the above excerpt with the terms reversed and it would still make sense, viewed from the eyes of a non-Windows user.

Similarly, the issue of "too much choice" is a meaningless. Another quote:

On closer inspection, you find that there are 500 versions of the product. When you try to understand the subtle differences between them, you become confused. Your enthusiasm starts to flag.

If say, Ubuntu Linux came pre-installed on consumer laptops, the issue of choice is now "which model laptop do I buy?". Yes, you might have different laptop manufacturers offering different distributions of Linux, but most consumers won't use that fact to decide which laptop to buy. They will primarily look at the hardware support or the company's reputation, not the technical particulars.

My point above about replacing "Linux" with "Windows" above pertains to most of the article, really. Those of us who have been comfortably using Linux desktops for years read articles like this and immediately see the problem - the articles are always written from the point of view of a Windows user. It's an example of confirmation bias - you have a belief that Linux will never make inroads into the consumer desktop, so you look for theories that affirm this belief ("Linux is too complicated", "The support sucks", "Who can install Linux, anyway?"), and ignore that fact that "YourOS" suffers from the same problems.

There are some good points in the article, but they don't really impact Linux's future on the desktop. For example:

When you discover that some of the designers have made deals with their biggest competitor, the last drop of your enthusiasm drains away.

Obviously a poke at Novell, but I don't see Novell's deal with Microsoft impacting the OEM market for consumer PCs. Novell is after the business desktop.

In the end, I still contend that Microsoft's OEM agreements and monopolistic practices are what is preventing desktop Linux from taking hold. This is the simplest explanation, and I'm not sure it will change anytime soon. The Dell/Ubuntu offering is a good start, but you won't see these laptops in stores, and they are not linked from Dell's main site that the average consumer is likely to buy from.

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