Linux on the Home Desktop October 13, 2009

Just over a decade ago IBM claimed that there were a surprising number of OS/2 desktops out there. I forget how many, and I am too lazy right now to Google it, but they said there were a WHOLE LOT more than I expected.

Then in 1999 I started working in a Big-Blue-blooded company. Their offices around the world sat on IBM token ring networks. In the server room they had three AS/400s. Their desks all held IBM desktops and laptops. And the vast majority of those ran OS/2 Warp. Unless you sat at one of those desks, you probably wouldn’t know about the 800 OS/2 installations in their head office.

Many banks were the same. They knew IBM looks after its customers, and they wanted IBM to take care of their IT infrastructure while they took care of the business of managing money. As a result they often also had AS/400s downstairs, and OS/2 on their desktops.

I expect these are the kinds of businesses that may find Linux on their desktops one day. And if Canonical, Dell, IBM and Novell continue along their current trend, the most likely flavours will be Red Hat, SUSE and Ubuntu.

Interesting as that is to watch, as it gradually takes place, it’s not what this post is about.

This post is about what is required for that rollout to happen, and why those requirements are not met in everyone’s home.

And, to a lesser degree, it’s about why I’m not too bothered.

First, let’s look at hardware compatibility and support. IBM can install OS/2, or Linux, throughout a company, because they manage the hardware, and the support. They train the consultants or the IT department, and the consultants train the staff. All the applications you need are tested before they are installed on your desktop. When a new model of machine becomes available, the IT department installs the OS on it, and all the applications that anyone in the company uses, and runs through their extensive checklist to make sure that everything works, before that new model lands on the marketing director’s desk. (You know the guy — he might not be the marketing director, but he’s the guy with the Car, and he must have the new machine first, because that’s how his ego works. And a company loves people with his kind of ego, because you can get them to do *anything* as long as you play with his obvious, and very sensitive buttons. He might not be cheap, but he’s worth every penny.)

And if you are your own IT department, or if you are your friend’s or your mum’s IT department, then Linux is easy. My mother runs Kubuntu. A friend of mine runs Ubuntu. When they have a question, they call me, but they don’t have questions any more, because all the questions have been answered, and nothing unexpected ever happens. It’s lovely.

One of my daughter’s friends has Hannah Montana Linux. Her dad installed Mint on his own machine at home. (It was on his recommendation that I took a look at it, and it really is nice.) He works for SITA, and they are switching over to Ubuntu (I don’t remember the number of desktops, but it’s a four-digit figure). His girlfriend is rather proud of running Mint too.

These home Linux users all enjoy computers, or have family or friends who enjoy computers.
Rocket Racer

But if you just want to get on with whatever your operating system is supposed to allow you to do, you could be in for some disappointment. Some people don’t want to use forums to find out why their sound doesn’t work. Nor do they want to have to do anything about it. They don’t care about checking for hardware compatibility before buying a webcam, or some deceptively cheap-looking inkjet. And then they get upset when it doesn’t Just Work. They blame Linux …

… or the Free Software community. It must be someone’s fault their new webcam doesn’t work. It works perfectly on Windows, so it’s not the webcam!

I would point a finger at the manufacturer (let’s call them ACME). But then, why should ACME go to the trouble of writing a driver (which isn’t done by the CEO over a weekend — it’s done by one or more programmers, who are salaried for their troubles) when Joe Bloggs accounts for 1% of their market (that’s not Linux users; that’s just new Linux users who would go out and buy an ACME webcam *before* popping over to to see if it’ll work — a mistake seasoned Linux users don’t make often), and the amount of time and effort ACME takes to write the driver might not even be recouped.

(ACME might also say that nobody makes it easy to write a Linux kernel driver. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never written one, yet. But if Christian keeps reminding me about about how Linux handles his sound card, I might try to write a replacement for snd_hda_intel specifically for his sound chip that offers only the facility to change the headphone and microphone volumes.)

This hardware compatibility problem will eventually take care of itself, to a degree. If ACME wants their sound chip to find its way into a corporate desktop, and the corporate desktop is running Linux, then it will be in ACME’s interests to make sure Linux supports their sound chip. But only if they are targeting the corporate desktop. And only if the corporate desktop is running Linux.

So home users may eventually reap the benefits of the gradual corporate migration. But it’s not going to happen next year, I’m sure. Corporates move slowly. Windows 7 promises to be a big hit (despite their awful advertising (and kinda funny remix)). Some IT managers like to explore. Some IT managers like to go with what they know. I can’t tell you where the truce lines will be drawn at the end of the war. But I suspect that nobody will get the whole pie. The size of the Linux pie slice will determine whether home users can expect manufacturer love.

Then there’s the problem with familiarity. Some people go out and buy a nice fast, virus-free netbook with a great boot-up time, with an OS that will happily run as many applications simultaneously as they want. But when they start to play with it, they discover that it doesn’t work quite the way they had in mind.

This will also iron itself out. And it’s also related to the corporate desktop Linux marketshare. People expect Windows. People who think about loving a computer may love Mac OS X, or Linux. Despite how hard Microsoft would like people to love Windows, the problem is that the vast majority of Windows users don’t really think about it in those terms, nor are they likely to. But I tell you, take Windows away from them, and many of them miss it. If you’ve ever seen a constantly-bickering old couple, perhaps you’ll agree that familiarity and love might have more in common than many care to admit.

But for those who sit in front of Linux at work, they may become familiar with how things work; the things that change from release to release, and the things that stay the same. (I myself love it. I have two kids and watching Linux develop is (a tiny bit) like watching kids grow up. Yeah yeah, not exactly the same, but similar, OK. No, I won’t tell you where I live. No, you can’t take my kids off to Child Services. Yes, I am a perfectly fit parent.) And those people will, one day, assume that their netbook should work like their Linux desktop. They will never think about what operating system is hiding inside their cellphone. They will never ask a question on a forum.

That will be the day games publishers ensure there is a Linux version. And ACME webcams Just Work. And nobody wonders why Skype shows an image, but there is no sound coming out their speakers.

I’m sure it will happen.

But frankly, I can wait.

Because that’s the same day there is an incentive to write a prolific Linux virus. (Some say Linux is virus-proof because a virus can only affect files that you have write permission to. But, trust me, if a virus deleted ALL the files you have write permission to, your day would take a serious knock.)

In the meantime, I am perfectly happy look up hardware before I buy. And, actually, I enjoy supporting companies, with my wallet, that support Linux. I still get nasty surprises, like when it turned out that Adobe Air applications do not run on multi-core 64-bit AMD CPUs on Linux. (So I installed it on a virtual machine that uses only one core, and all is hunky dory now.)

And when a large enough chunk of the home desktop market comes round to Ubuntu 12.04 “Proud Panda” I’ll grudgingly go and buy a copy of NOD32 Anti-Virus, Linux Desktop Edition.

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