Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Looking backwards to see if Linux is ready to be the next commodity technology.

One of my non-Linux-savvy friends asked me the question, what's significant about Linux for her? The fact that she would ask this question, combined with a note from Phil Hughes, got me to thinking--is Linux finally ready for the desktop?

In 1998, I bought my wife a computer. It was a surplus Dell 486/66, into which I stuffed 32MB of RAM and an ET4000 video card (the VGA module had fried, but otherwise the computer was good). Add an NE-2000-clone NIC, and it was ready for the home LAN.

She insisted on Windows, because she was a secretary at the time and wanted to keep up her chops at home. I grudgingly dropped Windows 95 on the box. This lasted about three months, until the registry ate itself twice in as many weeks. At this point my wife exhibited her penchant for resembling a Sea-Bee in the audio spectrum and told me to install Linux. Grinning to myself, I grabbed a Red Hat 5 CD and set to work. Netscape and Solitaire were installed, and the audio feed from her end of the table quickly subsided from NC-17 to PG. She's never looked back, and I thought to myself, surely Linux is ready for the desktop.

But she couldn't run Word or any of her old Windows (or DOS) games, and many others complained about this or that lacking function, including myself--I missed Quicken. In 1999, I went to work for American Megatrends. Despite being hired on as a Linux engineer, I was issued a standard Windows 95 machine. I promptly split the partition, installed Red Hat 6, downloaded SourceOffSite, persuaded the local network admin to turn on Exchange's IMAP and LDAP interfaces and integrated myself seamlessly into an NT shop. Surely Linux was ready for the desktop now , at least in a corporate world.

But Applix and AbiWord wouldn't read all the crazy Word documents I received, so I grudgingly ended up booting Windows about once a week. The year 2000 passed, and I chuckled to myself by running Emacs and Active State Perl on my Windows desktop at a Very Large Airplane Company, all the while telnetting into a network of some 400 HP UNIX machines. I nearly fell out of my chair when I opened the Control Panel on the Windows 2000 demo unit they gave me and saw the BSD beastie staring out at me.

2001 came, and I headed over to the Linux Journal offices to fill out some paperwork. When I go there, I discovered I had forgotten said paperwork but remembered it could be gotten online. The secretary pulled up a Netscape browser and pulled down the PDF file; when Acrobat Reader came up, she hit "print". Imagine my surprise when a Linux print dialog came up! Even this diehard penguinhead had made the assumption that secretary equaled Windows Box. But no, she was running KDE, and it had me totally fooled. Surely Linux was ready for the desktop if it had me fooled.

But we still were having minor problems with Word documents, and even though Quake and Civilization now ran on Linux, it still wasn't enough. GnuCash was finally usable, but it still didn't have the on-line download capabilities Quicken did. But, in late 2001 TransGaming came out with WineX; Mandrake bundled The Sims with it and shipped the first version of Linux specifically targeted at the gamer. Soon thereafter, Lycoris debuted its own Linux distribution specifically targeted at the Windows user, Desktop LX, and then wangled a deal with WalMart.com to ship PCs preloaded with it. Of course, Dell had been shipping Linux on "certain selected models" for a while, but they were never too forthcoming about the fact.

Then, in mid-2002, Red Hat 8 came out. It was loaded with Bluecurve, a unified desktop with a Windows-esque control panel, and new GUI configuration tools. More importantly, CodeWeavers released Crossover Office. With it, we could run Word natively on our Linux machines and forever banish the document incompatibility problem. We also could run Ximian's Connector and talk to Exchange--we finally could give the digitus impudicus to anyone who told us we had to run Windows. We could even run QuickTime! Surely, Linux now was ready for the desktop.

This past weekend I finally got around to setting up Wine on my wife's Debian machine. She now can play some of her old Windows games, and we're even ordering a few new ones (Everett Kaser Software is the first Windows gaming site I've seen that advertises its games can be run on emulation. I can't get Honeycomb Hotel to work yet, but Sherlock runs just fine, but I digress). Also during the course of the weekend, we hear that WalMart.com now is shipping machines with SuSE 8.2 installed, starting at $300. In the course of looking up Ximian Connector, I discover that Ximian has come out with Ximian Desktop 2, an "Enterprise Linux Desktop." CodeWeavers shipped Crossover Office 2.0.0 back in April. Commercial Linuxes are shipping for the AMD-64 (Opteron/Hammer) platform; the release date for 64-bit Windows hasn't even been announced yet. Surely, Linux is ready for the desktop now. Right?

No. You still can't walk into Big Box Computers and walk out with a machine pre-loaded with Linux. When that will happen is anyone's guess. But as far as I can tell, it's not an issue of Linux not being ready for the desktop--it's a question of whether the desktop is ready for Linux.

Let me explain. Wal-Mart can cut a deal to get a few hundred PCs with SuSE on them, store them in a warehouse somewhere and ship them onesie-twosie to the oddball cust, err, enlightened individuals who want them. They're not going to ship ten PCs to every Wal-Mart in the country, sacrifice the shelf space, endure the customer confusion when somebody picks one up and takes it home expecting the latest offering from Microsoft to be pre-loaded--you see where I'm going. The big box computer-only stores could afford to devote that kind of space, time and effort, but to really do it justice, they'd need to find Linux-savvy salescritters--who are rather like the Golden Wrapper inside a Willy Wonka Chocolate Bar. They do exist, and I've had the pleasure of working with one or two, but they're awfully hard to find. Again, this would be a nationwide roll-out of a Big Project with no guaranteed return. This makes accountants of publicly traded companies nervous.

On the other hand, if we look at the technology life cycle, Linux is close to being ready for commodity desktops. In 1993, it was an experiment; only mad scientists used it and kids like Nathan Laredo, who brought in the first Linux PC I ever saw and set it up on the second desk in my office at Georgia Tech. Being his sysadmin and boss, I issued him an IP address and never really thought much about it or him. Shows what I knew. Nathan ended up writing a number of multimedia drivers for Linux; I've written a grand total of one. But back to Linux, it skipped the military phase and went straight for industry. Titanic was CGIed on Red Hat 4.2.

Since then, the Beowulf Cluster was invented. Now with TransGaming's WineX, and such games as Diablo II and Neverwinter Nights being released natively for Linux (not to mention the ever-popular Tux Racer, written specifically for Linux), the penguin has entered the arena. The next and final phase of the life cycle is commodity. The PC has long since been here, and the cell phone recently entered that phase. Linux, I believe, is next. As we used to say at that Very Large Airplane Company, stand by to be amazed.

Glenn Stone is a Red Hat Certified Engineer, sysadmin, technical writer, cover model and general Linux flunkie. He has been hand-building computers for fun and profit since 1999, and he is a happy denizen of the Pacific Northwest.

email: liawol.org!gs

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Re: Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Anonymous's picture

Glenn, it was 1992 when I first showed you Linux. I left Georgia Tech in April 1993. Later I ended up a coworker of Linus' at Transmeta from 1999 until Linus decided to move to OSDL July 2003. -- Nathan

Re: Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Anonymous's picture

"...and such games as Diablo II and Neverwinter Nights being released natively for Linux..."

Neverwinter Nights has been released natively, alright (And works very well).
But Diablo II?! Is that really so? Where can I find more info on that?

Re: Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Anonymous's picture

I just started using Linux (Redhat 9) at home. One problem I noticed is the memory usage. I have a PIII box with 512M RAM installed. When X is not used, the system runs great. But, if I start KDE and open a few Web Browsers (Mozilla Firebid), after some time, almost 90% of the memory is taken and the system becomes really really slow. From "top", X and kdeinits eat a lot of memory. I am not sure if Redhat 9 works like this or something is wrong in my configuration.

Re: Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Anonymous's picture

I've been testing Linux since Slackware 3.0. My latest install was RedHat 9. Progress is amazing. Huge step is done. I would say Linux is ready for the desktop with OpenOffice, ease of use, stability,... but, there's something that didn't move since Slackware 3.0. - installation of new software. Ahh, that's a mess. Even if you find package for your distro you have dependencies... then you find some dependency library package and find out it needs another one... then that other one conflicts with older one that is needed for some other installed software... hey, this is far from good and usable for ordinary users.

So, "ordinary" users are limited to what commes in their distro's CDs. that works fine.. but surfing the web and downloading new stuff... no-no

Re: Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Anonymous's picture

So, "ordinary" users are limited to what commes in their distro's CDs. that works fine.. but surfing the web and downloading new stuff... no-no

I call bull*****. Ordinary users should check the distro CD(s) first, because the software they're looking for is usually already there, conveniently pre-packaged and installed in seconds.

Additionally, If it's reasonably stable and something regular users might want to run, there will be a precompiled and packaged version on the web for all the more popular distros.

And If there isn't a prepackaged version the software is almost certaintly still in testing. 'regular desktop' users shouldn't be running it anyhow.. Think of this as a minimal IQ test to stop less technical users from installing buggy, unstable, or potentially dangerous software.

Re: Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Anonymous's picture

Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux - should read getting Linux ready for the desktop. There is still a messy software install (as with many UNIX systems). By messy I mean software should be able to be installed by double clicking, with the system checking, before installing, that there is enough space to install the chosen package. Once installed the application should have its launch icon in the menu bar (or the option should be given to put its icon in the menu bar).
Linux has made great strides since trying it out for the past 3 to 4 years. I can now install a new redhat cd (9.0 shrike) and it will just work. I have a desktop that does not break down every five minutes unlike previous redhat releases, and it is almost is there in the usability department. Getting my internet account working was so simple it was a case of using the wizard and leaving dhcp selected then click click I am online.
Linux is not ready for mass deployment even with the great strides it has made. I do however believe that the community and supporting companies will come through in this area in the near future. Redhat has now focused on the desktop with its new desktop aimed at the business desktop market. Ximian is one step ahead of them with their product let see if they can keep ahead. Suse also I believe have made there own advances with KDE.

Re: Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Anonymous's picture

Uhmm no software should not be installed by double clicking. It should be installed the way that redhat up2date and better yet like the 1 click warehouse does it. I showed someone the one click warehouse on lindows and they immediately started installing what they wanted. Click execution is exactly the fatal faw in windows that does not need to be duplicated.

theres two options.

Anonymous's picture

We either go mac style where you just download a file and run it, or you go the clickNrun style.

Re: theres two options.

Anonymous's picture


We either go mac style where you just download a file and run it, or you go the clickNrun style.

The two options are not mutually exclusive. If your MIME types are set properly, double clicking on a .rpm or .deb will start up the package manager.

The manager should prompt for the root password (the first time), check that the package is properly signed, then install it. I believe that both major distros can do this now. If not, then they should fix it. All the pieces needed are there.

Re: Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Anonymous's picture

That really has to do with the application developers/packagers, not the Linux desktop.

Re: Not a problem with Linux desktop?

Anonymous's picture

For Linux to make it to the desktop for the average users, supporters and guru of Linux MUST come to realise that a consistant and easy way of installing software (and drivers) has to be inplace. In another word, a standard tool has to be developed to allow application developers/packagers to package their software for consistency in installation.

A good car is made by every of its components able to work seamlessly for the whole car.

Use click N run.

Anonymous's picture

Linux is ready, it just needs polish, by mid 2004 Linux will be polished and ready, Redhat 9.1 or 9.2 will be the version of Linux which will begin to take the desktop.

No point versions

Anonymous's picture

Here onwards there will be no point versions for Redhat. Only Redhat 9,Redhat 10, Redhat 11,etc.,

regards
Guru

Re: Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Anonymous's picture

It's getting very close, I currently run Mandrake 9.1 and needed the flash plugin, went to Macromedia's site, clicked on the correct RPM, clicked on it downloaded it, hit open, and a couple more buttons, and it was installed. This was easier then Windows, NO REBOOT!!!!

Where things can be an issue, is that different distributions do things slightly differently, so the RPM for one, may not work as well on another. However many companies providing RPM's are getting to produce an RPM for each.

The next step is for Linux to be able to download a standard source .tgz file, untar it, compile it, build the RPM and install it, without asking anything more then the root password at the last step. Then we haven't caught up with Windows, we have surpassed it, by making the process of software procurement simple.

Re: Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Anonymous's picture

The next step of installing from source is already available. It is called Gentoo.

Re: Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Anonymous's picture

For the record, Lindows was the first to get Linux into WalMart, not Lycois.

Mark

Re: Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Anonymous's picture

My wife's been running KDE on Mandrake Linux 9.0-9.1 since November. She uses it mostly for browsing (Galeon), email (Evolution), finances (GnuCash), and word processing (OpenOffice). Her biggest complaint is that printing is inconsistent between applications (look at xpdf vs. oo vs. the gnome apps vs. the kde apps), and the unix printing system (can you say "lpr -P?") is confusing.

Re: Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Anonymous's picture

There is a trick taht could be useful to you. You can use the kde interface for all your printing using the command 'kprinter --stdin'. It works in xpdf, openoffice (adding a new printer), etc.

Windows is making fast progress

Anonymous's picture

While Linux is still not suitable for average joe user, windows is making big progress, it is as attractive as Mac and become powerful than ever, think about media center PC, tablet PC...

Re: Windows is making fast progress

Anonymous's picture

What progress? For every new Windows release it seams that MS manage to make usability worse.

One example:
Just look at the default colors in XP. They are very bright. If you want the attention of the user in that environment? You certainly can't use color.

Look at Star/OpenOffice vs MS-Office. In OpenOffice buttons and menu choises stay where you put them while in Office they move around in some misguided attempt to help the user.

Even MacOS seam to deteriate in usability respects. E.g. icons without text in the dock.

As for tablet PC, I think it's an interesting technology. But so far MS haven't managed to get all features to work in all languages and the hardware is far too heavy. I would never buy tablet PCs for my employees as they likely would cause work related injuries to their arms and sholders.

And by the time these issues are fixed I'm confident that there will be Linux software to support them. Even today we have software for to catch hand writing on a wacom tablet. (most of the tablet PCs already function lke wacoms)

However, if you talk about the suitablility of Linux for the home machine average Joe, Linux might never reach that. This is because Unix/Linux is built to be highly managable/configurble in networksed environments. And as average joe seldom manage 100 boxes like the sysadmin at his office do, the features of Linux that helps the sysadmin being efficient,just gets in the way of average joe trying to admin his own single box at home.
But this is probably true in windows XP as well to some extent.
But in XP the sysadmin will miss a lot of functionality.

So my prediction is that we will see Linux on the corporate desktop much soner than at home.

Are you serious?

Anonymous's picture

Why isnt Linux suitable for the average user?

Re:WinPC will be

Anonymous's picture

The NET/Palladium/Next Generation Secure Computing Base/Longhorn, a lot of acronims that wil mean that Windows PCs will not be able (cut at bios) from running other OSes but Windows/Longhorn.

DONT HAVE ILLUSIONS ABOUT THIS!...

Meanwhile the "thing", that is stopping Linux from exploding on the Desktop, is not because Big Vendors(HP,DELL) are bullied by M$ from offering pre-installed Linux, but because everybody else wich make more than 60% of PC shipments are turn down by "hardware" driver support,... and when that happen in enough quantity Linux Desktop will blow in everbody faces.

With 2.6 having much better support for binary only modules, that will be pretty soon!...

WHY WHEN SOMEBODY WRITES AN ARTICLE ABOUT LINUX DESKTOP ALWAYS COMPLAIN ABOUT PRE-LOADED MACHINES TO THE SICKNESS POINT,... THAT NEVER WAS THAT IMPORTANT!!!!

Re: Getting the Desktop Ready for Linux: A Historical Analysis

Anonymous's picture

I've been using linux at home for 5 years now. Initial install has never really been a problem. What has not really progressed though is software installs. For apps properly packaged by a distro vendor, that's usually quite easy but if it is not packaged for your distro, you are stuck with compiling, which again is not a big deal but not really for everyone.

But worst is device driver install. Kernel recompile is generally necessary because distros usually don't use exactly the same kernel version, and drivers are therefore difficult to distribute as binaries.

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