Linux On The Desktop: Who Cares!


Every so often, you read on Slashdot, Digg, or some other techie news site that Linux is finally ready for the desktop. It's finally to the point that any end user could sit down at a computer and happily compute away. The applications are sufficiently sanitized and Windows-like that even Grandma can use them. I think it's fair to say that most of our previous conceptions of "ready for the desktop" are moot points.

I think the only folks that are still up in arms over whether or not Linux will ever be ready are the same folks that have been talking about it for years. New users really don't care. I don't say that arbitrarily, I say that because I work in a school, and I see the "current generation" of computer users. They don't care if they use a Mac, a PC, or a Linux machine. Most don't even notice the difference. In an unofficial, random sampling of college and high school students, here's what they need from a computer:

  • Firefox (Really, by name. Cool, eh?)
  • A way to play music (iTunes often mentioned, not insisted upon)
  • Microsoft Office

And that's it. The last point bummed me out a bit, so I asked more probing questions. It turns out, "Microsoft Office" has become the common name for an office suite, much like "Kleenex" is the name for facial tissue. For almost everyone I asked, OpenOffice or even Google Docs (in a pinch) is the same thing. In fact, some weren't really sure why I'd ask such a thing, because "aren't they all the same?"

There are those folks that want a specific type of computer for tasks like video production or gaming -- but they aren't the overwhelming majority anymore. Everyone wants or needs a computer now, and the general population doesn't seem to care much about what operating system they're running.

My suspicion is that Web 2.0 and mobile (smartphone) technology is doing more to help Linux than anything else has. It's not because Linux is better at such things, but rather because the world is moving to the web. The vehicle to get there is getting less and less important.

The really good news is that now Linux can finally take over the world, and most people won't even notice!


Shawn Powers is a Linux Journal Associate Editor. You might find him on IRC, Twitter, or training IT pros at CBT Nuggets.


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you only have to go into a

derek's picture

you only have to go into a computer shop to see why linux struggles to get a foothold. And it has nothing to do with functionality or user friendly. I have made many converts to linux, and these are people who just want to run their various programs, use their printers and all that stuff. The number one reason is purely because there is no market for it. Think about it, you go into a computer store and look at all the software you can buy. Everything from office to virus and security programs. It all comes down to the almighty dollar, there isn't a product to sell, it's all free (basically) what computer store is going to put linux into his store, he has no other programs to sell therefore he can't make a profit. Ironically the "free" part is probably the biggest hurdle, if you can get stores to be able to make money from it then they will stock it.

Linux On The Desktop

Noclegi's picture

90% of my friends from Central Europe use Windows XP. This is a result of the fact that the widely available software doesn't often suit Linux. I used Linux but as a matter of expediency I had to resign. An office package is a Microsoft Office and then free Open Office or simply WordPad. Browsers: the IE 65%, the 20% Firefox, the 5% the Opera, the 2% Yahoo Slurp, the Googlebot 2%. Personally I use Firefox and I am satisfied. Greetings

We need grandma to SUPPORT Linux/ open formats, not use them

Marco (from digifreedom)'s picture


nice piece, but I have a couple of comments:
Linux... applications are sufficiently sanitized and Windows-like that even Grandma can use them

Frankly, even if I agree with you, I am worried by the semi-regular flow of articles more or less obsessed with "making grandma use Linux". I suggest that, at this point in
time, it is much more urgent and beneficial for Free Software if its advocates focus on how to turn "grandma", that is all that 95% of human beings who aren't geek, into a Free Software supporter, not user

What I mean is that all these people will never hack anything no matter what and, how you yourself point out, their computing needs are so limited that really it doesn't matter what software they use personally (I refer to adult people now, ie voters: students are another issue). Whereas they could help Free Software immensely more if we all told them "don't be scared, we don't want you to become a geek, but it is in YOUR interest to demand that Free Software
and formats are protected and used as much as possible by public administrations. Please VOTE for it". I have discussed
this issue in depth, giving suggestion on how to hook people in, in How to turn into Free Software supporters people who couldn't care less. What do you and LJ readers think?

You also said:

here's what [non-geeks] need from a computer: Microsoft Office

what many people really mean when they say this is "I need whatever way to keep accessing all the files I inadvertently locked into Microsoft' proprietary formats, shame on me"

In this case, I recommend to make these people read (from LJ) two short pieces which may help them understand what their
real problem is and how to make sure it doesn't happen again:

Everybody's Guide to OpenDocument
Just say no to OpenXML

Again, any feedback is welcome,

Marco Fioretti

The recipe

Anonymous's picture

I don't understand the reason why we should advocate Linux to the common user.

We should be focusing on recruiting programmers, artists and translators. Once the workforce is strong enough to make free software beat all the years of software made for Windows the argument of a free (as in beer) and open platform should be enough to convert users anyway (if that is your goal). I think the goal should be to give users a choice, not to aim for world domination which is a less admirable goal.

As a parallel effort to that of making Linux better than Windows in a sense that makes users switch, we have two political battles to fight and two battles that can be fought as a concious consumer.

The political ones are software patents (in my personal opinion it should be patents in general) and the right to reverse engineer (which is still legal in Denmark where I live).

The two important battles as consumers are against DRM and hardware with proprietary drivers (or at least to buy hardware with official Linux support).

If all that succeeds we will prevail! We will prevail!

Turn people into Linux ADVOCATES, not users

Marco (digifreedom)'s picture

I don't understand the reason why we should advocate Linux to the common user... Once the workforce is strong enough to make free software beat all the years of software made for Windows the argument of a free (as in beer) and open platform should be enough to convert users anyway (if that is your goal)

I (Marco) do not want to convert everybody to Linux or to using only Free Software, even if I would be happy if this happened. I thought this was clear from my first comment and the links I provided in it.

What I say is that it is much more important and urgent to convert people in the street to become advocates of Free Software; advocates, not users. If there is enough popular support to protect Free Software, those who want it can use it without any limitation anymore, the others... let them be, isn't this about freedom?

If you succeed to explain to as many non-geeks as possible that it is in their OWN interest (less taxes, less sw-related expenses, better access to quality education, less pollution...) to demand protection and public usage of Free as in freedom file formats and software even if they never personally use it, then it doesn't matter anymore how much it takes to make "a linux distro that grandma can use", assuming there is really a need for something like this. Freedom of choice, equal opportunities and so on are guaranteed (as far as software is concerned, of course) and that's all what matters.

What I say and am trying to do with the Family Guide to Digital Freedom is that this goal is more important than making Linux better than Windows or anything of the sort. And that in order to "explain to as many non-geeks as possible that it is in their OWN interest etc etc" it is necessary to use language and communication strategies quite different than those normally used by some FOSS advocates preaching to the choir

Marco Fioretti

I am not sure to say that a

Kamen's picture

I am not sure to say that a regular or even power user will be comfortable to at this point have a Linux system in their room.

The other day, I decided to upgrade nvidia drivers on some kubuntu system. On a Windows system, it is usually a straightforward process - download the drivers from nvidia's site, and run the installer. Even a novice user can do that with minimal instructions.

However, this is what happened:
- I had to get out of X
- I had to run the installer with sudo.
- I had to answer some odd questions because some things were missing on my system.
- System booted into kubuntu logo and froze at the point where it was supposed to run xdm.
- I had to ctrl-alt-backspace to try diagnose the problem.
- I had to dig forums to find instructions on what to do to work around the issue.
- I had to modify some odd ubuntu config files to allow the driver to load properly.

Now tell me if even a Power user would be comfortable doing something like this? What if they bought a USB dongle and had to deal with BlueZ?

From a working system perspective Linux is quite capable of replacing Windows, but if something doesn't work, you are in big trouble!

Partial agreement from me

Splntr's picture

I think you touch here on something I hear a lot... Sure there are benefits, but when things go wrong it really goes wrong.

I should start by saying I mostly agree with the point the author is making... generally no one cares anymore who made it, they just want to be able to do stuff, and get on with the rest of thier life afterwards (preferrably without a headache).

I'd go further and suggest that no one really cares that the software is free, or provides freedom, or any other ideological notion presented... again, they just want to browse the net, listen to music, write an email or three, and maybe watch a movie.

Perhaps the only truely key aspect for them... It has to work without them having to learn much if anything. Like buying a car, and not having to be a mechanic to be able to drive it. We must admit that Windows is still superior in this aspect. Generally, stuff just works.

I've been trying to use *nix in my daily life for a while now. I don't favour myself an expert by any stretch, but I like to think I do know a little about what's going on. What I have found is that I've spent considerable time with my buddy Google trying to figure out basic setup issues, and fix niggling problems... I posit that the average user just do not want to be bothered with all that.

Pre-built systems solve many problems in that respect. Everything has already been setup, tweaked, and figured out before it comes to you... Until you want to plug in something new/unsupported/not fully supported... and that's where it all falls flat and puts the average user off a bit.

Last note... it really doesnt help that *nix engineers/developers/hackers etc (tend to) promote this aire of superiority over "n00bs" still. Mainstream will follow, if they're not made to feel like idiots by the head of the pack. Being unique/better/faster/more stable means nothing if no one wants to go near the arrogant troll who guards the gates. [analogy storm ends]

You did it the wrong way.

Lucian's picture

You did it the wrong way. Nvidia drivers are a package and they are updated automatically when you update your system. Use the Restricted Drivers Manager (which pops up by itself at the first startup if you have hardware requiring restricted drivers) to install them in the first place and that's all you'll ever have to do.

If you really need bleeding edge drivers (that have not been tested by the ubuntu maintainers), use envy. Google and the ubuntu forums both find it.

This is a case of doing it the way you were used to. It's not your fault, but next time ask or just read the ubuntu wiki/forums :)

He did it right

Anonymous's picture

He did it right, but mistook himself for an ordinary or power user who, naturally, should get nVidia drivers from some package. However, this mistake is indicative of what I think is a big (huge?) problem. Linux advocates make Windows users to believe that Linux is just like Windows, only better.

This creates a "reality shock" for Windows refugees, which is bad. As a side effect, the desire to actually make Linux like Windows only better harms Linux making it both buggy and funny (as in funny idiot).

please accept my apologies for the repeated submission

Marco (digifreedom)'s picture

sorry, my browser or internet connection froze at the wrong moment, so I didn't realize what I wrote had been already accepted :-(



Webmistress's picture

no problem, i deleted the duplicate.

Katherine Druckman is webmistress at You might find her on Twitter or at the Southwest Drupal Summit

On Office Suites

Jake's picture

In my Middle School, most students do not have access to Microsoft Office or use a very old version. Many students use Wordperfect or something else that came with their computer. A few use just Wordpad. Some students use, though they're still a minority. Very few have one of the past couple of versions of Microsoft Office.

However, about all middle school students use an iPod (though iRivers, Zens, and Zunes are not unseen). A decent player for that is essential. Most iPod users use iTunes though, which is why 3rd party applications are usually inadequate. A lot of students ask for iTunes gift cards for gifts and everything else.

Me? I use and listen to music using Canola on my N800.

-8th grade student from Georgia, USA

Welcome Jake!

Shawn Powers's picture

I work at a school district in Michigan. It's great to see an 8th grader on the Linux Journal site. :)

Yes, Apple really did it right with iPods, it's hard to blame users for choosing iTunes for their music. I've been playing with my own iPod on Linux a bit, and not coincidentally, next week's video may in fact be iPod related. :)

Shawn Powers is a Linux Journal Associate Editor. You might find him on IRC, Twitter, or training IT pros at CBT Nuggets.

please add your school to the Digitally Free Schoos database

marco (digifreedom)'s picture

Shawn, and everybody else

I work at a school district in Michigan

If yours is a Digitally Free School, please let me know by email (marco, at digifreedom, /dot net) and I will list it on that page.

Best Regards,

Marco Fioretti

Yes, who care, I think all

reza's picture

Yes, who care,
I think all people wants a PC free of bugs, security holes, viruses, spyware... .
and MS windows have them. LOL
and another extra new ability for windows 7 is managing and resizing your pictures.
It is a very useful ability that an OS must have. :D

Why people won't notice

Adam Kane's picture


I think you're missing the point. The fact that Linux is able to take over the desktop world without people noticing proves that Linux *is* ready for the desktop. If people didn't care, the Linux desktop wouldn't be at the point it is at today. These "new users" that "don't care" haven't been around long enough to remember a Linux desktop environment that wasn't even close to where it is today.

Ageism / Sexism

Galactic-ac's picture

Believe me, I sit dead center in the stereotypical social demographic of geek Linux users (except for my healthy eating and exercise habits), but I have to warn you to against the old "Grandma can use" remark. Recently I ready a very angry letter to the editor by a woman (and grandmother) who cut her teeth on paper punch tape which got me thinking about the ageism and sexism associated with that stereotype. (Maybe it was in the print version of this publication? I can't remember.) Slashdot, which I read regularly, is way out of touch on the issue of Linux being ready for the desktop, and even further out of touch on the sexism thing.

I've worked at ISPs my whole

Gromm's picture

I've worked at ISPs my whole adult life, mostly in tech support, starting in 1994. Trust me when I say that 95% of all customers over the age of 65 neither have nor want to learn basic computing skills . Most of our dialup customers are elderly and unwilling to change, in spite of the obvious painlessness of ADSL (although I can sympathize that many of them don't switch because it's cheaper and they're on a fixed income).

And those are the brave ones who are embracing change. My grandmother and father in law are both entirely unwired. I would guesstimate that at least 40% of seniors don't have a computer, and don't want to.

While I've watched the population age and that demographic get somewhat more computer savvy as a result, as my dad likes to put it, he "started out with kerosene lamps". Back when he was a kid, not everyone's farm was wired with electricity and telephones yet. He's just turned 60 last year.

So while there's plenty of people who started by programming punch cards in 1964, you all know damn well that you were a tiny minority then, and continue to be a tiny minority in your age group now.

re: Sexism and ageism

Jimux's picture

I am a grandparent (six times). I was a freelance programmer for the club industry in northern NSW (Australia) from 1983. Some of those programs were still being used beyond the year 2000. I began using Linux as my main operating system in 1999 and exclusively since 2000 by which time Linux was well and truly superior to Windows. Most of the family and friends who seek my help to fix their malware trashed systems (Windows of course) are younger than me. Some even let me install Linux on their systems. I have taught users as young as 20 who have never used a computer and my sons still ask for advice from time to time. I have found the most intransigent Windows users to be IT "professionals". I don't consider them real professionals unless they are also Linux competent. Ask not if granny can use Linux, but if your workplace IT department can use it.

My Cheek, I Taste It

Shawn Powers's picture

Yeah -- with the first few lines, I was actually meaning to exemplify the common "what we need" mantra that gets brought up again and again. In fact, my very first computer teacher back in high school was a woman that to this day I think is much smarter and geekier than I am. :)

Shawn Powers is a Linux Journal Associate Editor. You might find him on IRC, Twitter, or training IT pros at CBT Nuggets.

old geeks, young geeks

Jimux's picture

I work in a library and have been guilty of a little ageism, in that I was surprised by an elderly guy who took to computers like a duck to water, after attending one of my community training sessions. In no time he become quite a geek. On another occasion I ran one of our Public access Internet computers off a boodable Linux CD. I forgot I had done this until a young kid about ten told me how good it was that we were using Linux, after which we had a conversation about its benefits. The point is I shouldn't have been surprised - Anyone can be an enthusiast. Unfortunately I have been unable to get our IT department to switch our Internet PCs to Linux.

Of course I get that it was

Galactic-ac's picture

Of course I get that it was tongue-in-cheek, but hopefully that phrase can go out the window right along with "is Linux ready for the desktop???" 1337 h4xor chx over 55 have feelings too, I assume :)

Wife's computer

Eric Moritz's picture

My wife's computer has been running Ubuntu for a year now. The only thing she wanted was for me to make it look like Windows. Against my better judgment I put some XP theming on it and she's been using it.

She doesn't care at all.

I have just gone through

Anonymous's picture

I have just gone through this exact same process of theming it like XP (gag). I even had to tone it down and get rid of compiz-fusion for her to use it. She's happy now though, which in turn means I'm happy. I'll think I'll gradually introduce the effects though. I've got a nVidia 8800 GTX (768MB) for pete's sake just sitting in there doing nothing!

Yes, XP doesn't look as nice

Anonymous's picture

Yes, XP doesn't look as nice as the orange and brown default look of Ubuntu, does it?

Sure it does.

Anonymous's picture

Sure it does. Check the silver theme. It is easy on the eyes!

Linux Mobile Domination

LNX's picture

Forget about Linux on the desktop. It's going to dominate mobile devices. Thus becoming the most widely used computer operating system. So there.

Most widely used computer system

Visual Echo's picture

The most widely used computer system would be the General Motors engine computer manufactured by AC Delco. There is at least one, and more likely two or three computers in every GM car or truck, making them the largest manufacturer of computers in the world. Choose your words carefully, please. So there. Neener, neener, neener.

do they still exist? i

Anonymous's picture

do they still exist? i thought theyd gone the enron way a while back?

Ah, Mr Pedant, in which case...

DiBosco's picture

How about Nokia's Symbian operating system. Surely there are more Nokia mobile phones knocking about than GM motors?