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Ranting about Linux on the Desktop

vom Strehl Manuel

Gspeichad ois

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I am a long-time advocat of FOSS and the philosophy behind it. But from time to time I despair with this attitude. Currently, the “Linux on the Desktop” topic is most prominently making me think on what goes wrong.

This article is written on a laptop with Ubuntu. My wife’s laptop runs Ubuntu, because I convinced her to switch. Our desktop computer runs Ubuntu. It’s one of those rare machines, that Dell sold with Linux instead of Windows. At the university I use Debian, and at work I come in touch with Ubuntu and SUSE servers.

Recently the editorial in the German c't magazine critizied the Linux desktop as not ready for the broad masses. My spontanous thought was: He is wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the Linux deskop experience. Then I started to think again. More than that I have now two updates from Ubuntu 10.10 to 11.04 behind me. And I must revide my first judgment: I am not amused. And Linux desktop environments are not ready for day-to-day use of people without technical background, at least in their full potential.

What Goes Wrong

Let me start with a small example: After upgrading last year from 10.04 to 10.10 I switched to the new dark GTK theme that came with that release exclusively developed by Canonical. A big mistake. It looked cool and fresh, but it is completely unusable. Every once in a while the top-right logout button vanishes because of some graphics flaw. This is simply unacceptable for the default UI of a operating system. And it is reproducable on two of my three Ubuntu desktop machines. And it had never happended with any other Gnome theme I used so far.

Why is it unacceptible? Because it robs the single most important button from the unexperienced user: the shutdown button. Of course, there are other options to shut down the machine, but if in a hurry most people will only come up with pressing the power button. And doing this regularly, at some point ext4 will go mad about it. Completely untouched is the topic, that the user will lose the trust in the OS. I wouldn’t trust a car, where the driving wheel vanishes from time to time.

Absolute No-Gos

Then there is the upgrade issue. On my old HP laptop the upgrade went well. I rebooted and came to Unity, tested it and was quite pleased with this new UI style. Then, after 2 or 3 hours, it crashed. It, let me emphasize this, f***ing crashed. No Gnome session ever crashed on me, apart from the ones where I did strange stuff to the GDM. Two days later Unity did it again.

My promise to Canonical is this: If Unity does this ever while I’m writing on my Ph.D. thesis, I’m off to Fedora.

Even with this experience I decided to upgrade the desktop computer, because I had some spare time. If I only hadn’t done that. The machine was configured to auto-log in my wife after booting. After the upgrade restart, it did exactly that, and then the desktop froze.

The details on how I fixed it finally can be read in this SuperUser question. To put it in a nutshell: The upgrade switched under the hood the working proprietary nVidia driver against Nouveau, which is known to have issues with the Compiz effects in the new Ubuntu. Thank You, Canonical!

To remind the gentle reader: I bought my desktop computer from Dell with Ubuntu pre-installed. One would think, that this is one hardware configuration Canonical tests its system before rollout.

What’s My Problem?

I fixed everything, so what? Well, I have several years of experience with computers. Most of my relatives haven’t. They would have had no possibility to fix any of those above issues without someone in the field.

Upgrading from WinXP to Windows 7 is not trivial. Macs are upgraded by buying new hardware. But both can be handled by PEBKAC types of users. And if the Ubuntu update reminder shows a prominent “new version available” button, the linked action should be possible to finish for everyone being able to handle basic tasks on a computer.

LTS versions are not an option. They shift only the time frame. And besides, browsing with Firefox 3.5 today doesn’t make that much fun anymore (I do this at the university). Since buying the desktop computer, I would have anyways be forced to update from 8.04 to 10.04.

Put that together with all the other subtleties like trying to get a Samsung multi-functional printer to work, I can now finally say: At the time of writing these lines, Linux is not ripe for usual desktop users. This is hard for me to admit. And I take hope from the advance of Android and other Linux-based user interfaces, e.g. in TV set-top boxes. But using the distribution, that claims to be “Linux for Human Beings” has really sobered me.

In the long term, and with devices blending and interacting more and more, I assume, that Linux itself will have a wonderful future, though. I’m looking forward to it.