Saturday, May 02, 2009

Why Linux on the Desktop is Still Not Ready for Prime Time

It's been a while since I lit into someone in the PC publishing world for vastly overstating the Linux case, and sure enough, waiting for me online this past Friday was an article from Keir Thomas, author of a number of several books about Ubuntu Linux, published in PC World and referenced on teh intarwebs by Yahoo Tech: Top 7 Reasons People Quit Linux.

It's useful to review this list, especially in the light of a release on the same day that Linux, as a cluster of related operating systems, just recently began accounting for more than one percent of identifiable internet traffic, accounting for just over one-tenth as much traffic as those using MacOS X, and about twice as much traffic as people surfing the web on their iPhones. It makes for a great example of a Linux enthusiast thinking he's making one point, while really making one entirely different.

Reason #1 in Mr. Thomas's essay is "Linux doesn't run a program I use." Mr. Thomas's response is, basically, "Sorry, can't help you."

As a Mac user, I do understand this response. After all, one of the big reasons my friends give me for not buying Mac hardware is that their favorite games don't run on Mac. Gaming is still a problem for Linux users as well, but the real issue Mr. Thomas was addressing is a lack of productivity apps, including most of the Adobe suite of products -- many people use Adobe Dreamweaver or Adobe Premiere or some similar product to earn their living, and as such, as much as they'd like to move to Linux, they can't, because they can't find an alternative to run on the OS.

(Oddly enough, Mr. Thomas is one of the few Linux advocates who admits that Adobe Photoshop is a program that can't be replaced on Linux -- not because there isn't any image-editing software for Linux (the open-source GIMP package is a decent image editor), but because most professional workflows have developed to involve various third-party plug-ins and add-ons to Photoshop, which the GIMP can't use. So kudos to Mr. Thomas for at least making that admission, which his more brain-dead cohorts still can't do.)

Macs are clearly ahead of Linux in this category: Apple has itself produced or purchased-and-extended several professional-grade apps for their MacOS X operating system (such as Aperture, Final Cut Pro, and Logic Studio), but also lower-impact consumer versions of those apps (iPhoto, iMovie/iDVD, and GarageBand).

The biggest benefit, though, has been from third-party developers who have helped fill in areas where the MacOS was traditionally weak, such as CAD software. Why can't third-party developers do this for Linux? Because as a general rule, people who don't pay for their operating system don't expect to have to pay for their applications, either -- thus there's little market in producing Linux-based applications except to places that have no choice but to pay, which means specific enterprise-tailored apps that become the property of the company that pays for them, not the people who develop them.

The very fact that Linux is open-source guarantees that it cannot compete with the resources available to a developer for a commercial operating system; thus, while point one is become less and less relevant for MacOS X every year, it will probably always be true of the Linux flavor-of-the-month.

Reason #2 in Mr. Thomas's essay is "I installed Linux but some element of my hardware didn't work!" His response is, in effect, "Then fix it."

As his example, he talked about a time when he installed Windows and not all of his devices were supported in the base install, so he hunted around and found the correct drivers and other bits of techie knowledge he needed to be able to get his system working. Which is great if you want to be a mechanic.

Linux fails on this account because very few vendors are selling hardware with Linux pre-installed, which is how most consumer users expect to deal with computers and operating systems these days. Only a true do-it-yourself (DIY) enthusiast or somebody who really needs to build a machine on the cheap will take on the challenge of building a Linux PC from parts, purchasing their own case, motherboard, video card, etc., and then tinkering with the configuration settings in Linux until everything hums like a well-tuned engine.

There are some vendors who will sell Linux pre-installed on desktops and even laptops, but the cost savings of Linux doesn't seem all that significant. For example, Dell sells a version of their XPS laptop line (the XPS M1530n) with Ubuntu Linux 8 pre-installed for $974 after 'instant savings', but the version of that laptop with Windows pre-installed (the XPS M1530) is only $999 after a much smaller 'instant savings' -- prior to the discount, the Windows M1530 is $1108, while the Linux M1530n is $1194. The Linux laptop even ships with an older and slightly slower T5850 Intel Core Duo processor as compared with the Windows version's T6600 processor! The difference is that the Linux laptop also ships with a smaller but quicker hard drive (320 GB @ 7200 RPM vs 500 GB @ 5400 RPM); the distinction is one that most users probably won't ever notice (though the ones more likely to drop $1000 on a Linux laptop just might).

It may have made sense to buy your computer in parts and build it yourself in the 1980s, just as car enthusiasts were modding their vehicles throughout the 1950s, but today, most folks are buying commodity hardware, not building a precious asset. And for those who want what's effectively a new addition to the family, Apple makes the process that much more impressive with a combination of their high-end packaging and their in-store service and support through their retail outlets, a combination so effective that Microsoft is hoping to duplicate it with their own retail efforts.

Reason #3 is "I tried Linux but I had to type commands!" Mr. Thomas literally responds "OMG!" Then he asks, "Are you scared of the keyboard?"

I've already covered this point extensively, but I'll recap by saying, no, Mr. Thomas, I'm not scared of the keyboard, I just don't see why I need to learn UNIX to do a job that has nothing to do with knowing UNIX. Most people's biggest need in a computer is to have something that lets them do their work without getting in the way or putting up roadblocks to productivity, and MacOS X is the acknowledged king of this realm. (Hard-core Mac fans can argue that MacOS X isn't as user-friendly and efficient at the user level as MacOS 8 was back in the day, and I wouldn't argue with them all that much. Even so, MacOS X remains light-years ahead of both Windows and Linux in consistency and usability.)

Reason #4 I'll grant to Mr. Thomas -- "I did *this* and *this* happened. That doesn't happen on Windows!"

Part of the joy of MacOS X is that it doesn't behave like Windows, and I suspect that's part of what Linux fans like about Linux. We're all on the same page here.

Reason #5, however, is spot-on: "I posted a message on a forum, but Linux people were mean to me."

This, more than anything else, is a cultural problem. Mac users are often criticized as being 'elitist' and feeling as though we're better than other computer users, but the culture of Mac use is one where Mac users really enjoy their computers, like sharing information about them, and (in general) enthusiastically welcome new users into the Macintosh family.

Interestingly enough, the same is true to some extent in the Linux community -- but only if you're talking to someone face-to-face. In my experience, if you're on a Linux box and say, "Hmm, never seen that before," you'll have half a dozen other Linux users looking over your shoulder giving advice and making suggestions within five minutes. Go online, however, and Linux users tend to have chips the size of desktop computers on their shoulders -- some won't even bother to say hello unless you've demonstrated that you've read the man pages for the program you're having problems with, completely recited the hardware specs for your machine (and confirmed that they match a specific technology stack for your flavor of Linux), and invoked the spirit of Linus Torvalds or Richard Stallman to intercede on your behalf. In other words, anonymous Linux users on the internet display precisely the kind of elitism and self-superiority that people are always accusing Mac users of.

To his credit, Mr. Thomas admits that not everyone online makes a good Linux advocate. Unfortunately, he fails to see how he failed to follow his own advice about being a good citizen with his "Just fix it yourself" and "Are you afraid of the keyboard" comments in his previous paragraphs.

The real biggie, though, is reason #6 - "I just don't like it." Mr. Thomas wishes more people would be honest that this is their reason for abandoning Linux rather than hiding behind one of the above excuses. Unfortunately, in characterizing the people who use this reason as " much that they ran back to Windows," he misses the point -- it's OK to like your operating system. For the most part, Mac users can't shut up about how much they like their operating system, and love the hardware that it runs on, to the point where many Mac users I know have given their computers names, just as if they were members of the family.

And this, ultimately, is the biggest reason why Linux on the desktop isn't, and perhaps never will be, ready for prime-time: the presumption of Linux fans that it's up to the rest of the world to change to adapt to their favored OS rather than for that OS to make itself more acceptable, and even adorable, to the masses.

(For the record, reason #7, "I installed Linux and things went honey-nut-loops crazy," is dismissed by Mr. Thomas, and to my mind rightly so -- just because you have a bad experience with an OS or computer company (and I'm talking to you, Apple bashers on doesn't mean everybody does. In fact, if you consistently find yourself having problems with companies or people that others seem to get along with fine, there's a poster you should consider buying.)