Saturday, 05 June, 2004

Linux desktop not quite ready

It's looking more and more like this is not the year that Linux makes serious inroads on the desktop.  All things considered, that's probably A Good Thing.  Open Source developers have made very impressive progress over the last few years, but they still have a way to go before I would recommend a Linux distribution to most desktop computer users.  I know that with that statement I'm opening myself up to all kinds of scorn and accusations of FUD from the Open Source crowd, but so be it.

I'm not saying that Linux is bad, or that it never will be a major desktop contender, just that the time isn't quite yet.  Open Source developers have made very impressive strides and the major Linux distributions that I've tested (primarily SuSE, Fedora, Mandrake, and Lycoris) are quite usable if somewhat frustrating.  Functionally, they're as good as or better than Windows in most respects.  On the surface, they're "just as easy" to use as Windows.  Installation certainly is easy enough, and simple operations like Web browsing, word processing, and checking email are easy to do and reasonably well documented.  Things get a bit more difficult, though, once you go beyond the handful of applications that are documented well in the printed user guides or if something entirely unexpected happens, which is all too frequent.  The information needed to find and fix problems is available, just not easy to find.  And editing configuration files with a clunky old text editor like vi is fine for old computer junkies like me, but not for most computer users--even those who are reasonably comfortable with technology.

As I see it right now, a desktop Linux system is a good choice for computer savvy individuals, and for corporate installations that have strict controls on what software is installed on their computers.  It could be a good choice for casual users who have well-defined requirements and will not be changing their configurations often to try out new software.  I include Aunt Tillie here, who just wants to browse the Web from time to time and keep up with her email.  Provided that somebody knowledgeable installs and configures the system, Aunt Tillie will be just fine.  Better, perhaps, than with a Windows system, due to the reduced threat of viruses and worms.

In my opinion, the major thing lacking in desktop Linux distributions now is "user friendliness."  That's a hard thing to quantify.  It's improved over the five or so years since I started working with Linux, but there's still a way to go before I could comfortably install a Linux distribution on Debra's computer.  I keep looking and hoping.  I suspect it'll be a couple more years.