Linux on the Desktop: Are We Nearly There Yet?

The numbers are pretty stark: Linux might be the backbone of everything from embedded devices to mainframes and super computers. But it has just a 2% share of desktops and laptops.

It seems the only way to get most people to even touch it is to rip away everything you recognise as Linux to rebuild it as Android.

Until recently, I was in the 98%. I honestly wasn’t even conflicted. I used Linux most days both for work and for hobbies – but always in the cloud or on one of those handy little project boards that are everywhere now. For my daily driver, it was Windows all the way.

I guess what’s kept me with Windows so long is really that it’s just been good enough as a default option that I haven’t been prompted to even think about it. Which, to be fair, is a great quality in an operating system.

The last time I tried a dual boot Linux/Windows setup was about 15 years ago. I was using Unix at university, and was quite attracted to the idea of free and open source software, so I decided to give it a go.

This was back when, if you wanted to install Linux, you went to the newsagent and bought a magazine that had a CD-ROM on the front cover. I don’t exactly remember what distro it was – probably something like Slackware or Red Hat.

I got it running, poked around a bit and played some of the included games, which were relatively primitive but still quite a lot of fun. After that, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with it. I never managed to connect it to the internet.

For a number of years, I had no say in my operating system: work was buying my computer for me. I was a junior developer at a small software company that wrote for Windows machines, so it made sense that it would be a Windows laptop. That was easy to arrange because that’s how they came anyway.

When I left this role to work for myself, I kept doing the laptop thing; they’re so convenient when you’re renting and it’s great to work outside on a lovely day. Whenever I bought a new one, it would come with Windows on it, which was great because that’s what I used.

I’ve managed to avoid most of the security headaches in Windows. I got a nasty rootkit about 7 years ago and it’s all been smooth sailing since.

I Only Want the Command Line When I Want it

A big misgiving about Linux as a main OS is that it never really seemed like it was a total GUI operating system. Whatever desktop environment you used, it was just a nice little place to run your web browser, media player, and maybe an IDE or something. As soon as it’s time to install or configure anything, you opened a terminal window.

I’m okay with the command line – up to a point. You definitely want it for “nerd stuff” like server configuration or deploying a website.

But when I’m doing “normie stuff”, I’m like most people: I’d really rather just point and click. I want my mind to be on the actual task, not on what command I need to make it happen.

Using a Windows laptop felt like I could have the best of both worlds. Whenever I needed a bash shell, I’d just ssh into a Linux machine and do it from there.

Even when I started doing web tasks that required a bash shell on my local machine, that was no problem. Microsoft had sorted one out for me and it just worked.

In the end, what made me install Ubuntu Studio was not any intent of replacing Windows. I had just started messing around with Linux synthesizers on my home theatre rig and was curious to see what I could do with these on an x86 machine.

Linux Very Quickly Became My Daily Driver

The first thing to really hit me was just how fast this is. It boots quick and programs just open. This makes it so much nicer as a place to get things done.

So it made sense to do my web browsing and word processing here as well. Booting back into the Windows partition for that would just be a drag.

I guess, up until this point, I’ve just taken it for granted as an immutable fact of life that laptops gradually slow down as they age and every few years it will be time for a new one. Every time Microsoft pushes out an update, it gets a little slower.

So it was that my cheap 4GB machine from 2015 felt like it was nearing the end. In my head, I was already pondering firewood and a longboat.

I suppose when you have a monopoly operating system, nudging your customers toward buying that new machine a little bit earlier might even help move a few more licenses.

I accepted that for a long time. I now thoroughly resent it.

I mean, given what I’m doing – web browsing, word processing, editing text files, opening ssh terminals, some very light image editing – I honestly reckon a 3 year old machine should be able to keep up. These are all tasks you could do in the 90s. It’s not like I’m playing the latest Battlefield while rendering the next Star Wars.

With Windows 10, my laptop was struggling with simple tasks. There seemed to be no way of avoiding the expense and hassle of getting a new one. After switching to Linux, I instead spent a pittance on another 4GB memory module for the spare slot.

I reckon I can at least get another year of use out of this machine now. This in itself has made changing worthwhile.

A Seamless Desktop Experience

Ubuntu studio comes with the xfce desktop. The default design is intuitive and beautifully styled with kind of a cyberpunk motif. I haven’t felt any desire to mess with the default theme, except to change the background image.

I love how simple the interface is. All your programs and settings are there in the menu where you might look for them. By comparison, the Windows 10 desktop seems to always grow more elaborate and crammed with obscurities.

I can’t really say how much of my enthusiasm for this desktop is the ease of use and how much is simply down to how much more snappy and responsive it is – you experience these things together.

A GUI You Can Set Your Watch to (Literally)

So far, it seems like you could actually do a lot with this without ever going near the command line. They’ve actually gotten it to a point where you don’t need to edit text files to connect to wi-fi or set your timezone.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t using the command line a bit more. But that’s only because an Ubuntu terminal window is also a great ssh client. For a couple of weeks I was using nano as my main text editor, but I decided that a mouse is actually pretty handy for navigating and selecting text.

For the great mass of people who aren’t that into nerd stuff, I don’t think you would need the terminal at all.

The Same Software, Only Better

One thing that I think will help open Linux up to a much larger audience is the graphical front end for the package manager. It’s honestly not much different to browsing apps on my Android phone.

I’ve found myself using both the graphical interface and the command line to install software. The graphical interface is great for browsing, while the command line makes it super simple when you already know what you want to install.

That’s just me though. Most people don’t know how to run a package manager from the command line because they’ve never had to learn. The good news for them is that they’re not obliged to – you can get by fine with just the graphical interface.

I guess it helps that I was already using so much open source software on Windows: Firefox for web browsing, GIMP to format images for web use, OpenOffice for word processing and the occasional spreadsheet. Moving to Linux has meant still using much the same software. I’ve switched from OpenOffice to LibreOffice and have barely noticed the difference.

Installing software from the repositories means that it’s actually easier than on Windows, because I’m not having to look up a bunch of websites. Closed source applications like Dropbox and Slack were no hassle to install and work the same as always.

Thanks to the package manager, updates and patches are now automated too. On Windows, Firefox knew to update itself, but other software expected you to download and install new versions manually, and I inevitably couldn’t be bothered

Smooth Operating System Updates

Every so often, when you boot Ubuntu Studio, there’s a little window that politely tells you that you have some updates to install. If you decide you want to install them right now, it will take a matter of minutes. You totally get on with other things in the meantime. Of course, if you absolutely need all your system resources, you’re not forced to run it at all until you’re ready.

It’s a nice change. Windows updates, by contrast, show up out of nowhere like a bank robber, yelling, waving an Uzi and marching you to a big blue update screen for as long as it has to take.

Having not booted into my Windows partition for about a month now, I’m dreading how much of it would have piled up and how long they will take to get through. And the longer I leave it, the worse it’s going to get. So maybe I’ll just never go back.

All in all, I’m very happy to now use Linux as my main OS. I could almost become a Linux evangelist.

Except for one thing:

This Was an Absolute Pig to Install

I’m used to an easy install with Linux. You flash an SD card or buy a VPS, you’re up and running in minutes. Running a virtual machine on your own metal can take a little longer. But not a lot.

Installing Linux on a partition of my laptop was a Biblical effort. It took 6 days to get it to boot.

How could it take so long? Well, it starts with super slow download links: 7 to 13 hours for an image. Then there was the hardware support. Most time consuming of all were the mystery problems and all the time sunk trying to diagnose and fix them.

What had got me interested was playing around with a bit of audio. KXStudio and AVLinux seemed to be the popular choices. Both belong to the Ubuntu/Debian family, which is the style of Linux I know.

KXStudio booted fine from the USB stick. But it didn’t like my wireless adapter. The fix for this seemed to involve compiling something from github. This was a bother; I needed a working wireless adapter to connect to the internet.

I figured it might be possible to download either a binary or the source to my Windows partition so I could install it without an internet connection. But after much searching and no clear instructions, I was stuck.

So I downloaded AVLinux and flashed it to a USB stick. The installer connected to the internet fine, so I installed the damn thing, only to find that the partition wouldn’t boot and then neither would the USB stick. Also, I was locked out of the UEFI.

I did the only logical thing you can do when you brick your work machine: panic. Then I remembered that I had a live boot restoration utility on a USB stick stashed away somewhere for precisely this occasion.

I then tried Ubuntu Studio 18.10. The Live Boot worked fine and even connected to the internet. So I installed it. This seemed to go off without a hitch.

When I tried to boot into it though, I just got a blank screen. I spent a while trying various kernel parameters like “nomodeset”, but with no luck.

A helpful chap on Reddit recommended I try just bog standard Ubuntu, explaining to me that it’s easy enough to swap in a low-latency kernel once it’s installed.

So it was that I tried Ubuntu 18.04 and 18.10, then Ubuntu Studio 18.04.. then again and again, trying slightly different settings on the installer, all in vain.

Having made so many attempts and spent so much time trying to get these things to work, I was – reluctantly – having to face the possibility that perhaps a distribution based on Debian just wasn’t going to work on my machine.

Fedora Jam Worked First Time

I had no trouble installing this distribution. The installer was super simple and it just worked on my first try.

It didn’t boot much faster than Windows 10, but once you were in the desktop it was quite snappy and responsive.

Like Ubuntu Studio, this also has a graphical front end for the package manager. It doesn’t quite have the same smooth “app store” experience though. If you’re already familiar with command line package managers, it’s pretty easy, but I’m not sure how intuitive it would be for everyone else.

I quickly came to discover that Fedora doesn’t have anything like the kind of software library that Ubuntu and Debian has. Or at least, that’s how it was for the software I was interested. I know that it’s often still possible to install things that aren’t in the repositories – but we’re talking ease of use here. Having to compile it yourself is not an ease of use.

For web browsing and word processing, this was a great operating system. But when it came to tinkering with audio, I couldn’t even get JACK to start.

So, after a few days, it was time to move on.

All in all, even though I decided Fedora wasn’t really from me, I still rate it somewhat. There’s a very good workstation there for ordinary office work. And I can well believe the claims that it’s a great development environment – especially having the entire Red Hat ecosystem downstream of your OS.

Still, the hunt was back on. A friend told me how much he liked using Linux Mint. I’d heard of it before, but knew little about it. I was intrigued when my friend explained it was based on Ubuntu because I’d really missed those repositories. I decided to give it a go.

Linux Mint Was Excellent

As near as I can tell, Linux Mint is basically just Ubuntu with a few tweaks to make it really user friendly right out of the box.

The big one is the desktop environment Cinnamon. This is clearly very influenced by Windows XP – a fine OS to pay tribute to in my opinion. It’s probably even more beginner-friendly than the default desktop on Ubuntu Studio.

I liked Linux Mint and decided to install it. The fly in the ointment though was that the dreaded wireless adapter problem had reemerged. This was a showstopper for me earlier. But by this point I was willing to consider building a temporary wireless bridge from bits and pieces I had lying around so that I could have an internet connection to try to get the right driver.

I never got that far though. When I tried to, the installer kept aborting when it couldn’t install the boot loader. I tried it again and again and the same thing kept happening.

Back to Ubuntu Studio

I decided to go back to Ubuntu Studio 18.10. I’d at least gotten this to install before, even if it booted to a blank screen. I figured that there’d be some answer to this problem somewhere, if I only looked hard enough.

I went and installed it again, expecting to be faced with the same problem. But this time it just worked.

I’m pretty glad that it worked in the end. But I still have absolutely no idea what was going wrong or what I did differently to get it to work that one last time.

Should it Really Be This Difficult Even for Nerds?

I admit it’s the other dudes in DXM Tech Support team who really know drivers and hardware. My own skills are mostly with web stuff.

But still, I’d like to think I can hold my own a bit. I wrote my first code at the age of 7, I’ve worked as a software developer before, I can use a bash shell a bit, and installing weird operating systems to play 30 year old video games is my idea of a fun Sunday afternoon.

And I reckon the things I was juggling a few things here that might be a bit beyond any kind of mass audience: things like kernel parameters, endlessly using Gparted and efibootmgr to clean up failed installs, or building my own wireless bridge.

Which is all just a longer way of saying that, while I’m not exactly Linus Torvalds, I can do a thing or two here and there with a computer.

But what if you actually are Linus Torvalds?

It turns out you also think the install is disgusting:

My favourite bit here is in the middle where the Debian fan approaches the microphone for what’s meant to be a question. It was totally within her power to just ask him what the difficulty was. Instead she completely dismisses his experience and tells him he should use her favourite Linux instead.

I doubt that she actually meant to be that much of a dick. It’d be more that she’s such a fan of the software that it’s difficult for her to see any complaint as a genuine area for improvement. For her, it has to be a user education problem.

You can literally have the whole damn thing named after you and still have to put up with that crap. No wonder he can be a bit cranky.

It’s the Little Things Too

To install Linux, you have to first run all sorts of errands to prepare your machine.

You need the Windows 10 Disk Management tool to resize your C partition, delve into the UEFI to change some settings, install an image writer to burn the installer image to a USB stick, that sort of thing. Often you’re presented with multiple alternatives for each of these steps.

My suspicion is that each of these things feels so trivial to most Linux users that it just doesn’t occur to them that it’s a real point of friction for most people.

Using a different tool for each task is very much in keeping with the UNIX Philosophy: any one thing should do just one thing and do it well.

That’s actually excellent for anyone who uses a computer to build things. You have all these lego bricks that you can arrange however makes sense. You can totally just run a Python script, grep the most relevant bits, then make the output presentable by piping it to cowsay.

But not everyone’s ready for cowsay. Joe Average has never even heard of UEFI or partitioning and he honestly shouldn’t have to.

So this might be the wrong place for a rigid application of the UNIX philosophy. It greatly adds to the number of steps and that’s always going to cut down on the number of people who make it to the end.

Even if you’ve always been amazing at computers, I think you can probably think of something else that once seemed too difficult. For me, that was cooking Indian recipes.

That’s been my favourite thing to eat ever since I was a kid. But every time I looked at a recipe, it was just line after line of ingredients I didn’t really understand. So I made do with the jars and recipe kits.

When I finally decided to actually give it a go, I realised the ingredients list was so long because of all the spices I’d never cooked with before. It turned out that the most difficult part of using them was bringing them home from the Indian grocers. Putting them in the pan added mere seconds to the actual cooking.

Pretty easy, right? And yet, until I knew that, it was enough to stop me even trying, literally for years.

That’s how this stuff works. Every unfamiliar step you add to a process brings people closer to thinking “hmm, that’s actually a bit too involved for me” – even if those extra steps are, individually, trivial.

Linux does this to potential new users every day.

The worst thing about adding this to the installation is that it’s all front loaded right at the start of someone’s decision to try Linux. If they don’t make it through the install, then none of the rest of it comes into play.

What the Install Should Look Like

A big part of what sucks about an unsuccessful Linux install is the amount of time you spend and the number steps you take to reach a point of failure.

So what would be cool is a lightweight installation tool that began with a hardware scan to give you meaningful feedback on what’s supported, what’s unsupported, and what needs further attention.

Then, if it’s all good to go, it could download the live boot image, burn it to a USB stick, take care of the UEFI settings and so on. Then, when you decide you want to install it, it could also take care of defragmenting and resizing the C partition.

It’s a thought anyway.

It’s Part of a Bigger Picture

Addressing the install nightmare won’t make anyone who wasn’t. It’s more about boosting the conversion rate of those already interested to actual users.

Off the top of my head, here are some of the other big things that stop people switching:

  • Gaming: A lot of the people who are most comfortable tinkering with drivers and the UEFI became that way because they’re really into playing the latest games.

    Linux is more than ok for casual gamers. For console gamers, like me, it’s an irrelevance. But if playing the best and latest games on PC is hugely important to you, there’s no contest which platform has the best library.

    There is an interesting push by the guys behind Steam to turn this around. There’s really no reason why Linux couldn’t be a major platform for gaming – not everyone realises that the world’s best-selling console runs FreeBSD, a close cousin of Linux.

    But even if this starts to take off, it will be a while before hardcore gamers start moving away from Windows.

  • Business Realities: The difficult installation matters much less in a professionally managed IT environment. But these are also the places where a need to preserve existing systems, configurations and procedures can complicate any change. Even just migrating from one version of Windows to another has pain points.

    On top of this, the business owners and senior managers with the final say tend to be very busy and preoccupied with a dozen other challenges, and fairly reluctant to consider anything that seems weird and unfamiliar. This makes inertia hard to shift.

    The IT staff who might lobby for such a move would be understandably wary of blame for any difficulties that arise with Linux, in a way they won’t be for difficulties with Windows.

  • Home Networking: This is one spot where Windows still is much more user friendly. Your Windows machines are generally pretty good at detecting each other on the LAN and then appearing in Windows Explorer. From there it’s pretty easy to decide what to make public using a GUI interface.

    To do the same thing on Linux, you’re installing servers for various protocols and configuring them from the command line or in a text editor. Which is actually a lot less difficult than it first looks if you’re willing to roll your sleeves up. But, if we’re talking about going mainstream, then realistically most people will be repelled by this at a glance.

    Compared to the difficulty of the install, I think this is a relatively minor pain point. For the average home user, so long as they can run their software and connect to the internet, they’re pretty happy. And from what I’ve both seen and heard of DIY Windows networking jobs in the workplace, part of me thinks it’s a bad idea to democratise this too far.

    But it’s fairly normal for home users to want to copy things across a network to, say, a home theatre machine and they should be able to.

  • Social Proof and Branding: Properly covering all the social proof and branding problems Linux has with ordinary people would be a lengthy article in its own right.

    The basic idea of social proof is that humans, as social animals, are highly influenced by what everyone. That’s a highly rational instinct in a paleolithic environment, where there is an obvious drawback to A/B testing all the things that might kill you. It also suits us in our modern world that throws vastly more decisions at us than anyone has the time or mental resources.

    But being on the wrong side of it means you’re significantly penalised simply for not already being popular.

    On top of this, to the extent that people are aware of Linux, it’s mostly as an operating system for a technical elite.

If you think about it, the difficulty of the install feeds back into most of these. Definitely, a larger user base would make games developers care more about the platform. Hypothetically, big titles that are properly optimised for a lighter weight operating system might run better. This is a huge drawcard for hardcore gamers.

Because of the legacy system issues of even fairly small businesses, one easier path into the workplace would be to get the business owner while it’s still a one person show.

A large number of new businesses are started by parents of young children, who are often struggling to afford everything. And a great many freelancers and solo entrepreneurs go through feast and famine periods often enough that they’ve learned to be protective of their cash buffers.

These are all people who’d rather get a couple more years out of a machine than be made to buy a new one. It’s a good use case for Linux. So long as they can actually install it.

And creating social proof means building a visibly larger use base. That will happen easier if more interested new users can install successfully.

Is it Time for a Branded Linux Machine?

The easiest installation is one that’s already done. So perhaps it’s time for off-the-shelf Linux desktops and laptops.

These exist already of course. Big PC makers like Dell have a Linux lineup, while some boutique outfits are exclusively Linux in their product offering.

I’m picturing something kinda different though: an officially branded consumer product by one of the more user friendly distributions, pitched not tech professionals but to a mass market audience. Something that could be reviewed next to Apple and Samsung products.

The desktop environment is ready for a broader audience. The software library is quite excellent for anyone with ordinary computing needs – and with a good graphical front end, it’s pretty easy to find and install software. And because Linux is so much gentler on hardware requirements, there’s some real scope to offer some solid bang for back here.

I expect most open source developers have had no experience of and even less interest in. So what they could do is license the brand and a subdomain on their website for a given time period to someone already in the business of making and selling computers.

For the sake of the brand, it’d be important to license this to someone you could trust to do a good job of building a decent machine. That would take care and attention, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

As well as providing a small income stream to developers, and growing the user base through direct sales, the ordinary publicity effort to promote these products would help make Linux visible as a thing that the mass market could use.

I’m just spitballin’ really. But if anyone likes this idea, they’re welcome to it.

It’s More a Matter of When than If

Maybe it seems like I spent a lot of this article talking down Linux on the desktop. The wider truth though is that I’ve voted with my feet. If I don’t stick with Ubuntu Studio forever, it will be because I went to a different flavour of Linux.

I really don’t want to go back to Windows if I can avoid it.

There are certainly still big obstacles to bringing Linux to a wider audience. But I can’t see why they wouldn’t be overcome.

34 thoughts on “Linux on the Desktop: Are We Nearly There Yet?”

  1. Linux will never make it in the desktop. The Microsoft stranglehold aside, the truth is that most people couldn’t care less one way or the other, as long as they have access to something they are familiar with. Notice that this, of course, makes all the efforts on Linux desktop side (mostly from Gnome) a waste of time: the more such efforts strive to out-Windows Windows, the more people will stay with Windows: why would I want to change, if I already get Windows preinstalled in my PC/laptop? The only glimmer of hope would be if Microsoft goes overboard with its control, upgrading and advertising shenanigans, effectively pissing off its customers. A possibility, but a faint one.

    The thing is, this is good news for those (very few) of us who couldn’t give a damn about either Microsoft or the Windows wannabee that is Gnome. We have plenty of alternatives in the Linux desktop that do what we want and need, effectively and securely – with the added bonus that, because of the status quo, the bad guys will keep focusing on messing with the Windows desktop.

    Linux will never make it in the desktop – and that’s a good thing for the likes of me.

    1. Thanks for the comment Jay.

      I think there’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying. People mostly just keep doing what they do anyway. And on a typical day, the average person spends 0 seconds contemplating a new operating system.

      But the bigger picture is that people do sometimes switch. Microsoft only became a monopolist by successfully taking share from Commodore, Acorn, Atari and such. These ultimately failed platforms tended to be much nicer to use and rather better under the hood, but lagged in third party support and price competitiveness.

      I think at least part of what is holding Linux back are problems of branding and visibility. Even a lot of relatively tech-savvy people have no idea how good LotD is now.. until I tried it, I just took for granted that it was still too neckbeardy for me to want it.

      Some of the responses I’ve gotten from people are quite telling too. One friend just laughed in my face when I told how much faster this is:

      “Of course it’s fast! It’s not weighed down by anything even remotely useful.. except for maybe a text editor.”

      He was a bit surprised to then hear that I’m using all the same software.

      The kicker here is that this guy is in a senior position at a large MSP.

      For the 90% of the population who isn’t that technical, the visibility of LotD as a viable alternative is even worse.

      I think there’s a lot of scope to grow the user base by attending to some of these branding problems, and the various friction points along the way. Whether that’s actually of interest to anyone is a whole other thing I suppose.

      Whether it would grow so big that it entirely crushed Microsoft is a whole other thing. Even if it were possible, I’m not sure that such a thing would even be that desirable.

      It would certainly be nice though if Linux grew to the point where Linux machines were on the shelves next to the Windows and Mac machines at the local shopping mall though.

    2. Not to mention that most people don’t use an OS, they use applications like office or the Adobe suite. And why do they use those? Because everybody else does. Windows or Linux isn’t the question afaik, seamless integration into the networkeffects of those would be a minimum. And even then, unless it’s a better experience…
      Gimp, good as it is and I use it daily for photography work, isn’t a tight fit for photoshop or lightroom. [Open|libre]office can read office documents, but again, it’s a conversion which has its issues.
      Standalone these, and many others, are fine programs, but the communication with the defacto-standard programs isn’t issueless. you always end up converting.

      And of course, the OS should be unnoticeable; Installation should be smooth.Although on fairly modern hardware I can’t remember the last time I had hardware issues.. Usually it’s a few clicks, a wait and ready.
      Windows install has reboots, and more reboots and takes a lot more time.
      Point in case is of course that the majority of ppl never had to install windows. Doing something, compared too just booting up will always be more difficult. Even without mystery issues.

      But in the end, imho, it’s all about the communication between applications. opendata fileformats and the ability to switch between applications without losing access to data, features or having to convert.

  2. I enjoyed your article ,I am of the same mindset. The thing that would be helpful ,would be more exposure ;a branded system as you suggest ,then advertising ,promotional campaigns ,and no BIG MONEY attCHED.
    E.G. SAY , laptop with mint ,cinnamon ,but much cheaper then the equivalent windows laptop.That might help .

    1. Thanks for dropping past Joseph 🙂

      Yeah, certainly throwing elephant bucks at advertising can get attention if the ads are half decent.

      I think even on a relatively low budget, having a branded product could crack a lot more headlines and build a lot more buzz than a strictly independent offering might. It might also be a lot easier to interest retailers of consumer electronics in carrying such a thing.

      It’s an idea anyway.

  3. I would have told you and tell all to start with Linux Mint for mate. If that releases didn’t work then use the last Linux Mint release. I would say don’t split a drive if it’s work for you. Get an inexpensive SSD and use that instead. I would also check each and every hardware component in your system for open hardware. If you Wifi is basically windows only then you don’t have to do the work to et it to work anyway. Just plug in one that works automatically. It does take an effort to check your devices; but who’s fault is that? Also there’s no substitute for faster better hardware. Use your best. Oh and no one should say delete Windows or anything else you bought. You don’t have to do that. Why no ALSO have Linux Mint? Who wants less options and benefits? Then I would say after about a year of heavy use or when you want to alter Linux Mint more custom to you; then consider the formidable Debian. The joke is Debian is hard to install ONCE. Because Debian can be installed to be many different things for different people. Don’t even consider running and tier accept Debian stable AS YOU MAIN system. Never use Debian testing or sid as a MAIN system. And they are for programmers. No. With Debian stable you CAN get newer apps form backports if you really need them. And now-a-days just run Firefox-ESR. It’s the newer faster Firefox and automatically takes care of it’s upgrades (and security in stable) right along with everything else! If you have GPU issues search internet for sgfxi and put the command in to install that script. Then from root just sgfxi -d and it will do all for you most of the time. Simply reboot and do it again; if coming off the default drivers. in the end try an internet search for debian + wiki + ‘the thing you’re having issue with’. Chances are you’ll find a command you can easily paste in; that will fix all.

    1. I don’t think installing an SSD would have been simpler. That would be rather difficult in my laptop, which doesn’t have an extra drive bay.

      My point about the partitioning was really less about my own difficulties and more about how to better deliver the OS to a mass audience. You’ll just get a better conversion rate if it’s smoothed out.

      It’s very normal for e-commerce websites to find that if they simplify a 5 step shopping cart into a 2 step one, then far fewer of them are abandoned. That’s true, even if none of those original 5 steps were that difficult in the first place.

      I think that a bit more of that kind of thinking could help bring Linux to more people – I assume that’s a goal for at least part of the community.

  4. I am surprised you have this much trouble with installs. I have found Mint (my favorite), Ubuntu and various others very easy to install, and have had very few problems. I haven’t used Windows in years, and have no wish to start. I haven’t bothered with dual-boot systems in a long while either. I used to use FreeBSD, but it seems trickier to install than most Linuxes these days.

  5. I started using RedHat as my “daily driver” around 1998 and haven’t gone back to Windows since. I eventually found Fedora to be too “bleeding edge” and ended up on Ubuntu. It has been a good balance of up-to-date software and stability. And, as you said, a huge library of software to choose from. Around 2003 I had to install Windows on computers at work and found that much more difficult that installing Ubuntu. I’ve installed Ubuntu dozens of times and generally have everything “just work”. Wireless seems to be the area where problems can crop up if you have wifi hardware that was designed to be “windows only”. I haven’t had many problems with that, though.

    System 76 sells computers and now is also pre-installing their Pop! OS, which is based on Ubuntu. I haven’t tried that Pop! yet, though.

    1. Thanks Joe.

      You are exactly right that Windows can be a pain to isntall. The big advantage that Microsoft has there is that most of their customers just don’t have to.

      I think overall, Windows gave me more aggravation than Linux does. That’s certainly true now that I’ve got it working.

  6. Half the problem is the “old guard” of Linux that gets annoyed at anyone saying any of these things. Nothing is wrong it’s perfect, it’s everyone else that’s wrong not us, most people should not have computers anyway they are too stupid, etc. So the same old sometimes obsolete systems stay in place, packages get taken for granted even half a decade since they were last maintained, basically everyone still thinks it’s 2010 and keeps making excuses for inadequacy.

    Add things like GPU drivers being as bad as they were a decade ago on windows (lags, crashes, freezes, etc) and most linux ports of windows software being similar in function to console ports to windows…. barring Windows being too much of a problem WHY would anyone bother to switch?

    Real observable change just plain happens too slow in penguin land for a fast paced software world…. Windows on the other hand has the problem of seeming to be going through a mid-life crisis.

    1. Drivers have really changed in the last 2-3 years. Sure, if you stick to Nvidia, things are exactly how they were a decade ago, but Intel and AMD have integrated their drivers into the kernel now. You don’t even need to download and install drivers from a website, at most you’ll have to add a bleeding edge repo to get super up to date stuff instead of the ones from your 1-year old stable distro.

  7. I see the biggest problem for Linux is software. I use Linux, but am a casual users. When I want a program that is not in the repository I have to find a .deb package. I have never successfully installed a tarball. Until Linux has self installing packages like .exe. of .msi I don’t see a great mass migration to Linux. Same with drivers.

    The second problem I agree with, money and advertisement. Most people are going to stick with what they know, many don’t realize there is an alternative, and many that do have been exposed to FUD. The only geeks can use Linux stuff. The you will never get it to work because there are no drivers for your hardware stuff.

    Even when Linux tries is fractures again. Snaps and Flatpaks, and I don’t see either as the answer.

    1. The problem is, that you really want to train your users away from the habit of installing random binaries off sketchy internet sites. For that reason, it’s best to package things up and distribute them through the system’s “repository” app store. Snaps and Flatpak’s have gotten to the point where they can be included in these “app stores” right alongside the repository packages.

      Think of Repository, Snaps and Flatpaks as being the Windows Store, Steam, and (itch.io/gog galaxy/etc) respectively. One run by the maker of the OS, one being the slickly designed store made by a big corporation, and the others being just other stores you can get things off of. Flatpak’s a standard, not a store, and people can set up their own flatpak repos.

        1. No, I saw that point and my comment was basically saying that we don’t want to go back to that world. It was a bad idea from the start, and only required because windows is kind of an irritating operating system to put software into. It has to plug into so many things that you NEED special software to put all those hooks into it. Before Windows, we had far more operating systems where installing was a matter of dropping a folder onto the hard drive. Linux has this to an extent with AppImage, you just drop the Appimage file on the drive and you run it, and everything it needs is inside the executable with no installation.

          Of course, self-installing self-extracting software like that does exist for Linux. There’s even tools for making that sort of archive in the GNU toolkit. https://www.gnu.org/software/sharutils/

          Mostly, it’s the closed-est of the closed source applications that use self extracting executables on linux. Adobe Flash, Oracle Java, Oracle Tarantella/SGD, Crashplan Pro, etc. Many of those have simply stopped working with no good way to continue using them.

  8. I found your article through Tuxmachines. Very thoughtful commentary. Im currently using Manjaro with Deepin after trying multiple distros and so far so good, except for like you mentioned I had to use terminal to setup NFS to mount my Synology NAS. I agree though that if something like Linux Mint, since that seems to be most noob friendly could cut a deal with someone like HP or Dell or even Asus, Acer, which I am very surprised that none of the Asian companies currently offer a linux machine, at least in USA, could go a long way toward making Linux more mainstream

    1. Well it’s one thing for Dell to have a Linux product buried deep within their website, aimed squarely at people who already want Linux.

      But a consumer level product that was aimed at a mass audience would be a whole other thing for Microsoft.

      And I reckon, if I was Mr. Burns and had a big enough stake in an established computer manufacturer to shit diamonds..

      Well, I’d probably think very long and hard about anything that might impact my relationship with the only supplier of the monopoly operating system.

      A startup with no existing customers to protect would be in a whole different situation though.

      That would still require an amount of funding and expertise of course.

  9. Enjoyed your article. I am Windows Free (at home anyway). When I buy a laptop. I first make sure it boots into Windows (hardware works). Shutdown. I then either pull the Windows drive and replace with an SSD (that way I can always go back if I need to take it back) or then install right over the top of Windows (that’s what I did with the last one as the live system worked fine). No dual boot for me. Linux Mint had no problem finding the WiFi on my latest DELL computer. Now if I had the Wifi problem, I’d look at an external USB Wifi dongle (which I have plenty lying around) and go from there. Easy.

    I like Mint Cinnamon because most everything you use in general is there and it is a nice familiar environment… unlike Fedora. I also using LUbuntu on some machines as it is very quick and lightweight. Not a fan of ‘whiz-bang’ user interfaces as I just need a way to pull up applications, get to the command prompt, copy/paste between them and change the background image…. KISS principle.

    BTW, you can get a Linux laptop directly from Dell. One of their lines has the option I believe.

    1. Thanks for dropping past 🙂

      Yeah, I’ve seen those Linux laptops by Dell. They look like they’re very much aimed at Linux’s existing user base. It’s a bit different to the consumer level product I was imagining.

  10. I hacked Linux onto a 2015 Macbook a year or two ago, normally I wouldn’t call an install a hack but I think that one qualified. I feel your pain on the driver situation, I have had to do some ridiculous troubleshooting over the years and I feel like an expert at this point…

    Buying preinstalled systems is way nicer or at least do some homework and make sure you won’t have any major issues for your next laptop. That is if you don’t want mad bragging rights of being one of the brave few who run Linux on some seriously unsupported hardware… ; )

    1. Yeah, that makes total sense.

      Of course, when I bought this machine, I had no idea I would one day not be running Windows on it.

      I think a lot of people who might potentially switch are going to want to install it on the hardware they already have.

      But yeah – you’re totally right – if you can help it, make sure you do your homework before buying a new machine.

  11. The article is awesome. Can I translate it into Chinese, please?

    We are a translating team in China, focus on Linux, open source, and related technologies. We are trying to translate good information technology articles into Chinese, to help Chinese developers get the advance and new technology easily because many Chinese developers are not familiar with English.

    We have translated many articles into Chinese, most of them are under CC license, and some are authorized by the author. We will reserve the origin article web link and author information. We can also send you the published Chinese version article if you want. Our content is under CC-BY-NC-SA unless otherwise stated.

    It will be great if we get the authorizations. Thank you.

  12. Fantastic, well thought out article and replies! Using Linux since 2001 and this is the best read on the Desktop subject I’ve ever seen. Thanks for this.

  13. Very good. You are to be commended for articulating well the problems with Linux acceptance.
    As I was reading this, I was thinking that this is one of the most comprehensive, well thought out commentaries on the problem which I’ve seen. With one exception…
    I can not understand the problems you have had personally with installing Linux.
    I started out with Win 3.1 and worked up to XP; then decided to try Ubuntu 9.04. Switched to Mint 9, and have been using Mint ever since. Stopped at v18.2.
    MY story, which is at odds with yours, is that I have NEVER had a problem. Here’s the workflow:

    1. Get distro on USB stick. Either download the distro’s ISO image and then use any number of programs to ‘burn’ this download to USB; OR buy a ‘pre-burned’ USB stick.
    2. Set computer to boot from USB.
    3. Follow on-screen instructions, which INCLUDES re-partitioning disk if you opt for a dual-boot installation. You do NOT have to do this while in Win.
    4. usually takes about 20 minutes to a complete install.

    Every Linux install has gone this way, even when I was a Windows user and knew nothing about Ubuntu, and then Mint. Which makes the part about your installation difficulties so hard to understand…and also makes it such that I would delete your ‘personal-installation -difficulties’ comments before handing on a copy of this otherwise excellent article to someone who knew nothing about Linux but who wanted a good overview of switching to Linux.

    It IS a very good article. It’s just that, based on my experience as a total Linux dummy, I’m perplexed. I cannot reconcile our two totally different experiences.

  14. I think if Linux ends up the majority platform on the desktop, it will be in the same way that it became the majority platform on the Phones. Some big company making a slickly packaged version that’s almost unrecognizable to linux users. An example of this? ChromeOS. It’s actually getting the ability to run linux programs now though. One company that is doing something like this for loosely connected areas of the world is EndlessComputers, and their EndlessOS. It’s designed to be used completely offline, then to sync up to the internet and update its database during those often brief times when a person does have internet access.

    Personally, I’ve been dabbling in linux off and on since 1994ish. It had never been my main desktop, but since 1999 I’ve always had a secondary desktop system running it to work with, usually linked up via Synergy, Hummingbird Exceed, or XMing.

    Starting about 4 years ago it became my main system. First Linux Mint, and now KUbuntu.

    Installing on a laptop with dual boot is about the hardest scenario for linux installs. Laptops tend to have a lot more custom hardware than desktops, and sometimes even rare hardware that doesn’t have enough critical mass for people to make a linux driver. That said, with the older laptops I have around the house they mostly have very good linux support now, but laptops are probably where it’s best to go with a Puri.sm or System76 computer without dual booting.

    +1 for FreeBSD gaming on consoles.

  15. i don’t understand all the problems you have with installing Linux either. I switched to Ubuntu after Windows 7 came out. The software for my new camera and printer didn’t work, installing Nero meant my hard drives were disabled- by MS.

    I switched to mint when Ubuntu went to Ubiquity.

    I dl the install from the site install it to a USB using software that comes with those distros. Pop it into my machine and press F* during the boot to select the boot device.

    I follow the instructions. Maybe half an hour.

    Windows installs usually took overnight dl-ing updates and such.

    Long ago I began to format any new disk with a separate partition ( or two ) for OSs. I format with GParted.

    I spend some time using the software manager and Synaptic to automatically dl and install other stuff I like. I install a lot of addons to Firefox for security mostly.

    As I have become comfortable with Linux I now install the occasional PPA.

    Much easier to install than Windows, no defragging and running anti virus scans weekly, no blue screen of death, bad updates or blue screens of updating. Just superior in every way for me.

  16. “…Installing on a laptop with dual boot is about the hardest scenario for linux installs…”

    My experience is with only Mint Linux (v17.3 and v18.2; v11 and v13); and on laptops which do NOT present a problem because of ‘secure boot’ and ‘UEFI’ (one does have to do a little homework).
    Having said this, the task of dual-booting is *completely* handled by the installation once the choice is made to ‘dual boot’ vs. “…use the entire disk…” option.
    As stated earlier, the last installation of Mint 18.2 on a (re-furbished) Lenovo T430–while keeping Win10–took no more than 20 minutes.
    One absolutely *does* have to search the internet for information regarding the laptop one intends using; that’s why I use refurbished Lenovos–they have a reputation for being Linux-friendly, and are, to this day, ‘dynamite’ pieces of hardware (mine are a T420 and T430, with memory upgrades to 8 GB–beautiful machines. I’d buy them again, or a 440 or 450 if they weren’t available).

    My next Linux installation, because of deterioration of the Mint ‘franchise’ is going to be of MX-Linux 17.1. I have no idea as to the ability to ‘dual-boot’, but I’ve been following *reputable* reviews of MX-Linux for quite a while. All are very good about reporting problems, and I’ve seen nothing to indicate that ‘dual-booting’ is a problem with MX-Linux.

    1. It’s not exactly that dual booting is a problem with any particular version of linux, and more that it tends to get broken frequently by windows updates, and that it is a more complex scenario in general so there are more things that can go wrong. If it can be avoided, it’s best to avoid it. That’s why I’ve switched all my systems to basically being dedicated for whatever OS they are on. The one system that I multi-boot, is the one with a relatively easily accessible hard drive bay. If I want a different OS, I swap the hard drive out. I have a handful of 120gig PNY SSDs that were $30 each with the appropriate bracket attached for that system. (That one runs OpenIndiana, Haiku, and Midnight BSD. I formerly ran Gentoo on it.)

      1. Your points are *very* well taken; my reason(s) and strategies for dual-booting are the following:

        1) I only ‘dual-boot’ on a new (or re-furbished by an Microsoft-authorized re-furbisher) machine which has a brand-new Windows version installed. I would never recommend that anyone dual-boot Linux onto a machine which has been–and is–running Windows.

        2) So why do I dual-boot? To have a nice, clean copy of Windows in order to–and here’s the important part–run, OFF-LINE, a program which can only run under Windows *if I ever HAVE TO*. I’ll take my chances running that program, because…

        3) I will never, EVER, go on-line while running Windows, and certainly NOT go on-line to Microsoft. This means “no Windows updates from Microsoft”; which updates have, on my reading, resulted in an immeasurable amount of grief for Microsoft users.
        *********************
        So I end up with a Linux-only machine which just happens to contain a ‘virgin’ copy of Windows, and it only requires a small percentage of the total HDD in order to do this. If it turns out that, by never allowing Microsoft to touch my machine, the Windows-only program I want to run WON’T, because I refused to allow Microsoft upgrades which, by all current accounts, introduce as many bugs as they fix…then that means the program was originally designed to run under a buggy original OS, doesn’t it? This describes the vicious cycle of using Windows these days.

        I’ll take my chances: I have a nice, clean version of Windows (I’ve got both Win7 and Win10) IF I EVER NEED IT; and never, ever go on-line when (*IF*) i ever use Windows. Seems to be a reasonable strategy; a reasonable balancing of acceptable trade-offs.

        1. That makes sense. I mostly use VMs for any windows-only applications. There’s only a small subset of programs that won’t run in a VM, (or at least a VM without some sort of virtual GPU) and most of those are AI packages, engineering programs, and games. My one physical windows box is meant for playing low end and old windows games.

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