Linux/FOSS | Technology

Do this, or Linux on the Desktop will be out of reach forever

October 12, 2014

The temptation to name each New Year the ‘Year of the Linux Desktop’ became so regular in the mid 2000s that it evolved into a metajoke. If magazines and websites still do it, it’s with tongue firmly in cheek. Every now and again a Raspberry Pi comes along and a few eyebrows guiltily rise, questioning, hopeful.

But it’s just not going to happen. Not until a few things change.

Ironically, the phenomenon which brings this into stark contrast is the gradual rise of Chrome OS, the Linux-based Web-centric operating system from Google. There are ‘chromebooks’ (laptops) and ‘chromeboxes’ (desktop computers).

You mean, Linux On The Desktop??!?

No – not even desperate fanboys and open source zealots (in fact, especially not those people) would happily call Chrome OS ‘desktop Linux’. It’s a special case: only for those with a permanent and reliable net connection – and if anything it’s more geared towards one corporate interest than Windows ever was.

But the interesting thing is that it’s the first popular desktop OS – the first to find friends with multiple manufacturers – to rise since… well, the beginning of the 1980s. Why is that? And what can Linux learn if there’s ever going to be a Year of the Linux Desktop?

Dump the Middle Class approach

Linux had a surge of interest in the mid to late 2000s. Ubuntu emerged from nowhere and eclipsed the tiny gaggle of distributions (‘distros’) like Suse, Debian, Red Hat and Fedora which were having rather a fun time jostling for position. Then netbooks came along and Linux showed the world just how well it ran on weak hardware.

Unfortunately, netbooks were rubbish and no one mourned their passing, especially once the iPad launched a whole new class of device. Another opportunity had passed Linux by.

The ongoing problem is partly a conceit on the part of Linux developers and enthusiasts (including me) that, as soon as Linux could ‘prove’ itself to be a superior technology – faster, more stable, secure – the public would flock to it in droves. A similar pride possesses the middle class, who believe that as soon as everyone is taught just how nice a liberal easy-going approach to life is we’ll immediately declare world peace and maniacs will stop bombing the crap out of each other.

There’s a failure to see things from the other side.

Customers with netbooks in their grubby mitts for just a few days took them back, confused by the unfamiliar interface and the inability to download a dozen browser toolbars before breakfast. The superiority of Linux technology was far from self-evident.

Chrome OS beats Linux – by being worse

So what is it about Chrome OS, which is not a Linux desktop OS but also is (but isn’t)? It takes a different tack, of which anyone trying to flog something to the public would be advised to take heed.

First, lets get the elephant out of the room. Google is obviously a massive powerhouse of a company. It’s a household name, and it has the marketing dollars to shove anything into the living rooms of whomever it pleases. But marketing dollars don’t stop people being dissatisfied, or prevent them taking stuff back to the shop. It’s the other elements of Chrome OS – its weaknesses – which are (simultaneously) its greatest strengths.

Chromebooks started out as little more than low powered laptops which ran the Chrome Browser and nothing else. You could do anything online, but very little offline. It was so locked down that you couldn’t imagine a hacker getting in. In fact, you could clearly picture how cheap, locked down and one-use it was. Now, as more offline support is added, Chromebooks become only more useful, while retaining their hack-free image. They might be the only laptop you need, despite their limitations.

Linux, on the other hand, is ‘like Windows, but better’. It’s ‘sold’ to us as the operating system that solves all Windows’ problems: no more viruses, no more Blue Screens of Death (BSOD). But the other side of the story, the one which Chrome OS flaunts, are the limitations. Linux won’t run MS Office, Photoshop, most games, the next cool thing due out…

“But you can run Wine, or dual boot…”

“Dual boot?! You mean, I’ll still be running Windows when I ‘switch’?”

Chrome OS is not meant to be ‘better than Windows’. Linux, however, is. And it fails on that count.

What’s the lesson for Linux?

There’s a common refrain in marketing: state the benefits, not the features. A knife isn’t ‘the sharpest’, it’s the one which makes chopping ‘easier’. What will the product do for me?

What will Linux do for you? Well, what does Chrome OS do?

  1. Chrome OS is simple (its function, its nature, can be explained in a sentence)
  2. Chrome OS is very secure (it cannot easily be altered)
  3. Chromebooks are the cheapest laptops around

Chrome OS boils down to this: if you don’t mind losing a little functionality, you can spend a lot less on a new laptop, without getting a ‘cheap’ laptop, and gain a whole lot of security in return.

Linux, meanwhile:

  1. doesn’t get viruses (like Windows with a decent AV?)
  2. is faster (on my Core i3?)
  3. is free (when did I last pay for Windows?)

It’s like Windows, except better in all the ways that don’t matter to normal people, and disappointing in all the ways that do.

Linux offers features, not benefits. It is better, feature for feature, than Windows, and has more features than Chrome OS, but it’s limitations mean the latter has sold more on the high street.

Linux needs to identify its benefits, and needs to find a niche, a platform, where it can thrive where Windows couldn’t even work.

Where Linux has benefits

The obvious first area is in the server room, where true geeks benefit from ultimate control over their hardware. Where windows, icons, mice and pointers are a positive hindrance. Another place is in the aforementioned Raspberry Pi, where the restricted hardware makes a custom Linux distro the only option. A few other uses: technicians’ live CDs, Steam OS, reviving old desktop towers and laptops.

But these are minority cases, so don’t help us get into PC World. Where does Linux belong on the modern, popular desktop?

Linux’s benefits are all (so far) for the developers and technicians. Free and open source code means you can take it, tweak it, try it, implement it independently. How can the Geeks translate this benefit to end users in a useful way?

It’s not enough these days to get ahead of the curve, like Linux has tried to do. You need to create your own curve, your own roadmap. To get out of the habit of following others, you have to create your own road, even.

The great successes of the last few years have done just this. Apple has the greatest track record, revolutionizing the fields of MP3 players, mobile phones and then tablet computers by breaking away from what went before, by ignoring the competition. Chrome OS likewise broke away from following usual laptop trends. Linux-for-the-desktop needs to do the same, in the desktop computer space itself, while taking advantage of the technical freedom it offers. Sod the rest.

How would it do this? There’s no one answer, naturally, but for starters consider the desktop environment. Microsoft and Apple are very tied to their desktops. Windows 8 has cemented the ‘Microsoft look’ on desktops running Windows, whether users like it or not, and OS X’s desktop is just as distinctive to that platform. The respective desktops of the two major OSs are one of the most recognisable – and static – features of those systems. In contrast, Linux is almost cursed with an ever-changing variety of (infinitely customisable) desktop interfaces.

This caused no little problem when Gnome 3 and KDE 4 were first released. But those disasters, and the unchanging nature of rival OSs, is at the same time the opportunity Linux needs in order to become the most desired system in town. With the infinite possibilities offered by the Linux ecosystem, coupled to a talented interface designer, there’s literally no limit to how good a desktop the open source world could produce.

Redefine the desktop experience

Early screenshots of Gnome 3 were much more ambitious than even the controversial finished product turned out. Developers: take this idea, and run with it! Produce a custom system, unavailable on commercial OSs, which blows the others out of the water. Make it touch and gesture friendly. Make it simple to code for, make it so unfamiliar and yet intuitive. Use skeuomorphism and use flat design and use spinning cubes and … well, use your imagination. Just break away completely, even if you have to produce a whole new collection of basic apps (email, browser, music player) to take advantage of it.

“You can’t install Office, Photoshop, the GIMP, Inkscape, Firefox, iTunes…”

“Oh. Why not?”

“Because they’re not good enough. They’re from the old paradigm, they use mouse pointers, clicking, dragging… ugh. With this, you-”

Finish that sentence for me. Create a system which is so revolutionary, so brilliant, that a five minute test-drive in Currys Digital makes it difficult, painful even, to go home to your old PC.

Make it a must-have, an first-impression hit. There are no boundaries to what you can produce, so abandon all former thinking, all inspiration form mere commercial rivals. Reach for the stars. Make Linux the only good system, despite its limits.

Give the new system zero learning curve, then you’d buy your granddad one, your blind Aunt Sally another, and you’d get two for yourself.

Come on devs, get your paintbrushes out and invite your bespectacled UXer friends round for beer and pizza.

Get the whiteboards out, the Kinects and the capacitive screens.

Put your best Linux hats on too, and redefine the personal computer around the Penguin.