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  • August 2018
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Do I really want Linux to be mainstream?

Lately, I’ve viewed a lot of videos on YouTube about why Linux is more dominant on the desktop. Most of them seem to cover pretty much the same ground. Among the common reasons given are:

  • Too many distributions and desktop environments to choose from
  • A lack of standardization for Linux desktop environments
  • Lack of presence in the marketplace, particularly in retail outlets
  • Users don’t want to install their own operating systems
  • Difficult to use, high learning curve, change in work flow
  • Fear of the command line or the perception that the CLI is outmoded
  • Perception that Linux users are geeks and technically inclined
  • Lack of applications and games
  • Little corporate organization and sponsorship
  • Little effort/interest in the Linux community to make it mainstream

There are other reasons but these are the ones that immediately come to mind. I’d like to address them individually.

1. Too many distributions and desktop environments to chose from. I see having a multitude of choices as a positive. With Windows and Mac you essentially only have one choice. With Linux, you can use the distribution and desktop of your choice. If the one you choose doesn’t suit you, you can change it and if you set up your system right, you can make the change without losing your data. You can usually install a Linux distribution and be up and running in less than 30 minutes. It can be difficult to decide on a distribution so do some research. Download some distros, load them onto USB drives and try them out in a live environment from the USB drive. Or find yourself an old computer and test things out on that.
2. A lack of standardization for Linux desktop environments. I don’t see this as a big problem. The Linux kernel is standardized and while there are a few niche desktop environments, there are a few common ones such as XFCE, MATE, Gnome, Cinnamon, and Unity. There may be subtle differences in the way each of them work in different distributions, but they provide pretty much the same basic functionality. I don’t really see a need for a “standardized” desktop. I like the variety that’s available and having choices. Windows and Mac each have their own standardized desktop and and if you don’t like them, you’re stuck with them.
3. Lack of presence in the marketplace, particularly in retail outlets. This is a problem. The computer manufacturers don’t push Linux systems. Many of them have long-standing relationships with Microsoft and they don’t see enough demand for Linux on the desktop to push Linux. Some manufacturers do offer Linux as a choice in their on-line sales but they don’t go out of their way to promote it. There are a few companies that specialize in building Linux systems but it’s a niche market and their products tend to be a little pricey.
4. Users don’t want to install their own operating systems. That’s understandable. They want to buy a computer and have it work right out of the box. They’re not interested in getting inside the box and tinkering with things. I get that. I happen to enjoy installing my own operating systems. I’ve been doing it since I started messing with computers – MS-DOS, many versions of Windows, and several Linux distributions, but that’s me. Sometimes it’s been a real pain in the butt.
5. Difficult to use, high learning curve, change in work flow. These are common perceptions and there is some truth to them. Linux has gotten much easier to use over the past several years. It takes some getting used to and you’ll have to unlearn some things and learn some new things. Linux doesn’t work like Windows or Mac OS and the applications you’ll use won’t work exactly the same as what your used to. Let’s face, a lot of people don’t like to learn new things and they like to stick with what’s familiar.
6. Fear of the command line or the perception that the CLI is outmoded. I hear this a lot, even from Linux users. In many distributions, you can do almost everything you need to do from a GUI and rarely, if ever, have to use the command line or a terminal. On the other hand, the command line can be your friend and is not something to be feared. A lot can be accomplished in the terminal either form the command line or through scripts that would be cumbersome and time consuming in a GUI. Even in Windows there are tasks that are best handled in a terminal.
7. Perception that Linux users are geeks and technically inclined. This is not as true as it once was. You don’t have to be a geek or a technical person to use Linux any more. For many non-technical Linux users, it just works and it works on older hardware.
8. Lack of applications and games. That’s rapidly changing. For most tasks there is an application to do it. It probably won’t have the look and feel or do everything the corresponding Windows application does and you may have to change your work flow a bit. I’m not a gamer but more games are being ported to Linux all the time.
9. Little corporate organization and sponsorship. For the most part, Linux is the work of communities of developers and users. There are a few Linux corporate entities but nothing like the monolithic giants of Microsoft and Apple. However, major corporations are getting involved in Linux and I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing. Overall, Linux seems to be organic in nature and I think that too much corporate intrusion, especially by companies like Microsoft and Google, will pollute the landscape. Their influence could possibly force changes in Linux that would push out smaller players, leaving us with fewer choices and more bloat and feature creep.
10. Little effort or interest in the Linux community to make it mainstream. I heard this in a YouTube video recently and I think there’s a lot of truth to it. While many in the Linux community lament that Linux isn’t mainstream, I suspect that many of us actually prefer it that way. We are the outliers, the nonconformists, the misfits, and the mavericks. If Linux were to become mainstream we’d be just like everybody else. I fear that if Linux became as mainstream as Mac or Windows, we’d all be forced into a box with only a few surviving distributions, not much different than Mac and Windows. That is a frightening thought.

I encourage the use of Linux on the desktop and I’d like to see it more widely adopted. I want people to liberate themselves from the bondage of closed operating systems and software. But people don’t like change or learning something new, even if it leads to their liberation. To quote Thich Nhat Hanh, “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”

While I would very much like to see wider adoption of Linux I don’t want it to dumbed down to the lowest common denominator with only a few standardized, pedestrian, one size fits all distributions, no different than Mac or Windows.

I use Linux because it works for me and it gives me the freedom to choose how my computers will work and to configure them to meet my needs. With Linux, my computer belongs to me and it works for me. I’m not at the mercy of some monolithic corporation who decides when my operating system and my hardware are obsolete. Linux gives me control over my computers and my computing environment.

“It’s never wrong to introduce a child to Linux.”

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