Let’s get a couple of things out of the way before I begin. I know Matt Asay, I like Matt Asay, and I respect Matt Asay. I am, in fact, slated to moderate a panel for him at his upcoming OSBC conference.
But the one area in which we’ve never seen eye to eye is the Linux desktop. I certainly don’t agree that desktop Linux is “utter crap” compared to Mac or Windows, and I’ve disagreed with his statements on desktop Linux for years, particularly in the area of application installation. Matt’s on the record as not liking the Linux desktop, though I’m not sure why, so the fact that we agree to disagree on this subject is not surprising.
After reading this bit, however:
Where Linux could use serious work is in the installation of programs. Granted, I haven’t put myself through the ordeal in three years, but the last time I tried to install something as simple as Firefox was an exercise in senseless frustration. I’m sure things have gotten better since then. If not, none of the above benefits even remotely redresses that grievous installation experience.
I felt compelled to dust off the screencasting bits and document – visually – the process of application installation and uninstallation.
So if you’ve got a few (~8 – I promise the next few will be shorter) minutes to spare, give the video a whirl. For those of you that don’t enjoy video, let’s do a brief Q&A to take a quick look at application installation.
Q: To begin, anything to disclose?
A: Yes. Canonical, the parent company of Ubuntu, is a RedMonk client. While this video was shot on Ubuntu and captured and processed on Ubuntu, however, it was neither sponsored nor endorsed by the firm.
Q: Now, to the point: is Linux the best desktop operating system?
A: I cannot answer that because, in my view, it is a wrong question. If you were to ask someone whether a Solid State Drive was their best option, you’d need to consider the context: are they looking for performance? Or is the premium in storage capacity? Answers to those questions must precede a solution to the “best” option for a given hard drive selection. If you’re asking whether I universally and unreservedly recommend Linux on the desktop, the answer is no.
Q: I thought you were a believer in Linux on the desktop, and a user yourself?
A: I am indeed a Linux user, and have employed it as my primary desktop since August of 2004. And I would argue that – depending on the context – Linux is an adequate or more than adequate desktop solution. But “believer” tends to imply that usage is a matter of faith, rather than pragmatism, and I don’t think that’s applicable in my case.
For example, in addition to Linux I also run both OS X and Windows internally, as required for testing purposes or for platform specific tools.
Q: But do you like Linux?
A: For my own purposes? Sure. But that doesn’t have much to do with what might be best for you, or any of the people reading this.
Q: So you also recommend non-Linux operating systems?
A: Of course. It’d be silly not to.
True story: the first week of January, I was invited to attend the birthday party of a two year old. This one, to be precise. And before you ask, yes, the Ortiz shirt was my gift: do I know two year old girls or what?
Anyway, also in attendance were several couples that I’ve gotten to know in the years since I moved to Denver. One of these couples happened to inquire as to what I’d recommend they do about upgrading their PC which was both old and overwhelmed by viral infections. My advice? Get a Mac.
Given their particular needs, which include digital music, digital pictures, and video production, my opinion – professionally and otherwise – was that a Mac would be the simplest and most effective solution for their needs. It’s that simple.
When it comes to technology, as opposed to, say, baseball, I try to be both pragmatic and open minded, and not subscribe to the conventional wisdom regarding any of the technologies in question. Mostly because it’s usually both outdated and irredeemably biased.
All three of Linux, OS X and Windows have strengths, just as they have weaknesses. Making the right choice, to me, should amount to little more than understanding how those map to your particular needs.
Q: So is, as Matt has often claimed, application installation a particular weakness for Linux on the desktop?
A: With an exception that I’ll address in just a moment, my view is that Matt is incorrect. In many respects, in fact, I view the application installation process on Linux as superior to that found on Macs or PCs – though I debate the subject regularly with friends on other OSs.
Q: Before we get to the advantages, how is Linux weaker in application installation than Mac or Windows?
A: Just about every Linux distribution you’ll find has what’s called a package management system available to it: Debian/Ubuntu have apt, Fedora has yum, Gentoo has Portage, and so on. These will handle the installation and configuration of literally tens of thousands of applications and application dependencies for you. For those looking for more detail on the subject, I’ve discussed these systems in extensive detail here.
In spite of the package management systems unmatched breadth, however, there do exist applications that are either not packaged for Linux or not packaged for the distribution you happen to be running. And for these applications, Matt and other critics of the Linux installation process are correct: the process for installation is exceedingly difficult for those unfamiliar with Linux. Even untar-ing the application package will be beyond average users.
Examples of applications I’ve installed myself in this fashion include Jungledisk, Last.fm’s client, and Big Board.
Q: Well, if it’s “exceedingly difficult” to install these applications, why do you persist in believing that application installation is easier on Linux?
A: Because these applications are a tiny minority of those available to the Linux platform. As documented in the above video, just about everything a normal user might want to add to the platform – browser, instant messaging client, office productivity software, even popular Firefox plugins – can be simply and easily installed via a few clicks. No searching, no hunting, no downloading: it’s all centrally collected and made available via the repositories. In other words, there are thousands of applications available for immediate, one click installation via your average Linux distribution.
Whatever your platform of choice happens to be, I think it’s difficult to argue that process demonstrated above is any more difficult than that for Mac or Windows. If anything, I think that because users aren’t required to visit a website and download and installable package, the assertion that the installation process is actually easier is certainly defensible.
Q: But what about packages that are not contained in those repositories?
A: Well, some – as mentioned above – are indeed not contained in a friendly packaging format and are therefore more difficult to install than a .exe file on Windows or .dmg on Mac (though even those are sometimes confusing, as some need to be dragged to the Applications folder and some come with installers).
But again, most of the software aimed at end users will be packaged in a system friendly format. Witness the Amazon MP3 store downloader, which is served up in formats appropriate for the most popular end user Linux distributions in Debian, Fedora, OpenSUSE, and Ubuntu.
What is the experience on Ubuntu? Not terribly different from that on Mac or Windows. You download a .deb file, click it, and are greeted by a visual installer that downloads the necessary dependencies, installs them and the Amazon downloader.
Pretty straightforward, in my view.
Q: What about Matt’s contention that even a basic package like Firefox is difficult to install?
A: Well, Ubuntu and many other distributions tend to include Firefox by default, meaning that installation is something of a moot point. But even if it was not, I’ve yet to see a major package management system that does not include a build for Firefox. Installing it or uninstalling it, therefore, should be simply and easily accomplished via the Add/Remove programs application.
Q: Lastly, a bit of an off topic question: what about the installation of Linux itself? Isn’t that something of a challenge?
A: Well, not really. Most Linux distributions these days provide a Live CD that you can boot off of, and choose to install Linux alongside your existing Windows instance. The partitioning step can be confusing, but I’m not convinced there’s a way around that: carving up a hard drive is non-trivial to simplify.
Some of the installers such as Ubuntu’s will even import your Windows account information during the install, which is pretty slick. Not as seamless as a migration from one OS X instance to another, but not bad given the complexity.
But frankly, as I told Erica Ogg a while back, I think the “Linux-is-too-hard-to-install” bit is something of a red herring anyway: installation of any operating system is a challenge. I laid down Windows 2000 on a Thinkpad equipped with a “Designed for Windows 2000″ sticker a few years ago for a friend, and booted into a laptop where the networking didn’t work and the screen resolution was 600 x 400. I’ve reinstalled Windows at last three times for a friend here in Denver, and there are always a few pieces that don’t work and require manual intervention to fix.
So while the installation of Linux isn’t perfect, neither has it been appreciably worse than some of my experiences on other platforms.
Q: If you had to sum up your desktop operating system recommendations, then, they’d look like…?
A: Entirely depends on the needs. Entirely. Under different circumstances, I have and will continue to recommend all three of the most popular desktop operating systems, and see no reason to change that approach.
Different tools for different jobs, and so on.