Utter Crap?: Matt Asay and The Linux Desktop Q&A (and Video)

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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.


  1. I felt compelled to reply both with humorous notes and serious ones. I’ll get the humor out straight away so as to let those with short attention spans laugh a bit and move on.

    You say; “when it comes to technology, as opposed to, say, baseball, I try to be both pragmatic and open minded” – smart move for we all know that sports fans can not be pragmatic nor open minded ๐Ÿ™‚

    Now for the pertinent comments …

    Package managers have a couple of noted flaws. While they do give the user a “one stop shopping” experience, they also “stock the shelves” with preselected product. aka, there may be a perfectly good package for your Linux platform but it may not be referenced by the package manager and very often the package manager is out of date. My most recent examples of this include Liferea feed reader, PDFEdit, and ffmpeg for video conversion. There are ways to extend the package manager but those are not much easier to understand for the lay person than dealing with TARs and Gzip files.

    Where Ubuntu and other Linux distributions fall flat on their faces is “device driver support”. this is not the fault of the distributions as much as the device manufactures. But you can not blame them. It is shear economics – there is a tiny fraction of linux users spread across a multitude of Linux distributions. Compare that to the comparative avalanche of Windows users and you can understand there is not enough money is supporting blackberry, or USB headsets, or ATI graphics.

    As an aside, I attempted to have my parents (in their 70’s) run Linux for their “web computer”. It turned out to be too challenging. The problems again were “device support”. There were idiosyncrasies between Ubuntu and their wireless network and there were no drivers for their all-in-one printer/fax/scanner.

    disclaimer: I use Ubuntu on 2 of my 3 computers. I use Windows XP on the 3rd to run critical Windows only software. I have two “appliances” that run Linux in firmware (but you wouldn’t know it if you didn’t *really* want to).

  2. I am a Linux user and AGREE that the desktop is utter crap to a new user.

    Imagine most of the new user who is used to a ms machine, they are so used to the interface. Yet when we introduce them to Linux, most of us recommended Ubuntu.

    For god’s sake, can you imagine someone who is used to left hand drive and suddenly have to switch to a right hand drive vehicle?

    Learning another language what uses the same 26 alphabets is definitely easier, than one that resembles some mythic drawing, right?

    We should introduce new users to new user friendly distro like, PCLinuxOS (though I myself never uses it) instead of Ubuntu (damn it, even PCBSD is a better option to new users than Ubuntu) – if we are really interest to get ms users converted.

    GNOME’s interface is good, provided if you are already a linux user.

    KDE’s interface is great, especially to those who are coming from a ms environment.

    Linux infighting is what will kill Linux altogether.

  3. I first dipped my toe in the water with Linux in ’99 with Redhat 5.2.
    I am still using it today and still happy too.
    BUT if I had not discovered KDE and Gnome was my only option, I seriously doubt I would have bothered persisting.
    From time to time I will see where Gnome is in comparison to KDE and I still see no reason to use Gnome and I see less reason in asking new potential Linux converts to try Linux via Gnome.

  4. The only thing lacking in usability of the Linux desktop for average users is adequate configuration, out-of-the-box. I regularly install Linux for unsophisticated users. A half-hour or so of configuration and such users consistently find Kubuntu easier to use than any form of Windows.

    As to installing software, remind the critics that to compare Linux to Windows or the Mac, they must read the EULAs to perform a compliant install. After they do so, ask them then how easy a Win/Mac install is.

  5. I’ve been using Linux at home exclusively for years (I think Slackware 2 was my first install, but RedHat 5.2 was the permanent switching point), and have until recently been of the opinion that non-technical people would find any distro challenging.

    Enter Kubuntu…

    I’ve installed it for half a dozen people now — all of them non-technical folks. The only complaint I’ve had is from my friend’s 18 year old who can’t Photoshop on it (although I’ve heard rumors that it’s doable with wine) and is too stubborn to spend a few hours learning gimp. My neighbors, in their 70s, are basic web-browser / email / word processing folks — No problems, once I spent $15.00 on a D-Link USB wireless adapter to replace a generic something-or-other.

    Did I have to do all the configuring for all these folks? Yes, of course… but I’d been doing the same things for most of them on their Windows boxes, too … so that’s a moot argument for me.

    I think Linux on the desktop is now a viable solution…

  6. I feel that sometimes as highly skilled technical users we fail to look at software from a very basic level.

    How do users currently acquire software for Windows? By searching the internet using a web browser or by purchasing off-the-shelve software at retail outlets. It’s not very obvious how to acquire new software. It’s a process that doesn’t come easily for less advanced users.

    I feel the Linux desktop has an advantage over Windows due to it’s package management facilities, especially in Ubuntu, Kubuntu, etc. The user can search for keywords and find software, in most instances installing it in one-click.

    However, I do feel the list of available software should be vetted for non-technical users by default to keep users from installing software that may confuse or corrupt their systems. Obviously, this process would be very subjective. I believe right now packages are classified by stability and proprietary status (free vs. non-free).

    I agree with you RedMonk, the Linux desktop is not “utter crap” as some may believe.

  7. I disagree with Caes’ and Matt’s assertion that the Linux desktop us U-C for a new user. Just being different from Windows does not automatically qualify it as U-C. Heck, if that were the case then most of Vista and the new MS Office suite qualifies as U-C – the users of them I have talked to (I’ve never used Vista) say it is all new/different/bad.

    A truely new user is going to have to learn a whole lot of idioms – file managers, files/folders, windows, icons, click/drag, double-click, right-click, etc. This is a steep learning curve on any OS. I’ve suffered through teaching several computer illiterate but otherwise intelligent people about it. Mostly on the Windows interface. Blech. Not something I ever want to do again. It would be just as hard to teach them KDE or Gnome, but they “learned” on XP. I’ve also introduced some XP types to both KDE and Gnome. Once they get past the block of “but Windows has it here, or does it this way” and actually think about what they are trying to do, they pick up KDE or Gnome pretty quick. I’ve also helped users go from XP to OSX. Note, I don’t know anything about OSX. But we were able to figure out the usual stuff relatively quickly. No more so or less so than the people I’ve introduced to KDE/Gnome. Interfaces are different, but people who focus on the idea behind what they want to do, and not on memorizing interfaces by rote will have no problems moving from Windows to KDE, Gnome, or OSX.

  8. Phil writes “Interfaces are different, but people who focus on the idea behind what they want to do, and not on memorizing interfaces by rote will have no problems moving from Windows to KDE, Gnome, or OSX.”

    True, but you over look an important point: The users who are most efficient at using a PC are the ones who do memorize the interface – especially the shortcuts. When you change the interface, you force them to think about the “mechanics” of what they are doing.

    This is one area where following the defacto standard will benefit Linux (nevermind that MS frequently violates this concept)

    BTW, I use – and love – FluxBox on Debian Linux

  9. I’ve been a Unix user for 18 years, a Gnome User for almost as long. I’ve used KDE many times and I’ve installed different flavors of Linux, Unix, and Windows (98, 2000, NT, XP) many, many times.

    Furthermore, I’ve installed many applications on both Linux and Unix, and obviously, many many apps on Windows.

    Fundamentally, the flaw with Linux, I feel, is this: distribution, and communication of what it is that’s being distributed. While the recent applications installers on Linux is frankly awesome as compared to what it was, this is fundamentally different from what someone expects when coming from a MS environment.

    Specifically, the act of downloading a specific install file, and pretty much being guaranteed that the install file will install an executable, and that that executable will run, pretty much every time you install anything.

    That expectation simply cannot be there in the current Linux environment, regardless of what UI you pick to go on top of the fundamentals. Too many inter-package dependencies. Too many library dependencies. Insufficient guarantees that it will work.

    If we go back and talk about the application installer services in Linux, these are absolutely fantastic and resolving these dependencies. But here, distribution is a problem. Instead of searching for something under google, clicking a link and then having the app installed, a user with Linux must find out what they are interested in, and THEN BEGIN SEARCHING. Does the Linux distro they have support the particular app they’re interested in? Can the app even be found, wading through the thousands of apps available on the distribution? Is it exactly the same verison, can you get the latest? etc and etc.

    The average user wants to click the button, download something, then maybe double click the downloaded result on their desktop. That’s what grandma and grandpa can do with little re-education.

    Please, me==#1 linux fan. Linux has completely changed my life in so many ways. But until these issues are simply solved? No way Linux can be a platform for the average user.

    Best Regards,

  10. Since you were nice enough to disclose that Ubuntu is a client, it may also be noteworthy that Alfresco, Matt’s employer, sells a document and content management solution that happens to integrate with MS Office and Windows better than it does with Linux and OpenOffice. Alfresco produces the MS Office add-ins for direct Alfresco functionality inside Office. There is a project for similar support for OpenOffice but it appears to be driven from the OpenOffice community, not from Alfresco.

    I don’t blame Alfresco for this prioritization, they are after the largest possible market which is Office, not OpenOffice. I am observing the possibility that this also carries over to the Windows vs Linux on the desktop space and needs to be considered in Matt’s views.

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