Windows 10, Steam, and the Year of the Linux Desktop

cautionary
(Image source: xkcd)

Linux folks have been clamoring for a long time – sometimes for good reason, sometimes not – about the “year of the Linux Desktop.”  While this sentiment isn’t clearly defined, from what I have read it could be loosely interpreted as “the year in which Linux use as an every day operating system really started to take off.”  I’m not sure really how you would measure that.  After all, even if Linux as a desktop OS grew 300% in a year, I would imagine it would still fall well behind the number of Windows systems in use.

But, still, I think it’s an interesting statement.  After reading a few threads on Reddit (especially in r/Linux), I have a few thoughts on the issues surrounding this.

First, I think there are a few reasons and/or assumptions made as to why Linux isn’t mainstream use as a desktop OS.  They are as follows:

Ease of Use

A lot of people think that Linux is hard to use.  Sure, depending on what you are wanting to do, it definitely has a learning curve.  Many Windows users aren’t used to dealing with the command line.  Outside of a few commands in the command prompt now and then, it seems foreign.  But even so, many if not most Windows users have never used the “white words on a black screen.”  The file system is also starkly different, using folders all nested in a root directory (denoted by /) which can really point to different drives, devices and even remote locations.  If you’ve never been exposed to this, it will seem weird.

I remember asking myself questions like “What goes in /bin? /opt? /home?” and those are by no means questions that are not understandable to ask.  On top of that, even meany of the myriad of graphical interfaces and desktop environments are pretty different from Windows or Mac, so I can see how they would seem utterly foreign to a user that has never used it.

Fragmentation

Windows is dead simple in the sense that one company makes it, and aside from the denotation between “Home,” “Professional,” “Ultimate,” etc. there is only one version of Windows.  Mac is even simpler…there is OS X and only one iteration of it.  Granted, there are newer and older versions, but that’s sort of like looking at Windows 7 vs. Windows 8 vs. Windows 10.  Linux, on the other hand, has many different distributions (colloquially called distros) available to anyone to use.

How would someone know which one to choose?  Even if you narrowed down the set of features and programs installed by default, many distros even have different spins or flavors that use different desktop environments (see: Ubuntu Gnome or Fedora KDE Spin).  And if one version were to take the cake as being the one to take us to the “Year of the Linux Desktop” which one would it be?

But my Games!

It’s no secret that many games (if not most games) are not available (without some hoops to jump through, at least) in Linux.  Especially games that rely on Microsoft- or Windows-related technologies like DirectX.  Same goes for other software…things like Photoshop or Microsoft office – which, love them or hate them are industry standards – which do not have Linux versions available.  If you play games or use software like the above regularly, wouldn’t Linux turn you off?

Evangelism and the FOSS/GNU “Crazies”

Linux users, in general, tend to want everyone else to use Linux.  Or at the very least, the ones who post on message boards and threads in Reddit tend to be vocal.  If you’ve been using Windows and it works for you, wouldn’t someone trying to cram something else down your throat turn you off from it?  They can be like the Jehova’s Witnesses of the OS software world.  And then there are the Stallman devotees – that I’m jokingly calling the “FOSS/GNU Crazies” here (side note: they’re not crazy, and I’ll get to why a little further on).

They hold the ideals of open source and free software very close to the heart.  And they’re not afraid to talk about it…they are the type of people that have prevented things like closed-source (or non-free as they call it) MP3 codecs from being included in default installations.  Or things most of us get used to using every day, like Adobe Flash (which is available for Linux) or proprietary Nvidia drivers (also available for Linux) from being enabled by default.

Where are my codecs?  Oh, they’re non-free?

If you’re new to Linux, few things will turn you off more than booting from a fresh install (which can sometimes be complicated, although that is thankfully changing lately for most distributions) and not being able to watch YouTube videos or listen to their MP3 collections.  I know in my case, in years past, not wanting to spend time troubleshooting things like this has caused me to go back to Windows.

The landscape has changed though, to a certain degree.  Also, some of these assumptions are false, and here’s why:

Ease of Use

Linux, at least at a surface level, is easier to use than it ever has been.  Most (as in vast majority) distributions install a graphical environment by default, and have a graphical installer that can be run from a live environment bootable from a USB flash drive or DVD/CD.  And most of them do most of the things you want to do automatically…things like partition the hard drive, prompt you to create a user, etc.

There was a time – not too long ago – when distros didn’t even have graphical installers, and you had to know how to use command line utilities to set up your hard disk…worrying about things like separate home partitions or setting up a swap partitions.  Now you don’t even have to know what any of that is.  In fact, many installers will detect if Windows is installed on your computer and automatically set it up as a dual boot, or at the very least present you with the option to.  You can even boot off the USB/DVD/CD for most distributions into a “live environment” and use the operating system albeit a little slower since it is running from a slower medium) and test things out to see if you like it before you install.

Fragmentation

There’s not really a way to get around this one.   There are still many, many distros out there to try.  In fact, there’s probably a lot more than there used to be.  Although I want to say I read an article lately about how there has been some consolidation…but there are still a great many.  The only thing that alleviates this is knowing that most you can “try before you buy” (as a figure of speech – they are almost all free) with a live environment, and if you are not sure what you want there are a few big ones that are the most popular.

And that’s not all about just going with what is popular…the fact is that a popular distro also means there are a lot of users and developers out there who are having problems, solving problems, and posting about it online…meaning when you have a problem, there is a higher likelihood that someone else has had it and another person has posted the solution online.

A good site to get a feel for what is out there is DistroWatch.  You can view many distros, search by features, and rank by popularity.  Below is a table of some of the bigger ones, and why you might want to use them.  This is completely subjective, so I’m sure someone will disagree with at least part of it, and that’s okay.  People will also, I’m sure, lament that their distro of choice isn’t in the table…but I’m trying to keep this simple:

Distribution Reason to Use Default Environment
Fedora You want the latest versions of applications. Gnome
Ubuntu You want something that is somewhat easy and has a ton of user support. Unity
Linux Mint You want to use what is currently the most popular and has one of the easiest interfaces. Cinnamon
Trisquel You care about software freedom more than ease of use or using Flash or listening to MP3’s. Gnome Classic (I think)
Arch You want everyone else to know how awesome you are, because it’s more involved (alternatively, you want to learn more about Linux because you will have to in order to use this). You’re expecting a default GUI?  Noob.
Debian You care less about recent software, and more about stability.  Or you want a server. Gnome
CentOS You want a server, and you want it to be similar to Red Hat Linux. Gnome Classic

Again, this is all subjective.  And you can do almost anything on any distro…you can run a server on Ubuntu, you can install bleeding-edge software on Debian, and you can install other DE’s (desktop environments) on all of these.  And there are many, many others.  These just came to me off the top of my head.

But my Games!

Valve and Steam have done some amazing things.  A good portion of the entire Steam library has been ported to Linux, and Valve has been working on SteamOS, which is a version of Linux, to mesh well with the Steam client and the ports that developers are making.  In addition to this, there is a program called Wine which allows you to run a lot of software designed for Windows on Linux.  There are also alternatives to a lot of software (like Gimp instead of Photoshop, or LibreOffice instead of Microsoft office).  Lastly, you can spin up a virtual machine in something like VirtualBox to run Windows software in, although this doesn’t work well for most games.

Point being, this isn’t nearly as true as it once was.  The selection still isn’t the same, but it’s come a long way and is continuing to improve…and the more people that use Linux, the more demand there will be for this to continue.  Someday, there might be a world where companies like Adobe and Microsoft will release software for Linux…but part of this is also exacerbated by the fragmentation…with a lot of distros out there that sometimes do things differently, making a Linux version of something means you’re trying to hit many moving targets.  Valve and Steam have an interesting approach of including many of their own libraries the software depends on, so it matters much less what is installed on the system itself.

Evangelism and the FOSS/GNU “Crazies”

Arrogant evangelism needs to go away.  Plain and simple.  Linux users aren’t going to “win over” users of other operating systems by being a pompous ass about it.  There are plenty of posts on Reddit that make fun of Windows users, or say things like “well you just need to try Linux because I know you’ll like it.”  Not only is this wrong, but I don’t understand why “winning over” users is such a priority to some people.  People like using what they like, and a lot of people like using what they know.  That’s okay.  Why can’t we just live with that?

And the FOSS/GNU people aren’t crazy.  They’re committed to an ideal moreso than most of us are, but the people on that end of the spectrum – which many see as being extremist – help shift the overall curve.  I’ll never run Trisquel.  I’ll never buy a nice Nvidia graphics card and hobble its performance using an open-source driver.  Things like performance and compatibility are much more important to me.  But, the people who are on the end of the spectrum – the activists – help motivate companies to do things like release source code, or make their own projects free…so it’s a net benefit.

Enter Windows 10 and Renewed Privacy Issues

Windows 10 is now out, and there are plenty of articles talking about how it sends data back to Microsoft almost constantly.  (Like this one, and this one, and many more.)  Or how it uses computers with Windows 10 installed to seed updates as peer-to-peer downloads.  These are valid concerns.  While I know a few Reddit threads don’t represent the entire population, this turns off quite a few people.  They are looking into Linux now, that probably wouldn’t otherwise.  They’re learning more about privacy, control over their own computer, and a great deal of customization.  This could, along with Steam opening up more of their gaming library to Linux, hasten an eventual shift in our direction.

Conclusion

I don’t care what OS you use.  And most people shouldn’t.  In fact, I don’t think anyone should.  If you want to suggest an OS to someone, I think you should to it without being forceful about it.  The “TRY IT YOU’LL LIKE IT” and “WINDOZE IS FOR SUCKAZ” people need to go.  They aren’t helping anyone with anything.  If anything, they’re just turning people off.  People will be more open to Linux if we remove some of the vitriolic compulsiveness of the community.  If we can do that we just might actually see the “year of the Linux desktop” sometime soon.

But if not, who cares?  Linux isn’t going anywhere.  If you like using it, keep using it.  And if you like Windows or Mac, use that too.  It’s no skin off my teeth.  If you want to help someone, be there when they have a question.  Don’t try to drive them to do what you think is best, because after all, it’s best for you, not necessarily them.

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