Unlike the myths that are behind the prevention of Linux adoption, this piece will closely examine the indisputable obstacles and what will have to be done to overcome each of them.
In the past, many desktop Linux users have opted to simply point to the hardware industry or Microsoft as the root cause of a lack of mainstream adoption.
In reality, there are actually core issues extending beyond hardware — and competition from the proprietary markets — that simply must be dealt with head on.
With that said, hardware compatibility and competition from closed-source vendors are valid issues, just not solid core excuses for the lack of mainstream interest. Here are the real hurdles:
Hurdle 1: Consistency And Perception
One of the most annoying factors I find is the lack of consistency with select Linux distributions.
As luck would have it, the most popular of the lot also happens to be the biggest offender.
Ubuntu, based on Debian, is the worst offender when considering the onslaught of feature and compatibility regressions.
Wireless chipsets that worked flawlessly in one release are hosed in the next, suddenly hacks are needed to get Canon scanners working that proved to work quite smoothly just a release ago — the list goes on.
To be clear, this is an Ubuntu issue, not really an desktop Linux issue.
But I find it relevant, because most new users form their perceptions of desktop Linux when they use a distro such as Ubuntu.
And while purists will point out that this type of regression issue could have been by simply using Debian “proper,” the fact remains that most users, despite many recent usability improvements, would be lost using Debian.
So what about PCLinuxOS, SimplyMepis, and Freespire? Wouldn’t they be suitable compromises?
Sure, so long as the user is interested in half the reverent/updated documentation and a fourth the support community.
All three are strong distros, but each lacks the cutting-edge feel of Ubuntu, hence why we always end up back at square one with Ubuntu being perceived as representative of desktop Linux for newcomers.
Hurdle 2: Mobile Device Support Is A Joke
This one is undeniable, unless someone has been drinking from the Kool-Aid again. Pick up any casual mobile phone, PDA, Blackberry, or PocketPC.
Now find a simple means of getting it to sync with your Linux distribution that does not require a ton of tweaking.
But let me be completely fair about this and point to some bright spots:
One of the most accessible implementations of a strong syncing option, the portable device is still lagging greatly. It is however, quite usable for local and web based calendering syncs.
While there is a Funambol solution of sorts, do not expect it to work nearly as cleanly as it would in other operating systems. Ubuntu users for instance, have a nice thread to demonstrate the hassles to be expected — loads of fun there.
Unless you are using a very dated release of Windows Mobile, just forget it.
For most people, going with over-the-air server solutions are the best bet, but open source options that do not require a lot of work, or spending money on a full server, are few. Many have simply opted to use DSLExtreme and their hosted Exchange solutions.
Hurdle 3: Finding Compatible Software When Switching Oses Is Difficult
Now it’s true that resources like osalt.com have made this tremendously easier for users coming off of a proprietary desktop.
But it is unfortunate that resources like this are not immediately available. They’re often not found until the frustration of looking for alternatives becomes set in during a Linux migration.
And even at that, the issue of switching applications and finding them truly usable is still a bit all over the map. My favorite example has to be GIMP vs. PhotoShop or Final Cut Pro vs. anything open source.
GIMP may provide a no-cost alternative to PhotoShop, try telling the PhotoShop user that GIMP is a replaceable solution to their preferred app and they will laugh at you.
The biggest complaint from new GIMP users is the messy work-flow — pure and simple.
Hurdle 4: Wireless Is A Mess
Contrary to popular belief, this is not thanks to a lack of driver modules and chipsets designed to work with desktop Linux.
No, it is the distro developers lack of commitment to making darn sure that open source drivers receive precedence over those of the restricted variety.
Now, I will give some restricted drivers a pass here, but I simply have to roll my eyes at anything with the word Broadcom in it.
From what I have seen and even tried myself, anything using their chipsets will fail 9 times out of 10.
Yet so many Linux distros give credence to this chipset! Why? Because most made for notebooks come with one or two options — Intel or Broadcom.
And increasingly this choice is becoming Broadcom, because it is cheap and Windows friendly.
In the end, users are cheap and want to use what came with their notebooks — very few exceptions here.
Suggest that they go out and purchase from one of the no-name wireless vendors that do support Linux and the user will balk at the very idea.
With this hurdle, I would say there is a shared responsibility. While blaming vendors is getting old, they are part of the problem.
But at its core, responsibility can be seen with those distributions that promote wireless compatibility without promoting the wireless devices that back this up.
Ignore all you like, the single biggest complaint with migration to Linux is and has always been wireless compatibility.
Hurdle 5: Hardware Compatibility Lists
The day we can kick this term to the curb will be a happy day indeed. OS X and Windows enjoy easy-to-understand labels on the sides of boxes for a deeper understanding of which OS that device will function with.
Any needed drivers are happily included on a CD and are even available for easy download from the manufacturer’s web site.
With desktop Linux, I don’t think so. No, you are bound to the words on a web page for your distro called a HCL or hardware compatibility list.
And in some cases, these lists are horribly out of date, and even when they are not, do not even approach the value of having the hardware vendor supporting your product.
Now there have been improvements here, such as with Creative and HP. Both companies maintain open source web sites with drivers, documentation, and other help for getting a fair selection of their products working.
Unfortunately, most people would never know this unless they already had the device, did some research, and if lucky, stumbled upon this fact.
Hurdle 6: When A New Driver Module Is Needed, It Means Compiling
While software management with distributions using dpkg and RPM are light years ahead of their proprietary counterparts, driver installation is painful.
Let me be clear, I have been using Linux distributions of one flavor or another for years. Yet compiling a new module into the mix is one of the most detested things in the world as far as I am concerned.
Not because I am unable to chase down the series of errors that will come about from missing this, that, or the other thing.
Rather, the simple fact is that it is NOT duplicable. Unless you are an experienced hobbyist, possess Zen-like patience, or have experience as a Linux system admin, there is no way on this Earth anyone is going to have success here.
I say this having tried to, along with others, walk users through this jungle.
To reiterate, compiling at its purist is easy. Getting it to work without massive headaches is a joke unless you possess some basic old-school experience.
Hurdle 7: Serious Commercial Interest
Let me further qualify. Novell, Red Hat, IBM, Intel, and countless others have put in millions of hours and untold sums of cash into making sure that Linux is in a position to do what they need it to do.
And during the process, a number of things have been given back to the community. Unfortunately, movies and music companies are not on this list.
This said, Amazon is taking the bull by the horns and appears to be changing this to a fair extent.
They are currently offering their downloadable, DRM-free music to Linux users via a new made-for-Linux application.
This is very cool. Just one problem — they sell MP3s. Now assuming you are willing to dance around the controversy here in the states over IP rights and the MP3 itself, great.
But it is a lot like selling Microsoft Office for Linux. Sure, people would use it, but I am willing to bet an even greater number would appreciate access to something “like” StarOffice, which is based on the open source product, OpenOffice.
So it seems to me seeing Amazon offering both MP3s and Ogg Vorbis music files would make me feel a lot better.
Then there is the problem of mainstream blockbuster movies being accessible on the Linux platform.
If you happen live outside of the U.S. or simply are not concerned with the undefined rules as to using libdvdcss, and its behind-the-scenes use of brute force decryption, then this is not a hurdle for you.
Unfortunately for those who wish to sell PCs with DVD playback already installed in the US, this is a concern.
The simplest way around this is by using the Linux distribution known as Mandriva, or buying a PC from Dell who now bundles select models with Ubuntu and MPAA-safe DVD viewing options.
As you can see, it is quite a mess and the idea has largely frightened away most retailers as they would just as soon stay in the clear regardless of what the law in the US actually dictates.
After all, you can sue anyone for just about anything. And principle can become mighty expensive really quickly.
Hurdle 8: Off-the-shelf Software
With efforts coming from sources like Linspire’s CNR project, seeing software for sale on the Linux platform is slowly becoming more accessible.
Despite this, many people are going to find that even though many of the freely available open source applications are pretty good, they may not outwardly replace proprietary alternatives.
Hence a trip the local big box store.
It is of small consequence to power users, but to the average computer owner, access to software from the store does indeed matter.
Hurdle 9: Workarounds vs. Fixing The Bugs
Again, unlike proprietary operating systems, the Linux method is going to go one of two ways. Use the older, working version or consider a lame workaround as a solution.
Coming back full circle and in some instances, this is just an extension to hurdle #1, the workaround has become the Band-Aid for select distributions while bug reports remain seen as “non-critical.”
Again, mature, slower-moving distros may not have this issue. Too bad, however, that no one outside of the local Linux User Group happens to be using it.
Fedora, Debian, OpenSuSE, Mandriva, among others, are not making headlines. These distros while fine, are not even in the same loop of new users.
It is Ubuntu and PCLinuxOS that is making the waves today. Unfortunately, Ubuntu keeps falling on its face and PCLinuxOS, while good, is not getting the same kind of third part support goodies as Ubuntu does.
Between the two, you end up with a real Catch-22. And with both, workarounds are widely accepted as “good enough.”
Hurdle 10: Apologists And Purists
Generally speaking, I have found one to be a lot like the other. Because Linux overall has 100 benefits to the 10 hurdles I have presented here, this article will be flamed by various Linux groups under the apologist’s favorite crutch — the term FUD.
Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt continue to be overused, and thus, they lose their sting when purists attack anything written that those users happen to disagree with.
I have been using one distro or another longer than many of the “purists” out there, yet somehow I managed to spend my time finding real solutions to problems I see listed above, while others work really hard at making sure that the new Linux populous is being fed a continuous tablespoon of hot air.
Newsflash — desktop Linux, like Windows and OS X, has some real flaws. This does not mean people should not use it, but it would indicate the reasons why most people you park in front of it are not jumping onto the Linux bandwagon.
I love the fact that I am not bound by Microsoft’s OS any longer. Not out of some mission to destroy the man or turn the software industry into some FOSS based crusade, rather because it is stable with an educated hand running the OS and allows me to use my PC as I see fit.
This does not mean however, that I grow tired of marketing spin and purist hot air about how new users need to become “better educated” to further overcome challenges with making the Windows switch.
I say nonsense! There’s nothing wrong with someone wanting Linux to better meet their needs, just so long as it does not destroy the freedoms of purist users.
And to be fair, more purists today are becoming more comfortable with this.
From about 2005 thru this year, I have seen real improvement as to how new users are received when presenting questions or feedback that advanced users might deem as archaic or unnecessary.
But there remains one last “bug” that needs to be stamped out and it is the very tired term FUD.
It is the automatic weapon on the apologist for any OS, and it allows them to create negative feelings without even needing to bother with a discernible point.