What needs to happen for Linux to make it on the desktop

Last Updated on April 14, 2017 by Dave Farquhar

I saw an editorial at Freshmeat that argued that there’s actually too much software for Linux. And you know what? It has a point.
I’m sure some people will be taken aback by that. The number of titles that run under Windows must number into six digits, and it’s hard to walk into a computer store and buy Linux software.

But I agree with his argument, or at least most of it. Back in my Amiga days, the first thing people used to ask me was, “What, do you not like software?” Then I asked why they felt the need to have their choice of 10 different word processors, especially when they’d just buy pirate Microsoft Word or WordPerfect anyway. (Let’s face it: Large numbers of people chose PCs in the early 90s over superior architectures was because they could pirate software from work. Not everyone. Maybe not even the majority. But a lot.) I argued that one competent software title in each category I needed was all I wanted or needed. And for the most part, the Amiga had that, and the software was usually cheaper than the Mac or PC equivalent.

Linux is the new Amiga. Mozilla is a far better Web browser than IE, and OpenOffice provides most of the functionality of Microsoft Office XP–it provides more functionality than most people use, and while it doesn’t always load the most complex MS Office documents correctly, it does a much better job of opening slightly corrupt documents and most people don’t create very complex documents anyway. But let’s face it: Its biggest problem is it takes an eternity to load no matter how fast your computer is. If it would load faster, people would be very happy with it.

But there is nothing that provides an equivalent to a simple database like Access or Filemaker. I know, they’re toys, and MySQL is far more powerful. But end users like dumb, brain-dead databases with clicky GUI interfaces on them that they can migrate to once they realize a spreadsheet isn’t intended to do what they’re trying to do with it. Everyone’s first spreadsheet is Excel. Then someday they realize Excel wasn’t intended to do what they’re using it for. But you don’t instantly dive into Oracle. You need something in between, and Linux doesn’t really have anything for that niche.

People are constantly asking me about a WYSIWYG HTML editor for Linux as well. I stumbled across one. Its name is GINF. Yes, another stupid recursive-acronym name. GINF stands for “GINF is not Frontpage.” How helpful. What’s wrong with a descriptive name like Webpage-edit?

More importantly, what was the first non-game application that caught your fancy? For most people I know, it was Print Shop, or one of the many knockoffs of Print Shop. People love to give and receive greeting cards, and when they can pick their own fonts and graphics and write their own messages, they love it even more. Not having to drive to the store and fork over $3.95 is just a bonus. Most IT professionals have no use for Print Shop, but Linux’s lack of alternatives in that department is hurting it.

Take a computer with a CPU on the brink of obsolesence, a so-so video chipset, 128 megs of RAM and the smallest hard drive on the market, preload Linux on it along with a fast word processor that works (AbiWord, or OpenOffice Writer, except it’s not fast), a nice e-mail client/PIM (Evolution), a nice Web browser (Mozilla), and a Print Shop equivalent (bzzzt!), and a couple of card games (check Freshmeat) and you’d have a computer for the masses.

The masses do not need 385 text editors. Sysadmin types will war over vi and emacs until the end of time; one or two simple text-mode editors as alternatives will suffice, and one or two equivalents of Notepad for X will suffice.

Linux’s day will eventually arrive regardless, if only because Microsoft is learning what every monopolist eventually learns: Predatory pricing stops working once you corner the market. Then you have to raise prices or find new markets. Eventually you run out of worthwhile markets. So in order to sustain growth, you have to raise prices. Microsoft is running out of markets, so it’s going to have to raise prices. Then it will be vulnerable again, just like Apple and CP/M were vulnerable to Microsoft because their offerings cost more than Microsoft was willing to charge. And, as Microsoft showed Netscape, you can’t undercut free.

But that day will arrive sooner if it doesn’t take a week to figure out the name of the Linux equivalent of Notepad because there are 385 icons that vaguely resemble a notepad and most of them have meaningless names.

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12 thoughts on “What needs to happen for Linux to make it on the desktop

  • April 8, 2003 at 2:00 am

    I got several comments to your post. While I agree that the world doesn’t need 385 text editors, this is one of the things that make Linux Linux. True, I can find it irritating as well, but Linux has always been about choice and freedom to do whatever you want to do.

    Enter consumer distros like RH, SuSE, Mandrake, Xandros and so on. These distro’s are aimed at “users” and not techies so I belive that these distros have to do a good job of weeding out the “techie” stuff and narrowing down choices in order to make newbies and non-tech users productive. After all, if you pay for such a distribution then you are not paying for the software but you are paying for them to set it up for you so that it works. In my opinion that includes limiting the amount of choices for text editors, etc so that you don’t become bogged down in that jungle. However, I like to have the choice of finding a tool that better fits my purposes, if it is found out there and I belive that many like to have the choice of building a tool just the way they like it (and publishing it) just because they can’t find the exact functionality that they need.

    As for Access and Filemaker, this is being addressed in OpenOffice actually. They are building a graphical front end to MySQL and so on. This is still work in progress but I think that it will become a decent alternative in the near future. And OpenOffice does take its time to start, but you forgot to mention the fact that it is only that way for the first document you open. Opening a second document is as least as fast as Word/Excel etc. If that startup time is irritating then use ABIWord or Koffice components which will most probably provide you with the functionality you need anyway.

    As for WYSIWYG HTML editors, there is one also found in Mozilla that is OK for simple needs.

    I find it a bit worrying that more and more articles on the net that deal with Linux on the desktop or Linux or “this is what is needed to make Linux succeed” type of articles all have this angle that Linux needs to be more like Windows. I find that a bit terrifying, and I find that most of the writers that write them are actually old Windows users that have no clue about the Unix model that Linux builds upon.

    An example would be the complaints you see on functionality within programs. Take CD recording for example. In Linux, you got several small programs that do the work of burning CD’s and other processing around that type of task. Windows converts want a single fatware program that will burn your CD, print out labels, brew your coffee and playing elevator music while it is at it. This in not in line with the Linux way of doing things. Why do we have to conform to that “standard”? Why can’t people accept that newbies can download a GUI program that will probably control most of the smaller programs that you need to do just the cd burning, and then if you want to print stuff, go to another program built for just that?

    Another example. I read an article comparing GIMP to Photoshop. Fair enaugh, both are excellent software packages. The final statement made was that GIMP was “too hard to use” compared to Photoshop. What??? Come again?? Don’t get me wrong, Photoshop is a competent class leader but have you ever seen a newbie sit down in front of Photoshop for the first time and go: “Yeah, this is easy”. It gave me a good laugh. My point is that I use GIMP when I process graphics and I can do quite a lot with it. If you sit me down in front of Photoshop then I am totally lost. Again, it is all in the angle you are seeing things from. Again, most articles on Linux, usability etc is from a Windows perspective only written mostly by Windows converts that want another Windows not written by Microsoft.

    If you want to make a Linux distro for braindead users which is stripped of choices then go ahead. This is already being done today. The Linux model will allow that and provide for that as well. However, don’t make the rest of us suffer because newbies feel intimidated by the large selection of choices which they want to narrow down because it is “too confusing”, or because they feel intimidated by the way Linux works. If you want to be told where to go and how to do things then there are two operating systems which will better fit your needs: Windows and MacOS in various flavors.

    Sorry about the lengthy post Dave. I just read through it and it could sound like criticism on what you wrote above. It is not. I have been reading your posts for very long and I know where you stand on these issues. If you want to find out what it is that ticks me off then go here:


    If somebody puts this clueless looser in charge of Linux then I’ll jump over to BSD. One of the reasons why I use Linux is to get away from a marketing driven company that that will sooner or later mess up the product.

    Maybe I should start a blog of my own 🙂

    Dave T.

  • April 8, 2003 at 9:11 am

    People will likely use the same tools at home as at work due to many factors: familiarity, ease of use, portability of work files, standards, and time. Those who consider computers as their hobby will explore different operating systems and strange new programs, but the rest will consider their pcs only as tools to accomplish basic tasks quickly and efficiently. If Linux were to truly rival Microsoft for these type users, then there will need to be software packaging targeted for the business office. Then migration to the home can begin.

  • April 10, 2003 at 7:09 am

    Describe the “braindead users”, who are they and what amkes them s?. I just may qualify!

  • April 10, 2003 at 10:16 am

    The early adopters are people who are willing to experiement with their computer and the apps they run. These are the people who will write a new text editor just to suit their needs. The mainstream market, however, is composed of people who just want their computers and software to work. Linux definitely works. These users want simplicity in the sense that they don’t want to have to choose between 300 text editors. We appreciate choice, but the average user will become bogged down in deciding which app is right for them. For Linux to become mainstream we need to speed up the best of breed process in establishing software apps.

  • April 10, 2003 at 1:57 pm

    Andy, the word “braindead” was totally wrong here. My mistake and I am sorry if you felt branded in any way.

    All I want to say is that I don’t want to see Linux go the way of Windows. That’s it. It seems to me that a large part of the discussion around Linux vs Windows seems to go in that direction. I say we learn from Microsoft and Windows instead of emulating the whole thing.

    What I also point out to people is that if you don’t like to tinker, if you just want to get your work done, you want to work in a familiar environment, you don’t want to learn anything new and you want to be able to lift the phone and call techsupport once problems arise then why not simply run Windows? Or better yet, go a step further and buy a Mac. I built my mom a computer, just like Dave F. did and I installed Windows on it, just like Dave F. did. The reason being that she knows it, she also uses Windows elsewhere. She wanted to run Windows and I got no problem with that. Windows has a place on the market. Don’t move away from it if any of the above fits your description. Don’t change just because it is fashionable. Change because you want to.

    Just my .02c.

    /Dave T.

  • April 12, 2003 at 1:06 pm

    Check out quanta for a wysiwyg html editors. Its a Debian package, so just apt-get install quanta, and your done.

  • April 14, 2003 at 9:32 am

    Actually, RedHat 8 (now in vesion 9) addressed a lot of clutter you mention above. Depending on the environment you install (KDE or Gnome, for example) you can an instane amount of duplicate apps that all do basically the same kinds of things, but use up lots of storage space, clutter the “Start Menu” and slow your system down. Instead, RH decided to create a hybrid environment that combined features of KDE and Gnome and trim away all the excess to only 1 broswer and 1 office suite, etc. I think they issue you mention above has in fact been identified and major distros like RH are taking the steps to make Linux a leaner and meaner OS, that will hopefully make it more attractive to business, but they’ve got a long way to go for the home users.

  • April 20, 2003 at 8:02 am

    I actually have one of these I got for free with a cheapie mobo. I wanted the ThizLinux package 🙁

    It’s an OpenOffice.org derivative.

  • April 21, 2003 at 12:51 am

    More fodder for a braindead FOSS database. Everywhere I turn I see it… Project will be announced in a few months, I suppose.

  • April 22, 2003 at 1:26 pm

    I just read this brilliant article….


    It was just want I wanted to say in my above posts. Thing is that I couldn’t say it better than this guy.

    Dave F., you said you were not reading comments anymore. I hope you read this one. I think you’d find the article interesting.

    /Dave T.

  • April 22, 2003 at 1:41 pm

    I just read this brilliant article….


    It was just want I wanted to say in my above posts. Thing is that I couldn’t say it better than this guy.

    Dave F., you said you were not reading comments anymore. I hope you read this one. I think you’d find the article interesting.

    /Dave T.

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