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The Linux Desktop Experience Is Killing Linux on the Desktop

Disclaimer

This post is a bona fide rant. It tells how a hardcore Linux user (me) decided to abandon Linux as a desktop platform and the reasons behind this decision. It might provoke some controversy, but I frankly don’t care.

Prelude

I’m generally known as one of the biggest supporters of GNU/Linux, I’ve taught courses on Linux administration, I’ve spoken at Linux conferences and I naturally use Linux as my primary desktop on all my machines. Well, that last part is not so true anymore. Here the story begins…

The background

I’ve been using GNU/Linux exclusively for 8 years now. I’ve spent a lot of time with Fedora, Gentoo and Arch Linux. I use it at home, I use it at work and along the way I’ve converted many Windows users to Linux. I’ve lived through a lot of driver and software problems with Linux, hoping that the day would come when it will become a first-class citizen of the desktop operating systems town. Alas, this day never came and probably never will.

My patience ended this week and I’ll be gradually moving all my desktop machines back to Windows. What caused me to take such drastic course of action? I’ve bought myself a new ThinkPad T520 laptop, powered by Nvidia’s Optimus GPU switching technology – when the GPU load is low it uses the built-in Sandy Bridge GPU, when it gets higher – it switches to the discrete NVS 4200M GPU. Needless to say – this technology is not supported under Linux, but I was prepared to live without it. After all both Intel and Nvidia are known to have decent Linux drivers so I was about to try both GPU and select the one with the better performance. All I had to do was pick a shiny new distribution to power my mobile powerhouse…

The Distribution

I love Fedora – always have, always will. They constantly deliver to the end users the cutting edge in Linux technologies (both desktop and server), so it’s naturally my distro of choice (I’m quite fond of cutting edge tech). I installed on the new laptop the latest Fedora 15 with GNOME 3.0 and here the problems started. GNOME 3 requires 3d acceleration to work properly – a reasonable requirement these days, at least on an operating system with normal video drivers.

The Intel driver sucked so bad that I got constant screen corruption and hang-ups. Too bad, because I preferred to use the Intel GPU since I mostly work on the laptop. The open source Nvidia driver nouveau doesn’t support the NVS 4200, so I was forced to install the proprietary driver. It ran OK initially, but after some time my system just started to freeze while waiting for Plymouth (probably after some kernel update, which I didn’t notice). I could have tried the usual tricks and fixed the problem, but at this point I finally realized how idiotic it was of me to keep using Linux for a desktop OS after all the shit I’ve endured and the time I’ve wasted dealing with stuff that should have been “just working”. I just want to get some work done, I don’t want to waste my time debugging all kind of crap.

The Shit I endured

Disclaimer

I’ve endured this Shit over the aforementioned period of 8 years. Some of the problems here have been alleviated (like ethernet/wireless support) and some manifest mainly with newer hardware (released in the past 6-12 months). Many of the problems, unfortunately manifest on all kind of hardware no matter how old.

Non-existing ethernet/wireless drivers – not so common today, but try remembering the time circa 2005

Non-existing/crappy audio drivers – got an X-Fi 5 years ago, ALSA driver was released 3-4 years later and was total piece of garbage, OSS driver was barely usable. I don’t even get me started on USB audio support – what a joke…

Lamest video card drivers ever – most video card drivers for Linux are so bad I cannot even watch tear-free video. Nvidia have the only decent video driver, but it’s far from perfect either – no KMS, poor 2D acceleration. AMD’s drivers are a punishment from the Lord and Intel’s constantly “evolving” drivers are barely usable most of the time. The video card drivers made me buy and HD media player and an PS3 (for which I’m thankful), but I have to ask myself – why suffer all this shit instead of getting a normal desktop OS like OS X or Windows? Did I love Linux that much? Did I believe that much it’s desktop day would come? What an idiot I was.

Lack of printer drivers – that’s a funny one. Often printers listed as having Linux drivers are mostly unusable. The printer that own is listed as having a “perfect” Linux compatability in openprinting.org. If this is perfect I cannot begin to imagine what is “poor” compatibility.

Crappiest suspend/resume support – laptop goes to sleep, but doesn’t wake up. Wireless dies after wake up. Suspend/resume used to be something mythical to most Linux users. Recently the situation has improved a bit it’s still light years away from what you get with Windows/OSX.

Poor power management – my older laptop’s battery lasted several weeks while sleeping when I was using Windows on it. When I replaced it with Linux the battery was being drained in 2 days while the laptop was sleeping (and I had to wait about half a year for a set of wireless and video drivers that actually made sleep a possibility)… I’ve noticed that as far as dynamic power management is concerned Windows generally managed to squeeze more time out of the battery, while at the same time my rig generated less heat (dynamic fan control is another weakness of Linux).

I’ll stop writing about the driver problems now, because they affect so many thing. Even my fairly advanced mouse is missing some functions in Linux. I’m not even mentioning the things like support for “Turbo Memory”, Optimus, etc.

Lack of decent office software – call it OpenOffice.org and don’t insult it anymore…

Problematic sound architecture – let me be completely blunt – everything sound related in Linux sucks – OSS, ALSA, PulseAudio (the sucker king). From a technical standpoint OSS never actually sucked, but since it wasn’t picked up by the community the project fell into oblivion. How many of you have enjoy Dolby Digital or DTS sound from their Linux boxes?

Poor flash support – should I explain? Have you tried it on a 64 bit distro? Do I hate it? Sure. Do I hope HTML5 will kill it? Sure. Do I need it? Sure. You think your video drivers work OK under Linux? Have you tried playing a HD video clip in youtube with flash player at full-screen? Very few Linux video drivers handle this task properly…

Poor skype support – Same story as with flash. I keep dreaming of a world with more intelligent users where GTalk has a conference mode and everybody’s using it instead of skype.

Poor quality of desktop apps – Known issues in core applications such as Nautilus don’t get fixed for years. Such things naturally piss me off. Trying to contribute to the solution of a problem is often met with apathy by maintainers. Btw Linux users think that Mozilla Firefox is very slow and memory hungry – but it turns out that the Windows version is generally performing a lot better (not to mention – supporting hardware video acceleration).

I can keep listing things here forever. When I come to think about it for the entire time I’ve been using Linux only one major problem got resolved – USB devices support. I still remember the days when I had to write auto mounting policies myself or to use mount manually all the time. I won’t even mention the quality of most proprietary apps on Linux, the huge amount of missing essential application and the unavailability of mainstream video games.

So this is it! Hasta la vista, Linux! You still remain the best server operating system, though. You’ll always have a special place in my heart and a VMWare instance on my Windows boxes.

What I’ll miss

  • shell
  • transparency, control
  • package management
  • lack of viruses, malware

Although most common desktop users probably don’t use the shell very often, I practically live(d) in it. OS X has zsh and bash, so it’s a long term option for me, but due to the need for new hardware I’ll be using Windows 7 on the desktop front for now. Hopefully the rumors that PowerShell is great will turned out to be true.

The ability to tweak every aspect of the configuration, to build custom drivers and kernels will be missed as well, but I don’t tend to do this as often as I used to. And when something bad happens – most of the time you could do something about it. As a friend of mine used to say “The single biggest difference between Windows and Linux is that in Windows the restart will solve just about any problem, but in Linux it’s unlikely so solve any problem” (this statement was much more correct 8 years ago – modern Linux desktop distro have developed some of Windows’s old habits).

Probably the biggest loss for me would be the wonderful distro package management systems like YUM and APT.

During the time I used Linux I totally forgot that things like viruses and malware existed. Now, after I installed Win 7 I was immediately encouraged to install an anti-virus program.

Based on your feedback

It seems a lot of people misunderstood the purpose of my rant so I’d like to clarify something for them:

  • I fuckin’ love Linux. Linux is brilliant. Linux is fun. Linux rekindled my interest in computing at a time when I was about to give up on computing.

  • I’m not spreading FUD, I’m telling you a real story, a story that I know many have experienced and many will experience.

  • I’m trying to raise the awareness of Linux desktop users. They’ve been told that they have to be thankful for any kind of hardware support, no matter how basic, fucked up and all around shitty it might be. They’ve been told that they have to be grateful for every crappy app in existence. The fact that something is free (as in beer), doesn’t make it wrong for people to criticize it and complain about it. Ranting is what drives evolution. Same thing happens in life every day – the media and the people around us proclaim mediocrecy, they tell us that mediocrecy is OK, that we should be satisfied by what we have and that aspiring for greatness is a foolhardy mission. The Linux desktop community should put real pressure on hardware and software vendors to be taken seriously, instead of just waiting on their mercy. The Linux desktop community deserves a great Linux desktop.

  • Fanatics are dangerous. They cannot see past their beliefs, they cannot be reasoned with. The Linux community is full of them – zealots that never see any problems with Linux and feel that the entire world is on a quest to discredit their (mine) beloved OS. They won’t ever get this post, but hopefully YOU will.

  • Hardware support is a big part of the Linux desktop problem, but it’s not the only problem. Half-baked DE like KDE 4.0, Ubuntu’s Unity and GNOME 3.0 are just as dangerous.

  • Having some hardware support and having great hardware support are two different things.

  • I do know how to research hardware compatibility ( :–) surprising, eh?), but I do like cutting edge technologies as well (problematic…). Does it seems normal to you to avoid commodity hardware just on the ground that it’s “too new” to be properly employed by your OS of choice?

  • I’m not claiming that Windows 7 is the greatest thing after hot water, I don’t even say that I like it. I do, however, say that it offers superior desktop experience (when it works, that is).

I’ll include here a great comment from Jan de Vos:

_While I’m still using Linux (usually Ubuntu, sometimes Fedora) everywhere (at work and at home), I do agree with a lot of points in this article; there are a lot of things that could be improved, and there are a lot of frustrations that Windows users don’t have. Saying so is not FUD, it is a simple truth. If someone who clearly likes a lot of things in Linux decides to switch to something else, that really is a bad thing, and an indication that there are real problems.

In my opinion, ignoring these problems, or even denying they exist, may be a lot more harmful than talking about them._

I couldn’t agree more!

Epilogue

I remember the first time I used Linux. A friend of mine installed Fedora 2 on my personal computer and there was a glitch in GRUB that prevented me from booting to Windows. My ethernet card wasn’t supported so I was left without Internet. I asked my friend can I at least watch a few movies, while he brought me a patched version of the buggy GRUB. He told me – you need to compile MPlayer from sources with several optimization, you need windows video codecs, etc. At the time this excited me a lot – adventure, excitement. I learned A LOT by using Linux non-stop for so long time. But at some point you stop learning exciting things and are just stuck with tedious things you have to keep doing over and over again. And as I already mentioned – I don’t want my time wasted, I want to get the job done with minimum hassle.

I’ve been hearing each and every year that “year 20xx” will be the year of the Linux desktop. It never came and it’s my firm believe that it never will (unless something radically changes in the mindset of Linux desktop users). Constantly plagued by hardware and software woes Linux is doomed to fail. Without major support from hardware and software vendors every OS is ultimately doomed to fail.

It’s no secret that a lot of money are made by Linux server businesses and this naturally drives a lot of the development in the area of improving server performance. Nobody put it better than Con Colivas – “Linux is burdened with enterprise crap that makes it run poorly on desktop PCs.”. Linux will remain the king of the server world, but on the desktop front it will always be an OS for enthusiast and hackers only.

Goodbye, my dear old friend. You’ll be missed… but not that much.

P.S. Btw I’m as pro a Linux user as they get – a professional sys admin, a former kernel developer so don’t bother me with moronic comments from the type “you’re not doing something right/you should try another distro”.