No matter how many strides Linux makes toward desktop acceptance, we're still a long way from the day when we'll see the free OS become a true drop-in replacement for the commercial systems we use now.
Case in point: Last week, the folks at Novell were kind enough to send along a copy of their latest OS release, Suse Linux 10.0. I've always thought Suse had an edge over Red Hat in the UI department. Plus, Novell describes this edition of its product as a home-user version targeted at "hobbyists and enthusiasts." So, naturally, I figured I'd install it on my desktop PC at home.
Ah, if it were only that simple. After the installation process finished, my machine rebooted to a blank screen. I didn't panic; I know that something about the combination of my graphics card and my flat-panel monitor tends to give Linux pains. Dropping into single-user mode to manually edit a config file let me fix the problem.
"Hobbyists and enthusiasts," I repeated to myself, and pressed onward.
Sound was the next problem. The kernel seemed to detect my audio chipset properly, but when I pulled up the sound mixer, only half or so of the channels showed up. My external speakers were muted and there was no way to activate them. (I still haven't solved this one.)
Next I fired up the OpenOffice.org word processor. Suse 10.0 ships with the latest and greatest version. Yet when I started typing, the fonts showed up all thin and spindly -- looking worse, in fact, than they did on the desktop or in any other application I tried.
I'm not trying to knock Novell. Overall, Suse is a great distribution, and Ubuntu -- my other favorite desktop Linux -- has yet to produce a version that will even install on my home PC.
Let's assume, rather, that my hardware is the problem. Where can the average user, let alone IT managers, buy desktop Linux systems that just work? Finding a hardware combination that's fully Linux compatible can be a research project daunting enough to curb the enthusiasm of even the most ardent hobbyist.
Dell announced a new "open source ready" PC last week, but it ships with FreeDOS installed, not Linux. "Non-Dell installed operating systems" are not supported.
Another company, Linspire, produces a Linux distribution targeted at home users, coupled with a certification program for hardware builders. That's a step in the right direction, but it still doesn't give me the kind of confidence I get from that other alternative desktop OS.
That's right, I'm thinking iMac. With the Mac OS, Apple sticks to a tightly controlled upgrade path that emphasizes backward compatibility. But more importantly, Apple has the advantage of owning the hardware. A Mac always knows how to work its graphics card and its speakers, because Macintosh computers ship with a very limited selection of hardware components. No matter how many people still clamor for Mac clones, it's a strategy that has always paid off for Apple in terms of customer satisfaction.
Could it work for desktop Linux? Suppose a single vendor took the big gamble and offered the whole ball of wax: a complete desktop Linux distribution pre-installed on certified custom hardware. I don't mean a budget white box, either, but a well-crafted system designed with usability in mind, fully supported, but with the built-in cost savings of open source. Would you buy?
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