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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

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The Linux Desktop Distribution of the Future Part 1

Category: Conceptual Design

This article is part of a four part series intended to provide some thought into how a future Linux Desktop might work. It is not intended to be a comprehensive essay, although all the concepts presented here are considered "doable" by the author.

Part 1: Linux and the Desktop Today
Part 2: Applications
Part 3: File Management
Part 4: The Desktop Interface

Part 1: Linux and the Desktop Today

Despite the constant predictions of "This year will be the year of the Linux Desktop", such predictions have yet to become reality. While the reasons for this are numerous, they all tend to boil down to Linux being built as a server and workstation OS rather than a home system. This article will focus on how a distribution might be designed to not only make Linux a competitive desktop solution, but to propel it into a leader in the Desktop market.

Linux Weaknesses

Through a quick rundown of Linux's features, one can come to the following list of issues that make Linux a poor choice for general desktop use:
  1. Installing Applications is complicated
  2. Directory structures can be confusing to navigate
  3. Interface is confusing and inconsistent
  4. Steep learning curve required to understand system functions
The first point is a complex issue, but mostly stems from the Linux use of package managers. Package management is one of those concepts that seems great on the outset, but fails in practice. The issue is that each package has a complex chain of dependencies unique to itself. In order to be certain that a package is compatible with all installations, all combinations of installed packages must be tested! As it is unlikely that anyone would go through so much trouble, the incompatibilities between packages accumulate, and before long the packaging system is rejecting new installs. And that's assuming that a graphical installer exists!

If a graphical installer does not exist, then life becomes even more difficult for the end user. Instead of launching a GUI and selecting the applications he wants, the user must open a terminal and begin typing cryptic commands for which he has no training for.

Many proponents of packaging systems downplay these issues by stating that packaging errors don't exist on system XYZ (despite proof to the contrary), and that if the user is running Linux he should be "smart enough" to know how to use the command line. Such statements are just silly. Users want the computer to make their lives easier. Any barrier thrown in their way will only drive them to a different platform. Unfortunately, package managers still drive most Linux desktop distributions.

The second point is caused by the spread out arrangement of Linux system files. This arrangement is intended to ease the multi-user aspect of Unix system. Unfortunately, it greatly complicates the user view of the system. Existing users are accustomed to having a root folder with a couple of system folders to worry about. For new users, even one system folder can be a massive issue. (I'm sure we've all heard about or seen the guy who deleted his Windows folder and then expected everything to work properly.) Expecting these users to understand the cryptically named "usr", "bin", and "etc" folders is probably a bit much. (OS X Finder actually hides them.)

Points three and four are caused by some rather interesting decisions in the OSS community, constant arguments about interface design, and beta quality software being bundled in distro releases. (Red Hat is particularly guilty of the latter.) For example, there's a single, non-hidden folder on Windows where Start Menu shortcuts are stored. This folder can be accessed by right clicking on the Start Menu and hitting "Show Folder". While the Windows design is a confused interface, at least it's consistent. In GNOME and KDE, the menu folder has moved several times, switched back and forth between a GUI Tree, File Explorer, and Drag/Drop-on-the-menu interface for modifications, and they had a split personality on whether or not user-specific menu items could be created. Most of these issues have been smoothed out to some degree, but not without leaving users utterly confused.

With these issues in mind, let's put some thought into how we might fix them.

Part 2: Applications


Making desktop Linux software installation easy

The Year of the Linux Desktop: 2003
2004: The Year of the Linux Desktop?
2004 Won't Be the Year of the Linux Desktop
2005 Will Be the Year of the Linux Desktop
Desktop Linux News, Articles, and Forums

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