Linux: Almost ready for Prime Time

by Jim Trageser
This article originally ran in ComputorEdge on April 12, 2002.

The question with Linux today isn’t whether it can handle everyday computing tasks. It’s whether we can figure out how to get it to perform those tasks: checking our e-mail, browsing the web, balancing our checkbook, writing a homework assignment.

By “we” I mean the great unwashed, those of us who shop at CompUSA. Who want our computers to work when we turn them on. Who don’t want to spend our evenings hunting down printer drivers on the Internet. Who may even have “” in our e-mail address.

If Linux — or the open source community that develops and supports it — is ever going to seriously challenge Microsoft Windows’ position as the operating system of choice on the dominant Intel-based PC hardware, it must get the attention — and loyalty — of the masses.

And it can’t do that if it doesn’t work as easily as (or, preferably, more easily than) Windows.

We ought to be able to simply click on an icon to launch our word processor, our web browser, our e-mail client. We ought to be able to easily install new applications, to open our CD-ROM drives with just a click or two.

And for most of us, the desktop — or GUI (for graphical user interface) — is our computing experience. Whether Mac or Windows, all we know — all we want to know — is how to navigate around our desktop to get to our files and applications.

That other stuff — the operating system gunk — holds no interest for us. We simply don’t care how our computer talks to the hard drive, or sends files to the printer, or gets our e-mail from the Internet.

We care only that it does so.

And since the way we tell it what we want it to do is through the desktop, that’s what we care about.

Thus, the largest single challenges facing the Linux community in terms of achieving mass popularity is the fact there is no standard “desktop.” In fact, there are two competing GUIs for Linux — Gnome and KDE.

Actually, there are more GUIs for Linux, but these are the two most popular and the two most likely to achieve the ease of use required for retail success.

Linux itself, in its raw form, is a command line interface — you type in what you want it to do. The commands are nearly identical to those for Unix — cp to copy a file, rm to remove a file, that sort of thing.

In the Apple world, the Mac operating system and the desktop are one and the same. That rule holds true in the Windows world as well. If you want to move a file, you grab its icon and drag it to the new directory.

Interestingly, earlier versions of Windows were simply a program that ran on top of the operating system, known as DOS. Today, Gnome and KDE are programs that run on top of Linux and provide a mouse-driven way of accomplishing various Linux commands.

This has both strengths and weaknesses. Having the Gnome and KDE camps both striving for supremacy means that they’re constantly pushing each other with new features, new ease of use, new stability. And if you don’t like the desktop on your Linux box, you have an alternative without getting rid of your applications — WordPerfect for Linux will run just as well under Gnome as under KDE, for instance.

On the downside, there is no single “look and feel” common to all Linux computers, unlike with Windows or Mac computers where if you’ve used one, you can use almost any other similar system.

And neither KDE nor Gnome have full control of the installation process for Linux applications, as the Windows and Mac environments do. Instead, each Linux application controls its own install process — which range from models of simplicity (WordPerfect) to something just short of nightmare (take your pick).

Both KDE and Gnome share a common Windows-like appearance; both, in fact, have more in common with Windows 98/XP than any version of Mac.

Both have a command bar like Windows, that you can position along any border of your monitor — top, bottom, left, right. Both have a pop-up button that links to applications and control panels, quite similar to the Windows Start button (and not so far removed from the Apple button on the Mac).

As with Mac and Windows, both Gnome and KDE allow you to change the appearance of your desktop — add wallpaper, use different color schemes, add sound to certain events.

So the cosmetic experience of working with KDE and Gnome will seem familiar to anyone who’s used a Mac or Windows computer. In that area of daily life — of simply launching your word processor or web browser — both KDE and Gnome have done an outstanding job.

But there’s more to an operating system than just looks and clicking already-installed programs. What if you buy new software? As mentioned, that’s not handled entirely by Gnome or KDE — there’s a larger issue that the Linux community itself has to address. Buying a new program for Linux and installing it often still means having to go to a command prompt and typing in arcane commands — that’s not going to fly in the retail world.

Still, if you purchase a PC with Linux pre-installed (as you would with a Windows computer or a Mac), and the GUI already up and running with the applications you want to use (word processor, e-mail client, web browser), you’re likely to find it much closer to the Windows or Mac experience than just a year ago.

But with either KDE or Gnome, there may well be times you might have to open a shell and type in text commands to get your Linux computer to work exactly like you want it.

For beginning users, Linux and its KDE/Gnome desktops may still be a year or two away from the ease of use required to make a strong presence in the home computing world.

But for even moderately confident users looking to escape Microsoft’s market dominance, both Gnome and KDE running on Linux should be familiar and intuitive enough for daily use, and might be worth the occasional headache that forces you to break out a manual.

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