2000 was the “year of the GNU/Linux Desktop” for me

2000 was the “year of the GNU/Linux Desktop” for me

I still see people arguing about whether GNU/Linux is “ready for the desktop”. The truth is, it really depends...

For me, I switched almost “cold turkey” from Microsoft Windows 3.1 to Debian GNU/Linux 2.1 “Slink” in about 1999 or 2000 (at the time, I liked to say I “upgraded from Win 3.1 to Linux”).

I just didn’t like the look or smell of Windows 95, which is why I had resisted upgrading for 5 years. I was poor, and always ran slightly out of date computers, for money reasons. So I was particularly turned off by a new “improved” operating system that took 3 times longer to do 1/3 of the work. I had seen references to Linux for a few years, and knew that there was free operating system out there. But I figured it was mostly a “hobby” thing. Like most people, I didn’t see how “free software” could work (beautiful ideal, but how could programmers sustainably produce such a thing?). I’d read Stallman’s Gnu Manifesto and other sources on the subject. But it took me a while to warm up to the idea (I hadn’t really been that impressed by “shareware”). Still, ever an idealist, I wanted to try the proof of principle—that’s why I picked the Debian distribution: it embodied the same ideals that went into Linux and the GNU project.

Then of course, there was the fact that Linux, as a Posix-compliant operating system (“Unix” to speak sloppily—but SCO has demonstrated the danger of that kind of sloppiness), would run code I knew from college. In fact, it really brought back some memories the first time I saw that prompt on my home computer (that was kind of a thrill, since I associated Unix with high-end systems at the university).

Of course, it was a pretty brutal transition. I turned in a few papers written in HTML, using Netscape composer, printed out to paper. So I took a short-term hit in terms of quality and convenience. I had to sweat a bit more whenever I had to rely on the computer to get my work done (on the bright side, I didn’t really need the computer for work, it was mostly for home use).

I also spent two weeks once, getting sound to work on an IBM Thinkpad laptop. This was mostly because I was stubbornly insisting on using ALSA (version 0.5) instead of the more prevalent OSS. I felt ALSA was the future, was more thoroughly free software, and I wanted it to run. By then of course, I was trying to prove something.

By 2002, though, I was able to do just about everything I had previously done on Windows, and had ditched the last proprietary extension (Netscape—I switched to Mozilla, of course). By then of course, I had seen enough of Debian Linux to know that free software did indeed work, though I admitted to doubts about why. For me, Eric Raymond’s papers on the “Cathedral and the Bazaar” and especially “The Magic Cauldron” were particularly enlightening.

So, what I would say is that Linux has been “ready for the desktop” for a long time—for people who aren’t wimps about it!

But frankly, if we were on a remotely level playing field, Windows wouldn’t be “ready for the desktop” either: I have nothing but frustration, every time I have any kind of run-in with Windows. I think the only reason why people feel otherwise, is that with Windows, they can blame the problem on somebody else (“they installed it wrong”, “this hardware doesn’t work right”, “call a technician”), and thus avoid having to mess with it. But of course, I’m the “technician” everybody calls in my family, and so, I see things differently—from the point of view of the “buck stops here, I have to fix it” person, Linux is WAY, WAY, WAAYYYY easier to work with than Windows.

And IMHO, user-based help mailing lists whip “tech support call centers” every time. People talk about picking proprietary “for the support”—but my experience is exactly the opposite.

I once got a response on Debian users in TEN MINUTES. I would’ve still been on hold at “tech support”. True, they aren’t all that fast. But neither is tech support. More importantly, I’ve worked tech support, and I have a pretty good idea of how limited their system is—if it’s not in the “knowledge base”, they can’t tell you, and even they can’t ask the developers! So with proprietary tech support, you’ve got about 50/50 odds of hitting the “no solution, take it back to the store” case (which is not much help if you bought it “as-is” off of a truck in downtown Dallas’ “First Saturday Sale”—which is where a lot of my computers came from). This is especially true when you are the kind of technically-inclined person who wouldn’t have called tech support if it were the kind of dumb problem that would be in the knowledge base.

What about the “wimps”? Well, there are a lot of people who don’t know much about computers and lack the confidence or the patience to learn it. There’s also a necessity for a certain tolerance of frustration that just comes with the field, which some people just don’t have. I don’t think Linux will be ready for those people until there is a large amount of industry support for it: until it comes pre-installed, and there’s a local computer repair tech who’ll support Linux. In some places, there already are such things, but it’s a small minority. And of course, the industry support will require there to be a market—so it’s kind of a chicken and egg problem. On the other hand, GNU/Linux use is on the rise, so there will be some point at which it starts to take off (in another blog entry, I speculated that this might happen through a new wave of “sub-PC” devices evolved from today’s embedded systems—commercial versions of the “OLPC $100 laptop” and so on. If so, usage will probably spread to desktop PC from there).



Alan Berg's picture
Submitted by Alan Berg on

Wonder what my son will think about the next version of Windows and how the 3D desktops will stack up later?


Mitch Meyran's picture

The GNU OS as envisioned by RMS was to include everything and the kitchen sink, which led to the creation of the glibc library, gcc and a bunch of other stuff by the Free Software Foundation. The GNU kernel is officially Hurd (in development), but it couldn't be finished soon enough. Right now, working implementations of Hurd are referred to as 'GNU/Hurd'.

Initially, Linus Torvalds designed Linux (the kernel) to replace Minix' kernel (it couldn't do virtual terminals at the time, or something), and he added the working pieces from the GNU project (pretty much everything - but the kernel, obviously). Many GNU elements have been replaced or rewritten, still there are a few remainings: glibc and gcc (grub sometimes, too) at least - and since RMS basically wrote the original implementations of these programs himself, he may have a right to defend his work - thus the occasional use of GNU/Linux.

Confusing? At first, but not as much when you know the reasons. Just consider that a desktop/server Linux environment using parts of the GNU project may be called GNU/Linux (Linux for short), while Linux by its lonesome can refer to the kernel, a standalone micro-OS or be a nickname for a complete system. At least it's not as virulent as the Net/Free/OpenBDS wars...

(Auth. Note: the above part was in answer to the first published version of the article. Since the article has since been modified and made the first part look out of place, I've re-edited the comment to reflect the change - Thanks to Dave Guard for allowing it).

Now, to the 3D desktop in Vista: I tried it. I found it:
- a resource hog,
- a very slow piece of code,
- a non-innovative interface (there is very little practical use coming from the 3D stuff).
- a confusing addition (the useful content is buried under eye-candy, lacks legibility and is non-instinctive).

Compared to 3D managers such as Compiz on Xgl, which was:
- fast,
- small (10 Mb RAM footprint at most on a 64-bit system),
- innovative (transparency can be used to read text from a window underneath your text editor, a simple key will convert the desktop into a mosaic, cube-shaped desktop switcher etc.),
- non-intrusive (you can use your desktop environment the way you did before, and make use of the new stuff as you see fit).

Well, I was drooling on my keyboard all the time I used it.

A computer is like air conditioning: it becomes useless when you open

Terry Hancock's picture

Actually, I'm familiar with the derivation of "GNU/Linux" and I've read the justifications for it, but I do have some problems with it. Though my real problem is not with the expression itself, but Richard Stallman's draconian and hypocritical assertion that it is "incorrect" not to use it every single, bleeding time you refer to the O/S.

Hypocritical? RMS? 'He never does that!', you say.

But consider -- the GNU system is basically a clean-room implementation of someone else's basic idea (the Unix operating system utilities, as represented in both proprietary and free Unix versions). Furthermore, the graphical environment is provided by X, which pre-existed on the Unix platform, is not and never has been part of the GNU project, but is instead under a non-copyleft free license.

Because of that, the GNU project was free to appropriate the X environment to solve a very big need -- which is the graphical workstation or desktop environment.

And there are other examples.

Collectively, what they mean is that "GNU/Linux" is not especially more correct than saying "Linux". Both are refering only to a tiny part of what we really mean, which, if fully enumerated, would be totally unusable as a label: Debian GNU/Linux 3.2 "Sarge" contains far more than 10,000 packages -- most of them maintained by independent developers, not associated with the GNU project or the Linux kernel developers. Perhaps I should write a Python script to generate an appropriate label by concatenating them with slashes? I certainly wouldn't try to do it by hand.

Nothing is wrong with any of that, of course. Those things were made available as standards or placed under free licenses with the intent that they should be 'appropriated'. And of course, RMS is extremely vocal and demonstrative about his gift to the intellectual commons. He would have us believe that he's a selfless crusader for software freedom.

But whereas he's argued extensively about the need to eliminate burdens on freedom such as the BSD advertising clause, he's got no qualms about waging a propaganda war to hang the GNU advertising label on everything that uses it.

In the end, it's just a juvenile popularity contest. RMS is trying to use all his wiles to promote his 'brand' over the Torvalds 'brand'. Which is just dumb. Free software is just as free, no matter what you call it, and RMS needs to get over his obsession with controlling the language of discourse, and realize that the world is bigger than that.

People speak hundreds of languages on Earth, and thousands of dialects and trade-specific jargons. Making an idea heard outside of a tiny core of like-minded individuals is not an easy thing to do, and you don't get there just by being stubborn. You do it by speaking people's language, and thinking carefully about how to get the uncorrupted message through in that language. Sometime's that's tricky. Sometimes things get lost in translation, and you have to explain something. You have to be open to learning, as well as teaching.

Maybe I'm just sensitive to this, because in many ways, my entire professional career has stemmed from crossing social lines: race, gender, class, profession, academic discipline, ... whatever -- and making ideas from one side of the line understood on the other. So when people start trying to play the "Them vs Us" game, it really pushes my buttons.

Who's hurt by all this? Is it the real enemy -- the purveyors of DRM and EULAs and 'Trusted Computing'? No, it's the people who the GNU project really had better be hoping are on their side when the hammers fall. Once upon a time, the GNU project was a shining steel fortress standing for a right idea in a world of wrongs -- but today, it's just one bastion in a great empire of city-states that have sprung up over the plain. And if they don't get over their differences and get their spears pointed in the same direction, they are not going to survive very well.

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Terry Hancock's picture


Terry Hancock is co-owner and technical officer of Anansi Spaceworks. Currently he is working on a free-culture animated series project about space development, called Lunatics as well helping out with the Morevna Project.