Linux on the desktop: are we nearly there yet?

Linux on the desktop: are we nearly there yet?

Alright, I admit it, up ‘til a couple of weeks ago I was still running Windows 2000 Professional. In my defence, I have been using all the free software I could on Windows—primarily Open Office, Firefox and Thunderbird. I was a bit reluctant to go through all the trouble of migrating across to a GNU/Linux distribution for two reasons. First, because my PDA and stereo bluetooth headset require software which doesn’t run on Linux. Secondly, I was a little intimidated by having to go back to using a command line after so long just using a GUI.

After becoming sick of Windows running so badly and some advice and encouragement from Tony (FSM’s Editor In Chief), I decided to install Ubuntu. From what we could tell it promised to be the easiest of the GNU/Linux distributions to install. I was pleasantly surprised, it was up and running in less than hour. However, not everything went as smoothly as it should have.

The first thing I noticed was that there was no sound. I had to have sound—I don’t have a stereo my computer is my stereo. I have 5.1 speakers and an Audigy2 ZS soundcard, there was no way I wanted all of that equipment going to waste. I had to do a few Google searches to find that I needed to use the command-line to install some patches and then use some more code to store my settings before I finally had sound. This took me a couple of hours to work out. I’m sure it would have been faster for someone who knew their way around Linux, but I’m only just getting started. Even after I got it working, there wasn’t the nice graphical interface to the speakers and soundcard that I had running on Windows. The software that came with the soundcard wasn’t available on Ubuntu.

While I was doing all of the searching around on Google, I noticed that the back and forward buttons on my Logitech optical mouse weren’t working. It took me several days to crack this one. I got Tony to look at it too but even he couldn’t help. I once again looked around on-line and found some people who had had the same problem. The advice they were giving suggested that some files need editing but the code they had didn’t match mine. Eventually, through a combination of the advice, guess work and dumb luck, I got the buttons working.

During the few days it took for me to get the buttons working, I had been getting to know Ubuntu and I tried to do some printing... here we go again. My printer—an Epson Stylus CX6500 multifunction centre—wasn’t recognised. Tony came around and after a couple of hours in front of my computer, I’d fallen asleep and he’d managed to get it running. However, the scanner still wasn’t being recognised. Back to Google! Another couple of days later and after a lot of searching I finally found that, once again, I needed to modify some files by putting code that I didn’t understand into a file that was full of code and comments I also didn’t understand. Basically, I had to force the SANE software to recognise the scanner’s device ID.

Finally, I had a functioning computer with functioning hardware. I am very grateful there were people out there who’d had the same problems that I had, because there was no way in the world I could have solved them on my own.

But what about all those people who aren’t as persistent as me? What about all of those people who wouldn’t or couldn’t go through all of this so they can run a free software OS? What about all of those people who don’t have a friend like Tony? Why does it have to be so difficult? Why should I be forced to use the command-line and edit files that I don’t understand?

I still had to do lot of mucking around using the command-line to get everything detected and configured just right. I think there are a lot of people—average computer users—who still couldn’t do this. Ubuntu is definitely well on the path to making Linux available to—and_,_ more importantly, usable by—everyone. But it won’t be usable by everyone until the command-line is an optional extra that _can—_rather than must—be used for tweaking a system. The Ubuntu project should be applauded for getting us this far, but we are still not quite there. Now there’s only one more step to achieving world domination. Let’s take it.



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From: anonymous
Date: 2005-09-20
Subject: typical problems

The problems you had are typical.

- The "generic" X11 configuration file does not consider mouse wheels; a good understanding of /etc/X11/xorg.conf is necessary to correctly setup these things.

Is it not possible to autodetect these things at least at xinit time? I think this is something that should try to solve, but distros should at least provide temporary workarounds.

- problems with alsa. Alsa replaces OSS giving a lot of features that very few need;

for some chips it requires understanding yet another configuration file: the far from easy /etc/asound.conf .

The alsa utils should include at least a ncurses interface to asound.conf modification. Better docs for USERS are required. The available docs (wikis, FAQs, alsa guides) seem to be more developer-oriented than user-oriented. The wiki is a very bad way to document stuff, because it's too dispersive.

- problems with printing. Most of these depend on GDI only printers. I guess printer manufactures are to blame here in many cases.

From: Mike
Date: 2005-09-21
Subject: Linux passion

Yes, there is some things that may not work out of the box, but I think most of manufacturers make things dificult not sharing any specifications even for open source driver developers :(

They would develop linux drivers by themselfs if linux had more market share, but that's going to the same problem...

Part of this problem is Corporations only think in profit and don't see the harmony there could be in the world if they dedicate a litle bit of time for some projects and at least make their products multi-platform compatible.

Because they would be helping the very same people that help each other on this good and healthy chain.

Anyway If you think of the zero point where no hardware at all was suported at the opensource world, there is a prety good list of suported hardware made (mainly) by this comunity, this proves the chain it's working, and once a person understands what's involved in the process and how it (does) work, will never look back ;)

I really start to learn Linux the day I instaled Slackware and dumped windows out of my harddrive ;)

From: Maurizio
Date: 2005-09-21
Subject: Why ?

You really where very patient and your questions are more then justified. Why is it still so difficult to install a real Linux-Desktop. After 7 Years I know the scene and have following answer:

The Linux developpers have nearly no empathy to a normal user, they mean they have to learn and learn and learn.

From: AdamW
Date: 2005-09-21
Subject: Maybe you should try some other distros?

Maybe you should ignore the GUHW (Gigantic Ubuntu Hype Wave) and try other distros? I'm obviously utterly biased (I work for Mandriva), but I know the back / forward buttons on my Logitech mouse worked as soon as I plugged it in to my Mandriva 2006 machine. Don't know how, don't care, but they work. Sound works straight away on Audigy 2 cards on our distro, too (unless you have digital speakers, when you have to flip a mixer control from analog to digital; we've got to pick a default, and analog it is). Frankly I'm surprised Ubuntu would need any patches to make this work, since it's about the most common sound card in the world and has been supported by ALSA for years - what did they manage to break? The Stylus CX6500 is right on our printer configuration tool's list of supported models, as well (though I don't have one here so I can't vouch for how perfectly it's supported, but it really should be fine if it's in the list). Maybe you should grab copies of Mandriva 2006 (release due real soon), SUSE 10 (same), and maybe the latest releases of Mepis, Linspire and Xandros and see whether Ubuntu really is all that...

From: Henrique Marks
Date: 2005-09-22
Subject: totally agreed

I was going to say exactly the same. Forget Ubuntu. Never saw so much propaganda for so few. I have tried many distributions for the last months, because "my" distro, conectiva, was "abducted" by mandrake, now mandriva. And mandriva 10.? wasnt that nice. I just can say that openSuse RC1 and Mandriva (the new one) are just great. Debian is great too, but you have to work out the problems (as you saw with Ubuntu).

And Ubuntu has that Desktop problem, it is just gnome. Try Kubuntu, with KDE, or wait for Ubuntu with GNOME and KDE, so you can have the best of two worlds. Well, maybe i am just dreaming...

Change distro, and write another good story, showing that we are there, already :-)

From: Nick Prescott
Date: 2005-09-22
Subject: O/S Linux

You should have tried Xandros 3

its so much easier and most things work straight out of the "box"

From: nick
Date: 2005-09-22
Subject: Linux newbie

Your friends should have told you about Xandros 3,it just works for almost everything,not much hacking needed !

From: shahnawaz
Date: 2005-09-22
Subject: Linux on the desktop: are we nearly there yet? '

Ubuntu is great.

I am yet to come around an organization which has contributed to linux the way Ubuntu has done.

I guess your problem was not with Linux per se (lot of hardware drivers are made for Windows, if organization had made the drivers for Linux then I really dont know where Windows would be) but the distribution. I personally love Ubuntu but for usability sake and exploiting the maximum of Gnome and KDE, I use SUSE 9.3.

Luckily for me the day I was introduced to Linux it was thru SUSE 9.1. I did try other distro's but I am really comfy with SUSE the way they pack most of the open source softwares and drivers in their distro is just amazing. they give support to majority of the hardwares.

I would recommend trying out SUSE 9.3 (and what more they now have patch for MP3 too) its just neat and makes desktop life a breeze.

BTW, WINE, MONO and Crossover office are going to make life much easier for Windows program users.

So I must say that the time is near when majority of users will be Linux users.


From: Scott
Date: 2005-10-10
Subject: Must use the command-line to edit configuration files?

What stopped you from running a graphical editor as root? Finding, viewing, and editing configuration files can all be done graphically.

Many distributions provide custom graphical interfaces to key system configuration files as well. YaST on SUSE comes to mind. These make understanding the syntax of those files unnecessary, but even without them, dropping to the command-line to edit them is completely unnecessary on any distribution with a graphical interface.

From: Dave Guard
Date: 2005-10-11
Subject: That's not what the problem was


You have a point but it doesn't stop me from having to edit files.

My point is that these things should all be automatic.

Some of the problem comes from hardware vendors, some from the software.

An operating system should (in my opinion) come fully assembled and should automatically detect and handle my hardware for me. I should be able to sit down and drive it without having to tinker under the hood.

Of course, much of the beauty of FS would be lost if we weren't able to look under the hood. I am saying we should be able to, but shouldn't have to.

It was suggested to me that Ubuntu would be the simplest to install. It was very easy. Apparently I had some problems that wouldn't have occurred in other distros. I feel that I would still have encountered problems (perhaps not the same ones) with other distros.

FS needs to become more friendly to the "newbie". It still has a way to go.


From: Postman
Date: 2005-10-25
Subject: Web design shortcomings

I have been using Suse Linux for over 6 months and have found an equivalent for most things except Dreamweaver, Photoshop (GIMP is not the same)/Paint Shop Pro and Flash.

I will keep having to go back to Windoze for web design until these apps are compiled for Linux.

I have even tried Win4Lin and Crossover Office and these are not good enough, we need the big software companies to cater for all of us.

From: Hooplife
Date: 2005-10-31
Subject: Ubuntu Forums


I have been using Ubuntu for several months after trying several other distros. Yes there are things that don't work right out of the box but I believe you would have found the answers to your problems much faster if you would have checked the Ubuntu forums instead of searching Google. I had the same problem with my mouse among a few other minor problems and found help right away in the forums. The Ubuntu forums are by far the best and friendliest forums I have used.

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Dave is a co-founder and the Senior Editor of Free Software Magazine.