Emil Lerch

Husband, Father, Technologist, Cloud Architect

Year of Linux on the Desktop

I have used Linux under one form or another since Slackware around 1994. Not sure when exactly, but the kernel was definitely pre-1.0 and ELF was not yet a thing. Since as long as I can remember, people have said “xxxx is the year of Linux on the deskop”. I haven’t found any good citations for this, but there is a reddit thread on the subject.

Linux is all around us, most predominately in servers, but also in IoT devices, our infomatics systems in our cars, our watches, our streaming devices (Roku, Chromecast, Fire sticks and the like), Amazon Echos, light switches, printers, etc. Every Android device currently runs a Linux kernel, though much of the Apple ecosystem does not.

I understand the point about Chromebooks or Android being considered a Linux desktop, but for me, a desktop includes the full freedom to change all aspects of a system, including root access, packages, etc., all things that both Chromebooks and Android try to make difficult. Historically, the things that have made Linux difficult has been hardware compability. I believe that problem has been somewhat exacerbated over the last few years as hardware manufacturers want their devices available on Chromebooks and on servers. While I’m not necessarily a fan of the GPL v2 license or the tight tie between hardware drivers and the Linux kernel, but from a market perspective I believe these two choices, plus the market dominance of Linux, has put a lot of open source pressure on hardware vendors.

In homes, a big barrier to adoption of Linux has been PC gaming. This continues to be a big barrier today, and is one of the reasons why I hesitate writing this post. I still use Windows when I want to crank up a game. In offices, the biggest barrier has been Microsoft Office. There is LibreOffice, but it just isn’t 100% compatible with Microsoft’s version. Those who know me know that I love to hate on Microsoft Office (I’ve never run into another product that more consistently does the wrong thing while trying to be “helpful”), but the quirks and sometimes crazy ancient bugs kept for backward compability sake are hard to replicate. Another hesitation to writing this post - I basically remote into a Windows box for access to Microsoft Office where I can write Office documents, though I do generally read them in LibreOffice.

So, with those two caveats, in 2018 it has been the year of Linux on the desktop for me. I have two machines for regular use. At home, I use a 2015 Macbook Pro, technically able to boot macOS, but in reality hasn’t been booted to that OS since mid-2018, and technically that wasn’t required either. I’m considering wiping the MacOS portion of the machine entirely. On the road, I use an Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA. That Chromebook can technically boot ChromeOS (with a Linux kernel), but again, this hasn’t been booted to that operating system pretty much since I got it.

It has been great, but I agree with others that this remains a bit of a “only geeks need apply” endeavor. Mac hardware compatibility required some tweaks and system setup. The Chromebook was much cleaner due to the hard work of the folks at GalliumOS, but still, there are config files and Google searches and etc., etc.

I think the best sign, and least “only geeks need apply” situation, is the presence of pre-installed Linux laptops. In definitely a particular order, the Librem 13/Librem 15 has pre-installed Linux on their devices. Here, you’re buying a premium Linux experience and making a political statement that you value security and privacy. Laptops from System76, aren’t quite as fanatical, but still have security and privacy in mind while building. However, a good sign that Linux is making slow, slow progress in the march to the mainstream is the Dell XPS 13, preloaded with either Windows or Ubuntu.

For me, I’m super happy with my current travel laptop. While it’s a Chromebook, it has no fan and charges from both sides - super useful when on a plane. I’ve had some logistics problems with meetings, but never in a typical “hey, put this on the projection screen”, for which I just pull out a Usb-C->HDMI converter like many newer laptops need, then reconfigure my display. Usually the issues come up when they want me to also share with remote participants and are using some Windows only software. This is when I pull my “remote into a Windows machine” cheater card.

At home, I’m relatively comfortable. I still have some issues with video and screen sharing in remote conferences. This is software dependent, but you might be surprised by the number of conferencing systems that support Linux directly or support web technologies. Otherwise, most stuff I do is on the web, or using Docker, which is much better on Linux.

If you’re interested at all in trying it out, Ubuntu or Mint are the most user-friendly ways to try it out. Most people I know live on the web, in which case, it really doesn’t matter which one you pick. Ubuntu is probably a bit more friendly, so if you want the “easy button”, go for that. If I were installing for someone else, I’d probably go with Mint. For myself, I think anything in the Debian family has the most supportability, and if you’re interested in a political statement, the core Debian only accepts “free” software. I’ve played with other distros, but I think they’re a bit too bleeding edge for folks looking for a “year of Linux on the desktop”. I assume most of these people are looking for “give me pre-installed, or super-easy self install, but cheaper than Windows” experience.

So, caveats about games and Microsoft Office aside, I think that Linux is much closer to the year of Linux on the desktop. The chasm has not yet been crossed, and may never be, but it’s closer than any time in the past.