A newly minted Linux a must for the desktop

Rodney Gedda

Rodney Gedda is the former deputy editor of CIO and former editor of Techworld.

Last week I wrote about how Linux distributors could do more in the way of integration work and usability testing to cement Linux’s place on the desktop. The release of Linux Mint 10 on Friday is a good reminder of how some people remain hard at work to achieve that goal. By way of a backgrounder, Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu which is in turn based on Debian GNU/Linux.

The idea behind using an existing Linux distribution as a “base” for another is the hope of less development and testing requirements. Standing “on the shoulders of giants”, so to speak.

One reader commented that Linux already has a higher install base than Mac OS X.

While that might be true (with Linux being free to distribute it’s always going to be impossible to know exactly), it doesn’t mean Linux is living up to its full potential on the desktop.

My argument is not that Linux distributions should try to be like Windows or Mac OS X, my argument is they should care more about the end-user experience. And shipping stable, integrated software is key to that.

Windows and Mac OS X both appeal to non-technical people because a lot of administration tasks are either automated or only involve pointing and clicking.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Linux is difficult to use. But the lack of integration can be off-putting for someone who has never used it before.

In fact, there’s absolutely no reason why a free operating system can’t exceed the user experience of a commercial one.

Take a look at the success of Android on mobile devices for a good example of what can be done with a free operating system when it’s tightly integrated with the hardware.

In the case of Linux Mint, people keep raving on about how easy to use it is and how little tinkering is required for things to “just work”.

Mint has a strong focus on integration and testing and, in addition leveraging Ubuntu, develops its own software for system and software management.

While not as well known as commercial-backed distributions like openSUSE, Mint now claims to be the third most popular (the ranks can vary after a new release), according to Linux portal Distrowatch. It’s somewhat of a dark horse among Linux distributions.

For Linux Mint to become so popular without much help from the media is a testament to its appeal.

Where does that leave the upstream distributions like Debian and Ubuntu? They can always take note of the success of their derivatives and engineer their systems in much the same way.

This is the main reason why I think Ubuntu’s move to Unity and Wayland is so risky. Not because it’s a “bad idea”, but because Ubuntu still has a lot to do in the way of usability and integration work on the desktop.

And when Ubuntu’s transition to Unity is complete, it will be up to distros like Linux Mint to offer refuge to the hordes of users dissatisfied with the change.

Linux’s place on the desktop is not a war between Windows and Mac OS X it’s a battle to get its own house in order.

With a compelling offering on the table, OEMs and end-users alike will take up free software with unprecedented fervour.

Rodney Gedda is Editor of TechWorld Australia. Follow Rodney on Twitter at @rodneygedda. Rodney's e-mail address is rodney_gedda@idg.com.au. Follow TechWorld Australia on Twitter at @Techworld_AU.

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