Everywhere I look at present, people seem to be waving the ‘white flag in a temporary truce’. What is more, it is understandable. I have used Linux on and, mostly, off for many years. The main reason for my installation of Linux is privacy and open source. The main reason I switch back — usability.
I know, this will likely provoke howls of terminal outrage (pun intended) from those who have long walked the kernel path. But the issue was most poignantly pointed out by my boss during a recent work call. I noted that I was dialling in from my personal laptop, on which I had just installed Linux — Fedora to be precise. His only response: why would you bother?
The question initially caught me a little raw. Stung by what seemed a reproach, but also in having my dream of a truly free and open operating system dismissed. But once the smart of his words had faded, I could see the question for what it was. Not a reproach, but a genuine query. Why would a person bother to uninstall a serviceable OS like Windows or Mac and switch?
Given we both work in product development, the question was one of professional curiosity. What is the value proposition? How does it solve for problems in a way that is different to its competition? Is it as user friendly as competing systems? Can it really be a daily driver?
With some of my Fediverse heroes ditching Linux, albeit until they may return one day, the short answers to the above seem to not favour dressing ones desktop in a penguin suit. As Danielle Foré put it recently:
If your goal is convert people from another product to your product, it’s not enough to be just as good as the thing they already have. You have to be significantly better such that they’re interested in switching and also such that it’s worth the pain of switching.
Or as Mike Stone asked:
[Linux is] more than capable, but at this point is it even possible as a desktop OS to provide that extra bit that would get average people to switch? What is it people actually NEED from a desktop OS?
An Alternative Narrative
If there is one public figure whose loss I lament, it is Christopher Hitchens. As one of the great contrarians of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries, he was a constant in an ever changing world of allegiances. Constant in that he could always be counted upon to be a pebble in the shoe of complacency. An abrasion to the status quo. A man never to be cowered into compliance.
It was listing to his impassioned rage against the system, that honed my own contrarian instincts. Perhaps it is this which has seen me swing against the recent Fediverse trend and launch back into world of Linux.
In some ways, the quality of life improvements by various distributions has made my dream of a truly private OS realisable. Improvements such as the increasing use of Flatpak — giving a more uniform way of installing apps rather than leaving it to users to work out how to get the apps they need. Driver support which usually exceeds Windows. More and more vendors shifting their solutions to the cloud; meaning many proprietary tools I needed can now be accessed via a browser. And the ever stronger voices of developers who realise an OS or app can be both beautiful and functional are bringing a level of professional polish to Linux that matches or exceeds anything Apple or Microsoft have ever produced.
However, my changing workflow has perhaps been the biggest driver of my ability to live the dream. I do very little photography work these days. A field in which Lightroom and Photoshop dominate for good reason (I can’t stress enough that Gimp is in no way comparable). My two decade long enthralment to word processors is yielding to a more nuanced understanding of the power of markup. A discovery which has surfaced Zettlr as my writing app of choice.
All of which provides a compelling counter narrative to the often prevailing notion of Linux as having to be compiled from source. That it requires a dizzying array of app installation methods (terminal, AppImage, RPM, etc.). That a user must master the command line. That the UI is clunky and lacking polish. Or that it always requires a compromise to use.
A Daily Driver
Unfortunately, while the counter narrative gets stronger year on year, Linux is not yet there as a daily driver for the average desktop user. The reasons for this go some way to answering Mike’s question: ‘What is it people actually NEED from a desktop OS?’
- To know someone, who doesn’t have a masters in CS, that uses it
- That there is a software store for ease of search and one click download
- That they can use MS Office on it
- That proprietary tools they either need or like will work (without complex workarounds)
- That there is a help line they can call (Stackoverflow doesn’t count)
As Mike noted, Linux is more than capable. And, in what may seem a contradiction, I take heart from the recent exodus. The reason is that the process is widening the debate about what holds Linux back from becoming a contender for the average desktop user. For too long has the power user narrative been so hard line that it ends up repelling more people than it attracts.
Intellectual freedom is one of the most critical freedoms in society. A slave in shackles can still dream of a better world; but remove the freedom to think and hope cannot exist because we are without the capacity to imagine a different tomorrow. Such an environment enters the nightmare world of dystopian novels in which we are slaves to an absolutely totalitarian system.
It is important that modes and technical mechanisms of thought can and are used to enable intellectual freedom. Examples are the invention of the printing press, the shift from Latin to texts written in the common tongue, universal education, and freedom of speech (specifically the freedom to dissent). In computing, it was things like the invention of the GUI, cross-platform app support, and universal file formats. All of which increases freedom of choice and enables freedom expression, but which can become neutered when technical hurdles prevent us from choosing our OS — locking us in or out of a specific platform. Returning to Mike Stone’s question ‘What is it people actually NEED from a desktop OS?’
I conceive of the answer by drawing analogies from the invention of the printing press or availability of the books in the common tongue. People shouldn’t have to enjoy extreme wealth to have access to knowledge and a means of knowledge production. Nor should they need to learn a foreign language to read and write.
A Personal Workflow
In science, a paradigm is a model or pattern — a typical instance or exemplar. But in rhetoric, my chosen field, it is an example or guide as to how one should behave. One of the most ancient examples of this is to be found in Homer’s Iliad. In a moving passage, the bard contrasts Priam’s sorrow at the loss of his son and subsequent self-imposed starvation with Niobe — who lost six daughters and six sons yet still found the courage to sustain herself.
In this context, the purpose of the illustration is not to prescribe a conclusion for the audience, but to take them on a journey and guide them to a better conclusion. In many ways Linux is not a kernel, much less a distribution. Rather, it is a paradigm. A way of seeing productivity differently and finding a better conclusion for our computing journey.
I like to choose, not have a predetermined choice foist upon me. To be able to switch if I like and not be locked into a walled garden. Linux helps me to choose. But it also requires of me that I think. Rather than accepting the chosen adventure of commercial software, it offers the ability to choose my own adventure. To not only adapt a workflow to my needs, but also to shape my understanding of needs and lean new ways to see my workflow.
An example of this is my recent switch to Git to manage my research workflow. Instead of a dizzying array of documents representing each stage in the development of my argument, I now have the more compact and clear system of Git commits. Keep an eye out for an upcoming article on my process.
When I read some articles responding to the mass of publicity generated by the recent Switching to Linux Challenge! by Linus Tech Tips, I muse that to some extent they are missing the core wonder of Linux. That new users don’t have to challenge themselves to do things the way power users do. Conceiving of the challenges for new users in that way is to continue with the battle lines between old and new Linux users. Simply asking new users to do things the way old users do, is to keep a process locked in time honoured tradition. As a man who loves tradition, one would imagine I’d be first to the barricades in support of this. But tradition maintained at the expense of reform is moribund.
Rather, new users can use Linux much as they used Windows or Mac OS — if they like. Alternatively, they can use switching to Linux as a path to re-imagine their workflow. Be it learning, working, researching, creating or developing.
It is for these reasons that I choose to switch to Linux.
Goodnight and good luck.