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Would Standardization Cure What Ails the Linux Desktop?

This story was originally published on April 4, 2013, and is brought to you today as partof ourBestofECT News series.

It seems fair to say that every tech community out there has its own hot-button issues that are pretty much guaranteed to get conversations flowing and blood pressures rising.

The Linux community, of course, is no exception, and it’s difficult to imagine a better illustration than a debate that came up recently over at Linux Advocates.

“The Linux Desktop Mess” is the title of the post that got the discussion going, and sphygmomanometers throughout the blogosphere have been getting a workout ever since.

‘Standards Help Reduce Costs’

Linux Girl

“Today we have Linux complete with all of the wonderful open source and choice at our fingertips,” wrote Dietrich Schmitz, author of the post in question. “So much variety. That is trumpeted as a good thing. I would tend to agree, to a point.”

There’s a pressing need for standardization, Schmitz asserted, pointing to the Linux Standards Base (LSB) as a mechanism already in place to help make that happen.

“What would it take to join together to achieve LSB compliance for one file structure standard, one universal package management standard?” he asked. “If that were accomplished, we’d see the number of installers reduced substantially.”

Standards “need not be a control issue,” Schmitz added. “Standards help reduce costs…. We really need to do something about this before it gets out of hand.”

‘There’s More to the Story’

The virtual ink had barely dried on Schmitz’s post — or on the dozens of comments that soon followed — when another post appeared on the site, this time by contributor Ken Starks.

“I hold Dietrich in the highest of regard,” wrote Starks in a post the next day entitled, “The Linux Desktop Mess — Well, There’s Your Problem Right There…. My respect for him is great. And while he may have made some good points, regarding ‘The Linux Desktop Mess’…..there’s more to the story. A lot more.”

Starks went on to tell the tale of a friend for whom Starks’ own favorite distro lacked a critical feature, noting that distro variability can be a particularly big problem for new users.

“Dietrich is right,” Starks said. “The Linux Desktop IS a mess.”

‘The Numbers You Don’t See…’

Now, even more telling than the many new users who embrace Linux each day are “the numbers you don’t see… those that have given up in disgust and went back to their Windows or Macs,” Starks concluded. “Because as many of us realize… once someone pronounces that Linux sucks…they rarely come back.”

As if the topic needed any further accentuation or illustration, by the force of sheer coincidence — or cosmic destiny, perhaps — a closely related discussion was going on over at Slashdot at the same time.

Namely, in response to an “Ask Slashdot” post, bloggers there were busy trying to help a new user choose a distro — to the tune of nearly 600 comments.

Is “choice” out of control in the Linux world? Is the Linux desktop a “mess”? Down at the Punchy Penguin, bloggers have had little else on their minds.

‘There’s Really No Need’

“When a question is asked in a headline, the answer is almost inevitably no,” offered Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza, for example. “In this case, a creative reread such as, ‘do we need to force more standardization’ is required for that to be the case.”

The Linux desktop has “trended towards standardization even as it has remained fragmented,” Espinoza asserted. “All the major desktop environments, for example, will read the .desktop files which are now used to describe programs to launchers.”

Because open source software promotes interoperability, “there’s really no need for one desktop environment to rule them all,” he added. “So long as I can run the same programs under each of them, their diversity represents strength rather than weakness.

“Major organizational problems may hamper a typical operating system controlled by a single corporate master, but the Linux world resists such failure through its very lack of homogeneity,” Espinoza concluded.

‘A Strong Word’

“‘Need’ is a strong word, and very subjective,” Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone pointed out. “Linux has been doing fine for the last two decades without desktop standardization, and without desktop standardization Linux will continue to do well over the next two decades as well.”

Of course, “if we want Linux to see more enterprise adoption, which I think is key to the home user market, then unfortunately yes, I do think we need more standardization,” Stone opined. “For enterprises, training becomes an issue even when they decide if they’re going to upgrade their Office suite, or allow for a new Web browser.

“Throwing multiple desktop environments into the mix can cause an enterprise IT manager’s head to explode — most of them don’t even like having two different versions of Windows,” he added.

‘Just Silly’

“I really don’t mind that there are so many desktops,” offered consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack, for example. “What bothers me is that they all feel the need to reinvent the wheel.”

For instance, “there is no reason there can’t be a common library for things like file managers or terminal emulators that everyone simply makes a wrapper for making one place to add new functions rather than 10,” Mack explained. “And while I’m at it, there is no reasonfor things that boot before the desktop environment, such as desktop managers, to include the entire dependency chain for GNOME or KDE.

“I also doubt each window manager needs to implement its own cd burning tool or photo editor,” he added. “I don’t mind multiple app options, but per window manager is just silly.”

‘No Possible Way’

Windows and iOS are “monolithic, because they are owned and completely controlled by a company,” suggested Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien.

Linux, on the other hand, “is open, and part of that is that anyone can do what they want,” he said. “There is no possible way to force all of the distros to agree, and I don’t know that I want them to.”

For example, “LSB specifies RPMs for packages, but I happen to think DEBs are a whole lot better,” O’Brien explained. “Is someone proposing that I be forced to switch to RPMs? Because there is going to be trouble if you do that.”

‘That’s a Thought’

Diversity is good “for both the growth and the strength and security of GNU/Linux as a whole,” Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. told Linux Girl. “Several minds think and create better than just a few.”

However, “to conquer the common users as well as enterprise users, we need some pattern,” he added. “Hence, I also advocate for some standardized choices — three or four families (by architecture), or some common ground for distros with the same DE — so users know what to expect.”

For instance, “all the .deb distros can agree on something, as well as all the .rpm distros, so the packages are made for all of them,” Gonzalo Velasco C. explained. “If this happens, a user of Debian, Knoppix, Ubuntu, Mint, Bodhi, Poseidon, etc. — or Red Hat, Fuduntu, Mageia, PCLinuxOS — all will have the same packages and the same tools to solve problems.

“A user (home or professional) can switch from one distro to the other without any problem, then,” he noted. “That’s a thought.”

‘Consistent Core Stability’

For Google+ blogger Brett Legree, “consistency” is what’s needed, and that “requires adherence to some standards, of course,” he told Linux Girl.

“What I believe we need is consistent core stability, consistency across distros externally, consistency between upgrades internally, and consistent sensible defaults,” Legree explained.

For example, “if I install Fedora, openSUSE and Ubuntu on a certain piece of hardware, and all three versions I use have the same main kernel version (e.g. 3.x.y), then I expect that they will behave the same way,” he said.

“Power management should be identical, driver support should be identical etc., and if the hardware works with one, it should work with the others,” he added. “Right now, this is hit and miss in my experience.”

‘World Domination’

Consistency across distros externally, meanwhile, “is critical when it comes to wider uptake going forward, for third-party application developers and users,” Legree told Linux Girl. “This is where package management comes into play: too many moving targets make it challenging for application developers to provide support.”

In a perfect universe, “Linux could deliver all of these: consistent core stability, consistency across distros externally, consistency between upgrades internally, and consistent sensible defaults,” Legree concluded. “World domination will go to the first one to deliver this :)”

The best part, meanwhile, is that “the tinkerers will still have their rolling release bleeding edge tinker-toys!!!” he added.

‘They Are That Diverse’

Standardization in Linux is “not going to happen,” began Robin Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor.

“What should be done instead is to stop lumping all the Linux distributions under the name ‘Linux,’ and just call them Red Hat, Fedora, Ubuntu, Mint and so on,” Lim offered. “They are that diverse.”

In fact, “if we woke up tomorrow and only one desktop Linux distribution was left in development, we would all be better for it,” Lim opined. “It would be a point of focus for app developers and hardware manufacturers. Instead, we have a hobbyist operating system.”

Operating systems are supposed to be “nearly invisible,” Lim concluded. “Linux distributions are focused on creating the ultimate Linux distribution. This has resulted in a diversity of choices that do little for user productivity.”

‘Google’s Way or the Highway’

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet took a similar view.

“Linux and standardization? Yeah hold on to that dream, pal, it’s been tried before,” he said. “Linux isn’t an OS, not really; it’s a bunch of teeny tiny fiefdoms each ruled by some massive egotist and they all use the same kernel…that’s it, that is ALL it is.”

That’s why, “even after MSFT puts out the flop of the decade in Windows 8, nobody is selling Linux laptops,” hairyfeet added. “That is why all the OEMs and B&M stores treat it like the plague, as you will NEVER get that many ego driven guys on the same page — it’s like herding cats.”

Some think Linux’s diversity is a strength, but “I think it’s a mess that insures MSFT can flop like a fish and all that will happen is Apple and Google will take the business,” he concluded. “And for the one billionth time, Android is NOT Linux — they use their own kernel, they don’t care what up or downstream does, it’s Google’s way or the highway.”

‘The Confused Remain Confused’

Last but not least, blogger Robert Pogson saw it differently.

“The GNU/Linux desktop mess is imaginary,” Pogson told Linux Girl. “Take any distro and its desktop is usable and easily learned in a few hours. It’s the same as each new release of that other OS.

“The confused remain confused and the inquisitive become accustomed,” he added. “That’s not a mess. It’s just the way a GUI works.”

The mess, however, “is in the market, where competition is not allowed by OEMs and retailers catering to M$’s whims,” Pogson asserted. “That’s slowly being remedied by Android/Linux, showing the world that M$ has no monopoly on innovation nor performance but delay in the arrival of competition has cost the world dearly.

“Just get GNU/Linux on retail shelves and many problems will be solved by users enjoying proper IT,” he concluded.

Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered ECT News Editor by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

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