Open Source

Elementary OS: Not just the poor man's Apple

Jack Wallen takes a close look at a new Linux distribution that could be poised to take the user-friendly crown and wear it for a very long time.

Elementary

If you've tried every take on Linux, only to find yourself feeling a bit unsure if you're settled in on a distribution, let me introduce you to something new and fresh. This new take on Linux is Elementary OS. Its goal is to become a lightweight and beautiful Linux distribution that's not only easy on the eye, but easy for people to use.

I'm here to tell you... Elementary OS succeeds on both fronts. Plus, the latest iteration of Elementary, called Freya, is very fast.

I opted to give the beta of Elementary Freya a try. It's unstable, but still quite remarkable.

The surprising thing about Freya is that Elementary has done an outstanding job of making users feel right at home — as if they are using another OS (think "OS X"). They've integrated the look and feel throughout the entire platform, all the while making everything excruciatingly simple.

Bravo to the developers of Elementary OS! This is exactly what Linux needs — a user-friendly distribution that doesn't fall short in either the aesthetic or usability categories. And with Elementary, they succeed like no other distribution to date.

Before I get into the heart of the matter, there's one thing I want to clear up. I do not believe that mimicking OS X was the key for Elementary's success. Yes, it's fairly obvious they were shooting for an interface that would not, in any way, be a hurdle for new users. Anyone can sit down at an Elementary OS desktop and know exactly what to do. There's no barrier to entry. Elementary OS is clean, uniform, easy to use... and it's Linux. These are all elements that have been captured by other distributions, but not as consistently as Elementary OS.

Sure, you can take GNOME Shell, add a panel, and you have the foundation of something that might come close to what Elementary has achieved, but you'd be missing the ultimate point. That point is to create a Linux distribution that doesn't feel like Linux. When you open apps, there's no disjointed design to remind you that you're in a different environment. It all just feels familiar.

And this leads me to the the foundation of thought driving this article. All Linux designers and developers should pay close attention to what Elementary is doing. They are designing a complete environment — not something that can be cobbled together (with the right skills). They aren't saying "Hey, use this and if you don't like it, change it!" The developers don't offer up alternatives or clever solutions — they offer a consistent solution for users who want an alternative to the current offerings. What they've created is a platform that doesn't get in the way. It doesn't have (what some would see as) the complexity of Linux or (again, what some would see as) the limitations of OS X. It's the best of both worlds (minus a couple of caveats).

Up front and personal... consistency is the key. You open up the music player, and it looks and feels like Elementary. Open up the email client (Geary), and it looks and feels like Elementary. In fact, it doesn't matter what you open — all of the default apps hold the same look and feel (Figure A). It's quite refreshing.

Figure A

Figure A

Elementary OS desktop in action.

That doesn't mean Elementary is a perfect OS. It does have flaws. First and foremost, the inclusion of the Midori browser as a default is a mistake. I get it, they wanted a lightweight browser that won't bog down the OS and wouldn't ruffle any open-source feathers. The problem with this browser is that it fails on certain sites. For example, Midori will not work with Google Drive. For those who depend on Google Apps, that's a deal breaker. The inclusion of, say, Firefox or Chrome would solve that issue right away. But given the target audience, does Elementary OS really want to have to place installing a more fully functional browser in the hands of the end user? My guess is no.

The next issue is a bit trickier and one that they may not have an answer for. This issue starts with the very Apple look and feel of the OS. A user could hop onto the Elementary desktop and assume (at first blush) that they were using a product made by Apple itself. The second they plug their iPhone in, a different story unfolds. Yes, you can copy photos over to and from the phone, but try to add music to the device. You might be tempted to open the music player (ala iTunes), but you'd be out of luck (because there's no external device support). You could try to use the film manager and copy music to the Music folder on the phone, but you'd have no luck if you did that either. The music will copy but won't be recognized by the device. This really isn't Elementary's fault. Yet, there's no getting around the need for iTunes to work with the iPhone. A lot of users — especially users new to Linux — will want this feature in Elementary, but they may not ever get it. That, my friends, is a shame, because Elementary could be more than just a glossy, user-friendly Linux — it could be the beginnings of the "poor man's Mac."

I, for one, would love to see that come to complete fruition. And, personally, I think it would be in Mac's best interest — given the continued rise in the popularity of the Chromebook. Something like Elementary OS would be a great gateway for Apple to create their own take on the Chromebook.

Elementary OS is an incredibly intriguing platform — one that I believe has the potential to overtake all other Linux distributions as the leader in user-friendliness. And, honestly, if they could resolve the two issues I mentioned, they could be primed for something very special.

What do you think? Could an OS like Elementary take over not just the Linux desktop, but the desktop in general? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.

About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox