Open Source

There will never be a 'Year of Linux' on the desktop OS

TechRepublic member dcolbert says a major Ubuntu Linux security flaw, and a lack of accountability by the Linux community, will keep him from ever considering it as a viable alternative desktop OS.

Several months ago, I started a discussion on TechRepublic about whether or not Linux was suitable for the corporate desktop. At the time, I had discovered windows floating in front of the screen saver for anyone to read, even though the Linux desktop was locked and those windows should have been hidden. I wanted to know if this was a frequently-encountered issue, and if so, had it been addressed and resolved. My point was that I had never seen anything like this happen on a Windows desktop (or a Mac OS desktop, for that matter).

Since then, I applied countless patches and fixes to my Ubuntu box, which is running 9.04 because 9.10 just hung when I attempted to update it. However, my desktop windows still continued to float in front of my screensaver, for the entire world to see, even though the machine was locked. That's strike 2 for Ubuntu Linux on this matter.

As a HIPAA regulated industry, something like this is a huge deal to me, and it means I will absolutely never consider Ubuntu as a viable alternative desktop OS for the 200 desktop users at my office. I grabbed a screenshot and a video of the issue with my Droid, but I needed to obscure some information that was visible before I submitted the following  picture to TechRepublic.

In my mind, the bigger problem is the lack of accountability that I've encounter with the Linux community. It seems like they often deny issues or shift responsibility. In fact, I'm quite sure hardcore Linux fans will say something in this discussion thread like, "You should be on 9.10 by now."

It's time for the Linux community to step up to the plate and admit "We've still got some serious issues!" instead of directing the blame elsewhere with accusations like, "It must be your fault!" But the truth is, I didn't do anything to make my Ubuntu box occasionally display windows that should be hidden behind a locked screensaver. That's a significant Linux security issue – one that Microsoft or Apple would respond to aggressively, and one that, from the looks of things, Ubuntu may not even have acknowledged exists.

Now, a valid response might be, "Did you do anything to address this issue or alert Ubuntu support or development?" No, I did not. Do you know why? When I encounter a problem on OS X or Win32/64, usually if I just wait a little while, Microsoft or Apple fixes the problem. That's how it should work – that's the contract I signed up for as a consumer (and as someone making decisions about what will be deployed to my desktop users).

If you have a product that you think can compete with and challenge other solutions, it better also meet the bare minimums requirements on service and support. Linux does not. Linux spends a lot of time shifting the blame and responsibility back to the user, but the products Linux competes with do not. For whatever reason, Linux does not have the same level of quality assurance and testing that Microsoft and Apple seem to invest in their platforms, and it shows in countless ways.

When a Microsoft product has a vulnerability or unresolved bug in an aging OS that's still in use, the Linux community is among the first to jump all over them. But the Linux community sure doesn't like the taste of its own medicine when told, "There are Linux distros out there with large security issues that have never – and never will be – addressed."

As I see it, this alone is an argument in defense of Microsoft's model, where the market almost mandates that the company continues providing assistance long after we all know they would rather EOL all support for those platforms.

Linux development seems to move ever forward, never looking back, and when development and support for Linux products stop, those products are often killed dead in their tracks. The community response is, "Tough, we don't do it that way anymore… get with the program, and move to the new solution." Of course, the new solution might be pretty rough and still working out the bugs, but that's just the way it goes with Linux. (Photo credit: Jinx, Inc)

Let's face it. Linux is not a good OS platform for home users – for your teenage child, parent, grandparent, in-law, or other relative – or for average corporate desktop OS users. In almost all of these cases, a commercial OS from Microsoft or Apple is inevitably going to be a better solution.

Now, I don't think it's necessarily fair to expect Linux to live up to the standards set by Microsoft and Apple. The very nature of the organizations developing these platforms makes them largely incomparable. I've always had a fundamental philosophical distrust for the claims of the Linux community, because I do not believe that the DIY ethic will lead to an ultra-competitive, superior OS platform to commercial alternatives. Their early idealism, almost political in nature, set the bar far too high and too early for Linux. Because of that, Linux has spent the last 15+ years producing headlines that have become almost satirical – next year will be "the year of Linux."

If we're looking for "The year of Linux," we need to stop trying to define it as Linux somehow eroding massive market share from the current OS leaders. We need to set more reasonable goals, such as: 1) Finding wider adoption and acceptance among IT professionals and other technology-oriented employees (check); and 2) Becoming the base-platform for an increasing amount of professional and consumer electronic devices (check).

Yes, there are things that Linux is doing well. However, being a desktop OS alternative continues to be a weak area for Linux. They continue to be third in a three-horse race (and trailing by a wide margin, at that). The Linux community is not constructed in a manner that can deliver the world-class corporate support of organizations like Microsoft and Apple, and the misty-eyed idealism that thought some sort of communal brotherhood of nerd-dom would elevate Linux above the commercial alternatives is a bankrupt theory. It hasn't happened, and it's not going to.

What it comes down to is that people working on testing and development during evenings and weekends (on their own time) aren't ever going to be as responsive as multi-billion dollar, multi-national corporations. It was a nice utopian vision, but like all the others, it didn't pan out as well in practice as it sounded in theory.

To be fair, Linux has improved tremendously. For example, I find myself fighting less often with things like WiFi, enabling 3D on video cards, or entering monitor refresh rates into a X config file by hand.

I've also heard a lot of good things about Mint, but I think it proves one of my longest-standing arguments. By the time Linux can effectively compete with Windows and Mac OS, it will have lost the very things that made it unique. Those warm-and-fuzzy ideals that make me dry heave are part of the intrinsic appeal of Linux, on a certain level.

Once you move away from the Ubuntu/Debian idealism – which makes adding proprietary drivers and codecs a nightmare to a more consumer friendly, realistic approach – you're a dangerous step closer to embracing exactly the kind of ideology that differentiated Linux from closed OS platforms. A Linux that can effectively compete with commercial OS platforms will end up virtually indistinguishable from the others, including all of the negatives that make Linux idealists love Linux so much.

Bottom line? Linux is imperfect, and we will never have a "Year of Linux" on the desktop OS. It's time to stop worrying about that and admit that Linux just isn't suitable beyond the needs of hardcore techie types. Every time Linux gets misrepresented, it results in Linux experimentation by people who shouldn't be using it, and they find it an unpleasant experience in the process.

I've gone great lengths to integrate Linux into parts of my daily routine, to give Linux a chance to prove itself, and to be open-minded. In certain situations, Linux has a lot of added value and benefits compared to the alternatives. But ultimately, Linux is in my life only as a supporting role, not a star.

I know what I can trust Linux to deliver and what I can't. If the Linux community was more forthcoming and honest about Linux strengths and weaknesses – rather than hiding those weaknesses or trying to misdirect the blame for its limitations – it would benefit, not hurt, the entire Linux community.


Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

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