What Linux needs to do to reach the masses

There is a surprisingly short list of issues Linux developers need to address to reach the masses.

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Image: Jack Wallen

Recently my friend asked for help installing Linux on an aging laptop. The laptop originally ran Windows 7, but it was upgraded to Windows 10 (due to the end of life for 7). After the upgrade, the laptop became nearly impossible to use. Why? Because Windows 10 failed to recognize that the hardware didn't meet the basic system requirements. The laptop in question was an older Lenovo, so it was worth salvaging.

And so, I installed Ubuntu 19.04.

I wish I could say that everything went well. Unfortunately, to say it did would be a lie. The installation was quick and simple (as nearly every Linux installation is). However, in the end we had a laptop with no wireless. 

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As anyone who has ever installed Linux on a laptop knows, wireless support is hit and miss. Although it is exponentially better than it was years ago, this particular case in point illustrates that it's yet to be perfected. 

And I get it. Proprietary hardware exists. I also understand there are ways to install firmware to make such chipsets function. Unfortunately, this was a situation where the friend didn't exactly have all the time in the world for me to make that happen.

The experience gave me pause … just enough to realize that a shift in the landscape of how users work should bring about a similar change in the way Linux is developed.

Times have changed

Once upon a time, the vast majority of people worked daily at the desktop. Most business users rarely left their desks. As for consumers, the majority of them spent their computing time in similar fashion—glued to a desktop.

That is no longer the case. An overwhelming majority of people compute on the go. People like myself are the exception, as I spend probably 90% of my computing time at a desk. The masses, on the other hand, work on laptops, tablets, and phones. 

Thing is, most distributions are still primarily developed for the desktop. It might sound like the ramblings of a madman, but consider these three points:

  • Wireless is still not 100%.
  • High resolution screens require users to configure settings so they are readable.
  • Suspend (need I say more?).

Before I continue on, outside of those three issues, Linux performs flawlessly on laptops. It runs with speed, reliability, and security other operating systems cannot match. It's highly configurable, user-friendly, and (gosh darn it) it's simply fun to use.

However, like too-thick peanut butter, those three points really stick to the roof of Linux's mouth.

How to succeed at users (without really trying)

If any team of Linux distro developers want to know how to succeed in reaching the masses, here's the trick. 

Solve these problems with mobile hardware.

Done.

Masses reached.

Look (with much respect to the possibly soon-to-be-released Librem 5 Linux smartphone), chances of Linux finding any measure of success on either tablets or smartphones is slim. Outside of Linux powering Android, there's no reason to get your hopes up that a Linux phone will conquer the great divide that is Android and iOS.

However, laptops are a different beast altogether. And those who doubt Linux can achieve such a feat, only need look to ChromeOS to see that Linux can, in fact, succeed at reaching the masses on laptop hardware. How? ChromeOS has managed to best those three issues. I've yet to see a ChromeOS not be able to use wireless, work with high resolution screens, or function properly after suspend. In fact, ChromeOS might do two of those things better than any operating system (with macOS besting them all with high rez displays). 

But until Linux can overcome those three issues, the chances it will reach the masses are not so great.

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Not a simple challenge

I get it. All three of the issues I listed are not easily overcome. After all, if they were simple hurdles, they'd have already been jumped. Linux developers have been working on these issues for some time. And, in some cases, they succeeded. Using a high-resolution display can be done, with some tweaking. In most cases, out of the box the resolution will be such that it's a challenge to read anything on the screen. However, with a change in display configuration, you'll read those pages like a champ.

However (and this is a big however), such a configuration shouldn't be necessary. Why? Because if a distribution wants to attract the masses, it must work out of the box. Period. End of story. The post installation routine must not require tweaks just to get things like wireless, suspend, and display to work properly. End users shouldn't have to Google how to increase the size of fonts and UI elements so they can view their screens properly, or install proprietary firmware to use wireless. Nor should they have to suffer the suspend/hibernate issues that have plagued Linux on the desktop for years. All one has to do is Google any variation of "Linux hibernate not working," and you get results as recent as 2019 and as early as 2004. 

SEE: 20 quick tips to make Linux networking easier (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

I understand the problem is a combination of proprietary hardware and the mixing and matching of components. But Linux has managed to work flawlessly on desktop hardware for a very long time. To me this says Linux can work with similar success on mobile hardware. And it should. The landscape of current users won't revert back to the desktop any time soon. In fact, if we're to believe any of the prognostications, users will continue the mass migration toward mobile, until there's only a handful of us hardcore users still working diligently at desktop machines.

What then? If Linux distributions don't install (without issue) off-the-shelf hardware, the open source platform will find itself up against an immovable, immutable force. To that end, it's time Linux distribution developers turn much of their focus on delivering a flawless experience to laptops. 

If ChromeOS can do it, Linux can.

The usual preface

I should have prefaced this with the usual, "If you've read my writings over the years, you know how much I support Linux". Yadda, yadda, yadda. Linux has been my primary operating system since 1997. I only use macOS when I need to edit video or work with an editor on a book (because LibreOffice cannot handle a 70,000-word manuscript with hundreds of comments and track changes). From my perspective, there is no better operating system than Linux. It's that cut and dry. In fact, I wouldn't be where I am today without Linux.

That said, Linux distributions need to dive, head first, in the waters of mobility. Although the universe will have to pry the desktop out of my cold, dead hands, the majority has spoken and cut the tether. There is no looking back.

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By 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.