So I saw a post on Reddit the other day asking about standout software on Linux and it got me thinking about what could be improved and what is already good on Linux. I’m going to take my response and clean it up a bit for a post here as I feel like discussing the areas in which Linux lags behind Windows & OS X. First off, a breakdown list:
Polish Me Up!
Linux has some great software but much of it needs polishing to make it attractive to the non-technical user. These are all cross platform so the software is not exclusive to Linux. However, some of these problems are exclusive to Linux. In the cases where they are not, these are the best pieces of software for Linux whereas on Windows & OS X, you have potential alternatives. Examples:
- Firefox should find a way to disable the title bar by default. Not have the user poke to do it via various methods (more choice here is worse because it makes it a nightmare for people to troubleshoot if they want to undo the change).
- VLC needs to make their interface pretty. Release 2.0 did this for OS X but Linux and Windows still look like crap.
- Skype. I hate it and I actually prefer the simple Linux interface, BUT to attract new users, the UI has to look pretty. Not something that is a throwback to the 1990s.
- Zim. Best desktop wiki but needs to look prettier and be a bit less buggy with the text formatting.
Please Make Me Better
Then there is the software that isn’t good enough yet (my opinion, these just don’t feel as polished or as smooth/easy to use as their Windows counterparts). I’m only mentioning software that is actually released as stable here; example, the Calligra Suite is very promising but is still in beta.
- Office suite (Libre Office) – documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. All aren’t as good as their MS Office counterparts.
- Other office programs like Visio and an email client (on Linux this would be stuff like Dia and Thunderbird) – Again, not as good yet.
- Simple paint programs to replace MS Paint. For the normal user, MS Paint is as simple and easy to use as it gets. While Pinta is something I’ve been meaning to test out as a Linux replacement, I haven’t heard many people including it by default in distros which makes me wonder if something is wrong with it. Right now, I just don’t do much image editing so I haven’t had a chance to test the program myself yet.
- Photoshop replacement – GIMP is still not good enough yet. Other mentioned programs like the ones on KDE are good but still lag behind in features. Remember, this is about being as good or better than the Windows & OS X counterparts.
- Games. Really just games in general aren’t supported much on Linux despite what Wine can do. Using Wine just won’t feel that good to the non-technical user. Especially if you have to explain how it works to them.
Things in Linux that are about equal to Windows & OS X (or are just cross platform):
- Meld is awesome, but from my co-workers, I’ve heard that Beyond Compare is also awesome.
- Notepad++ can be replaced by Sublime Text 2 (though this costs money and is cross platform) or Kate (good unless you are not running KDE in which case you run into the problem of getting it to feel like it is part of your DE). Outside of these, there isn’t a single easy to use, high powered GUI text editor for Linux that is on par with Notepad++. As much as I like vim (and respect emacs), those are programs that “advanced” non-technical users would never use.
- Music Players – Foobar, Songbird, etc. can be replaced by Clementine (cross platform), MPD, Nightingale, etc. There are tons of great music players on all platforms.
- IRC – XChat is great but is cross platform, hence we don’t standout here except perhaps in choice as there are a ton of other great IRC clients on Linux. But IRC is IRC so what works here works. We don’t really “win” out here.
- Chat programs – Pidgin. Empathy+Telepathy isn’t feature comparable yet to Pidgin but if it does get there and then goes beyond, we could potentially standout here.
- PDF readers – Foxit on Windows is good enough and comparable to all the great PDF readers Linux has. We have more choices but again, reading PDFs is pretty basic. No real “win” here.
- File Transfer – WinSCP vs Filezilla (again cross platform). For just straight up file transfers, all OSes have good programs to use.
- And a bunch of cross platform stuff like: KeePassX, other browsers, Comic Readers (MComix is my current favorite), emulators, VirtualBox, etc.
Now we are talking. Things that Linux wins over Windows & OS X (not cross platform):
- TortoiseSVN < RabbitVCS, TortoiseHG, etc. However! The big problem for Linux is that none of these has universal support for all popular file managers (Nautilus, Dolphin, Thunar, PCManFM) so improvement is still needed.
- Version control tools – SVN, Git, HG. We got ’em all!
- Terminals. Anything beats cmd.exe and Powershell is nice but slow to load. OS X has a good terminal too. However, Linux just rocks when it comes to the number and feature set of our terminals.
- File managers. None are perfect but they are all better than Windows in my opinion. OS X I’m not sure since I haven’t used it in a loooong time.
- Archive manager. Ours handles a lot more formats once you install all of them. Installing stuff like p7zip on Windows just doesn’t feel as nice as when using it on Linux. We also got tar and more compression types. Again, haven’t used OS X in such a long time that I don’t remember what this was like either.
- Partition manager – GParted handles so many filesystem types, can do so much, and is so straightforward to use that it is pretty damn hard to beat.
- Docks – we got lots of them. OS X of course would be a tie here since they too have a good Dock.
- Kupfer, Docky, etc. So many to choose with so many features.
- Wealth of command line tools. We have more than everyone.
Hmm, I don’t know…
Things I don’t know about because I don’t really use them:
- Audio, video editing.
- Webcam usage outside of Skype.
- Screen capture/recording programs.
- PDF creation.
- Backup programs – Acronis, Paragon (I’ve used this and it’s dead simple but for Linux I just use rsync and scripts), Crashplan, Time Machine (For OS X. I’ve heard great things about this.) etc. vs Duplicity, Bacula, etc.
- Calendar/scheduling programs.
- High end math or scientific programs.
So What’s the Problem?
Overall, if you look over what software Linux has available in comparison to Windows or OS X, you will find that we lack polish or just lose out in very important areas to non-technical users (the first two lists). Software that my mom and dad would use. We also have so much choice, which when combined with our various DEs and WMs, that it becomes clear that there is no good single stack that can be presented to users that will cover all the basic essentials. This is important because while you can run a KDE application on GNOME, the added bloat in terms of dependencies and RAM usage makes it so Windows and OS X end up being a better computing experience.
So why not fix it? Well… I’d be amazed if any of the stuff I mentioned in the first two lists ever get fixed because doing simple Google searches will show that many users have already mentioned this stuff years ago. None of them ever got fixed, though you get annoying workarounds. So chances of any of it suddenly being made a top priority fix is slim to none.
Also notice that the two following lists that we win out on due to being better or having more choices don’t concern basic users much except for a few things. Instead they cater to power users which is why Linux is often seen as awesome by more advanced users. Sure non-technical users will think Linux can be great to use as well but they only see it as an alternative to Windows. It doesn’t give them the same POP that us advanced users get when using Linux.
Sure non-technical users will think Linux can be great to use as well but they only see it as an alternative to Windows or OS X. It doesn’t give them the same POP that us advanced users get when using Linux.
Time to quote myself for emphasis. This is why prevents Linux adoption. No matter how hard you try to put together a coherent distro, you will inevitably fall short because we aren’t better in the areas that matter. In fact, overall we are worse. All the hubbub of no viruses, freedom, free software, and whatnot means nothing if we cannot win in these areas. A tie isn’t good enough. We need to blow away users for all of the basic tasks. I’ll admit that games can’t be changed by us but that will come if everything else gets improved on first.
An interesting aside is looking at distros that are attempting to fix this problem and at least come into a tie with Windows and OS X. For example, while I’m probably never going to use it, elementary OS has a goal of trying to unify the computing experience on Linux. It’s attempting to handpick and modify a software set so you can have a single integrated GNOME 3 desktop that feels like it all fits together – looks, usability, everything. Of course the downside is that if the software they pick doesn’t fit all your needs, you will suddenly break the illusion of unity they’ve built and you will be back to square one. Additionally, they are limited to the same software restrictions we have above so at best they can just fall short of tying Windows or OS X. Perhaps if they get to this point, they can start working on improving the software they’ve chosen to try and eventually make Linux better.
Ubuntu with their move to Unity is another attempt at unifying the computing experience on Linux. They are pouring a lot of money into getting all their software to work with the global menu and to fit into their new DE. While the initial release sucked (I tried it on first release along with GNOME 3 as part of an experiment to pick a DE for my first ever Arch Linux build), it does show promise and could eventually be good enough to attract new users. However, they too will eventually run into the same limitations. Hopefully with their resources, they can make a good contribution to fixing up those pieces of software.
Chakra Linux with their focus on KDE is another interesting project I’ve kept tabs on. The way they try to get GKT integration into KDE is very interesting but still needs some work. Since they made the choice of going all KDE, they get to rely on the KDE community. This is pretty interesting the entire community is focused on the KDE suite of software so they have a better chance of catching up to and surpassing Windows & OS X. Everyone else has to deal with potential forks (Open vs Libre Office) to major projects. The downside is that non-KDE users won’t be interested in helping to their speed of development may not be fast enough to ever surpass Windows or OS X.
Lastly, I’ll mention my own experiences making a unified XFCE environment on Arch Linux to complete the list of major DEs. I attempted to build an environment with minimal dependencies – no GNOME or KDE, is only XFCE and thus GTK, and runs fast. For the most part, I got it working but it took a long time to get there and it still isn’t perfect. I had to give up on some great pieces of software (ex, Kate) in favor of reduced dependencies. I also wouldn’t say the environment as a whole is worlds better than Windows or OS X for a normal user. In fact, it falls short because of what I mentioned above. But as an advanced user, I find it a joy to use compared to Windows.
So Linux community, I hope someone takes note of what I’ve written and attempts to contribute to the future of Linux by sprucing up the state of software in Linux – for the stuff that is important to non-technical users. Our track record keeps me skeptical since we tend to focus our efforts on cool geeky pieces of software (and thank you for that!). If we really want to win the “desktop war” (aka: convert users), these things are of utmost importance.
A 7 year Linux user
P.S. As an aside, due to continuing the discussion Reddit, I bet that people are going to just ignore what I wrote and attack my post from random positions that have nothing to do with what I said. It seems to be the stance that Linux apologists take up when they can’t find a fault with your actual arguments. Just remember, looks matter (you wouldn’t want to look bad in a first impression right?) and that non-technical users are the majority. Linux isn’t perfect and we should be willing to listen to critique and fix our flaws.