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Inconsistent User Experience Hinders Linux on the Desktop

Despite what most people believe, there are three software options for the corporate desktop -- Windows, OS/X and Linux. They have much in common but significant training challenges await any organization that attempts to switch.

Choosing one of these desktop operating systems is a bit like living in the United States 150 years ago. You could enjoy the creature comforts of the east coast, take a risk and move toward the Mississippi River, or gamble and head to the wild west.

Linux is the wild west of desktop environments. It is a loosely knit collection of software that sometimes works well together and sometimes not. To complicate matters, there are many Linux variants. Some are fully supported by major vendors while others are only available "as-is". Freedom has its price.

OS/X is the east coast of desktops. It runs exclusively on Apple’s Macintosh platform where Apple exerts strong influence and control over what is acceptable. Choices are more limited but what is available tends to work well, though at a higher cost.

Windows is the Mississippi River of desktop environments. It is smooth and elegant in some respects but rough and risky in others. Given that thousands of vendors and entrepreneurs offer products that run on Windows, it is surprising that it all works as well as it does.

Everyone is familiar with Windows. Microsoft pretty much controls the corporate desktop. The biggest threat to Microsoft’s domination is itself. Windows Vista has come under strong criticism for poor compatibility and performance. Another Windows release like Vista could spell the end of an era for Microsoft.

Apple has made slow progress in corporations. Their consumer focus and clear success in that arena has gotten the attention of corporate users. To be successful in the enterprise, Apple needs good network management tools. The IT staff must be able to remotely manage desktop systems.

This is a lesson that Microsoft learned the hard way. Apple must develop its own management tools or partner with a third party if it hopes to conquer the enterprise.

Linux already has the network management tools. Some even work with Windows. Those tools give Linux an edge on Apple in managing networked systems.

The Achilles heel for Linux on the desktop is an inconsistent user experience across desktop applications. In some ways, this is a simpler problem to solve than what Apple faces but taming the wild west was not easy.

We discuss Linux as if it is a single entity. But in strict terms, Linux is an operating system. It controls the PC hardware and provides an environment for running software applications. Everything else is up for grabs.

Linux offers the most varied and diverse set of software available today. Yet this abundance becomes a major barrier to adoption on the corporate desktop.

Both Windows and OS/X have a consistent look and feel. The user interface is controlled by Microsoft and Apple respectively presenting the end user with a controlled experience. Linux is different. No one owns the Linux user experience.

Here is a good example. The software that end users interact with when running Linux is called a "window manager". It is the software that allows us to point and click to make Linux do things. It may seem like splitting hairs but the distinction between the operating system and the window manager is important.

There are many window managers available for Linux. The most popular are Gnome and KDE but there are lots more.

Moving to Linux presents the immediate problem of deciding on a window manager. You could pick a traditional Unix-style window manager. You could pick something that is Windows-like or Mac-like. You might even decide to blaze a new trail and try something experimental.

The window manager you choose will have a major impact on your perception of Linux. Some window managers require you to open a command window (like the old DOS prompt) to perform many common functions. Others try to avoid having you use the command prompt.

Obviously, using a command window to accomplish anything is not for the average computer user. Unfortunately, many Linux support sites offer advice based on the assumption that the user is familiar with Linux commands.

This is understandable because most Linux commands are the same regardless of where you got the software or which window manager you are using. In the command window, you are interacting with Linux directly. No middleman.

It sounds fine. Now try explaining to a novice that she must type "sudo mount /dev/hdc /mnt/cdrom" before installing new software from CD.

Linux has been and remains largely controlled by geeks. There is no major vendor steering the Linux wagon train despite that fact the several big names are pushing the adoption of Linux.

Red Hat is focused on the server market where user friendliness is not a big issue. IBM is also focused on servers. Sun has more of an end-user bias but their track record in delivering user-friendly software leaves much to be desired. Finally, Novell has what may be the strongest end-user focus but they have not delivered on the promise of Linux.

So here we are. Linux is a great operating system with some great open-source applications held back by an inconsistent user experience.

Linux is not quite ready to take over the corporate desktop, but just as the wild west was tamed, so will Linux.

Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO™. He helps companies avoid the subtle mistakes that cause missed deadlines, lost opportunities and fragile results. He shows them agile approaches that slash risk and cut development time so they get to market 25-50% faster. He helps them carry that momentum into the sales cycle using white papers and case studies that accelerate the selling process.

This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in June 2008.

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Virtual Business

Virtual Business

This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.