The USS Quad Damage

On Linux and Desktops

I talk about what Linux really means in the modern day.

I generally try and stay away from the whole “linux on the desktop” argument. It very rarely makes any sense. Unfortunately, with the release of Ubuntu 14.04 a lot of people are yammering on about “Linux on the desktop”, and unfortunately they’re all concluding with the same old tired cliches. What’s worse is the obvious rebuttal while on point, is unsatisfying.

It sounds like making excuses, whereas the real issue is a fundamental misunderstanding of what “Linux” actually is. There are various complaints about how you will lose data if you install it, how it won’t run Windows apps, how it takes “tinkering” to get it to work because you have to maybe go into the computer’s BIOS. What? That’s like saying putting petrol in the car is inconvenient because you have to open the petrol tank. Before self-service in service stations, I’m sure that would’ve been counter-intuitive. Today, most people manage.

For cars, we have mechanics that take care of most of the day-to-day running of the vehicle, if not refilling the petrol. They will manage other disposable items like tyres, spark plugs, oil sumps, belts, hoses, the list goes on. There’s no similar “job” for computers. It’s usually done by the resident nerd. Someone who manages to be proficient enough to get the user up and running again. Those guys are tinkerers, and Linux is most definitely up their alley, but that’s a tautology. For those that don’t care, they don’t even know what Linux is (or Windows or Max OS, for that matter, only that they might need to pay for it, like they pay for AOL).

But in the end, what is someone using when they are using “Linux”? This isn’t some meditation on “Linux” vs “GNU/Linux”, I mean really. If someone is using Mac OS X, are they using “Linux”? Some might say “oh no, it's just another Unix”, but it’s most definitely not. Mac OS uses CUPS and Samba, for instance, and that’s not coming from some Posix heritage, it’s coming straight from the open source community. It might not be under some organisational banner like “GNU” or “Apache”, but it forms part of the core operating system, as we understand it in the modern age.

The thing with “Linux” as a banner is, it is almost defined by its otherness. Is BSD “Linux”? Is it more Linux than Mac OS X is Linux? Someone running OpenBSD might be offended at being labelled a “Linux” user, but to the metaphysical grandma, they are the same. Windows is Windows, Mac is Mac, Linux is “Other”. It doesn’t matter if you’re running Debian Hurd ARM with a Mach microkernel running mostly BSD software, you’re the “other”, the “Linux guy”.

In a practical sense, there’s a huge number of “Linux guys” who actually run Mac OS with some extra GNU packages. There’s also a fair number who run Windows with Cygwin on it. The “oddity”, if anything, are the people who run Visual Studio toolchains in a traditional Windows environment. For a software developer, if you’re not using Linux, you’re missing out. Today, I believe that’s true even for ex-pats running Mac OS. Linux can be a little janky on some hardware, but Mac OS is more janky in the software development experience. In fact, on Mac hardware, Linux would probably fare pretty well.

But I digress. Really, do you need to be running the Linux Kernel specifically in order to run Linux? Do you need to be running the GNU toolchain? Do you need to be running GTK or QT? Do you need to be using X or Wayland or Mir? Today, almost everyone uses a huge chunk of open source every day, whether they’re technical folk or not, and “Running Linux” isn’t really a thing. Today, you can run a fully FOSS stack, top to bottom, and the most negative thing someone can say about it is that you might have to format your drive or enter the BIOS.

But at the end of the day, does that even matter for the metaphysical grandma? I’ve had people say to me “Oh hey I'm interested in trying out that Linux thing. Does it run on Windows?” Today, I’m not even sure any more. Does it?