There is a surprisingly short list of problems that Linux developers must address to reach the masses.
Recently my friend asked for help installing Linux on an old laptop. The laptop originally ran Windows 7, but it was upgraded to Windows 10 (due to the end of the life of 7). After the update, the laptop became almost impossible to use. Why? Because Windows 10 did not recognize that the hardware did not meet the basic system requirements. The laptop in question was an older Lenovo, so it was worth recovering.
And so, I installed Ubuntu 19.04.
I wish I could say that everything went well. Unfortunately, saying yes would be a lie. The installation was quick and simple (as almost all Linux installations are). However, in the end we had a laptop without a wireless connection.
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As anyone who has installed Linux on a laptop knows, support Wireless is affected and lose. Although it is exponentially better than years ago, this particular case illustrates that it has not yet been perfected.
And I understand. There is proprietary hardware. I also understand that there are ways to install firmware for these chipsets to work. Unfortunately, this was a situation in which the friend did not have exactly all the time in the world for me to make it happen.
The experience stopped me … enough to realize that a change in the landscape of how users work should generate 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 desk. Most business users rarely leave their desks. As for consumers, most of them spent their computing time similarly, attached to a desktop computer.
That is no longer the case. An overwhelming majority of people calculate on the fly. People like me are the exception, since I probably spend 90% of my computer time on a desk. The masses, on the other hand, work on laptops, tablets and phones.
The point is that most distributions are still developed primarily for the desktop. It may sound like the crazy ramblings, but consider these three points:
- The wireless connection is not yet 100%.
- High resolution screens require users to configure the settings to be readable.
- Suspend (need I say more?).
Before continuing, out of these three problems, Linux works perfectly on laptops. It works with speed, reliability and security that other operating systems cannot match. It is highly configurable, easy to use and (my God) it is simply fun to use.
However, like peanut butter too thick, those three points really stick to the roof of Linux's mouth.
How to succeed in users (without really trying)
If a team of Linux distribution developers wants to know how to reach the masses, here's the trick.
Solve these problems with mobile hardware.
Look (with a lot of respect for the possibly free launch of the Linux Librem 5 smartphone), the chances of Linux finding any measure of success on tablets or smartphones are slim. Outside of Linux that feeds Android, there is no reason to get illusions that a Linux phone will conquer the big gap that is Android and iOS.
However, laptops are a completely different beast. And those who doubt that Linux can achieve such a feat, just need to look at ChromeOS to see that Linux, in fact, can reach the masses in the laptop's hardware. How? ChromeOS has managed to overcome those three problems. I still haven't seen a ChromeOS that can't use the wireless connection, work with high-resolution screens, or work properly after the suspension. In fact, ChromeOS could do two of those things better than any operating system (with macOS surpassing them all with high resolution screens).
But until Linux can overcome those three problems, the chances of it reaching the masses are not so great.
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It's not a simple challenge
I understand. The three problems I listed cannot be easily overcome. After all, if they were simple obstacles, they would have already jumped. Linux developers have been working on these problems for some time. And, in some cases, they succeeded. A high resolution screen can be used, with some settings. In most cases, out of the box, the resolution will be such that it is a challenge to read anything on the screen. However, with a change in screen settings, you will read those pages like a champion.
However (and this is very large), such a configuration should not be necessary. Why? Because if a distribution wants to attract the masses, it must work immediately. Period. End of story. The post-installation routine should not require adjustments just to make things like the wireless connection, the suspension and the screen work properly. End users should not have to search on Google how to increase the size of fonts and user interface elements so they can see their screens correctly or install proprietary firmware to use wireless technology. Nor should they have to suffer the suspension / hibernation problems that have affected Linux on the desktop for years. All you have to do is search Google for any variation of "Linux hibernation does not work," and you will get results as recent as 2019 and as early as 2004.
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I understand that the problem is a combination of patented hardware and the mixing and combination of components. But Linux has managed to run smoothly on desktop hardware for a long time. For me, this says that Linux can work with similar success in mobile hardware. And it should. The panorama of current users will not return to the desktop in the short term. In fact, if we believe in any of the forecasts, users will continue the massive migration to mobile devices, until only a few unconditional users continue to work diligently on desktop machines.
So what? If the Linux distributions do not install (without problems) standard hardware, the open source platform will be immutable and immovable. To that end, it is time for Linux distribution developers to focus on offering a perfect experience to laptops.
If ChromeOS can do it, Linux can.
The usual preface
I should have preceded this with the usual, "If you have read my writings over the years, you know how much Linux I support." Yadda, yadda, yadda. Linux has been my main operating system since 1997. I only use macOS when I need to edit videos or work with an editor in a book (because LibreOffice can't handle a 70,000-word manuscript with hundreds of comments and track changes). From my point of view, there is no better operating system than Linux. It is so sharp and dry. In fact, I wouldn't be where I am today without Linux.
That said, Linux distributions must dive, headlong, into the waters of mobility. Although the universe will have to take the desk out of my cold and dead hands, most have spoken and cut the tie. There is no way back.