Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Desktop Linux Summit

So the Desktop Linux Summit apparently happened a few days ago and nobody seems to have paid it much mind. This is supposed to be the event that showcases all the progress that those Constitution-burning, anti-copyright communists like Novell and IBM have made in bringing Linux to the unwashed masses who wouldn't know where to even start using an OS without a big green button that says "start". Those limey geeks over at The Register have one of the more in-depth writeups about it, although they don't seem entirely enthusiastic about what went on there. I suppose you can't expect to go from skid row to The Hamptons overnight, but personally I'd have to say desktop Linux is in a far better state than most (including El Reg) seem to give it credit for. If only somebody - anybody - would notice.

I'm taking the liberty of including a few screenshots for illustrative purposes only. Now, I should explain first that eye candy is not what an OS is really about, but as we all know blondes do have more fun, and looks do matter. I will explain these shots - and provide some more substantive arguments in favor of desktop Linux - a bit further down.

The screenshot herewith known as Shot One:

The screenshot herewith known as Shot Two:

Now, ignoring my ridiculous 1024x768 screen resolution (resized to 640x480 for server space), which chunkifies all my desktop objects, there's all sorts of good things happening here. Even three or four years ago, fonts were a major problem on Linux - they aren't anymore. Both KDE and Gnome have progressed to a point where they are quite functional GUI's, offering as many features as you want (or don't want). Files are drag and drop, thumbnail previews are available for most file types, and all major forms of media are supported.

There's also some obvious eye candy going on in these shots, which I've added in myself... true translucency is not a standard feature of either X or KDE (it's built into X but turned off by default), but I like to play around with it, and am showing it here just to illustrate how far the Linux GUI has progressed. Developers are well beyond adding functionality and have now moved on to pure fluff. Actually, that's being harsh - there are practical reasons for desktop translucency. Being able to look underneath windows without having to move them does have its uses.

True translucency is not yet stable on X (though unlike Windows, if the composite module crashes, you simply lose translucency and not your entire OS or even your GUI). "Fake" translucency - where a part of the image below is simply drawn on top of what's above it - is supported, is available via checkbox in the KDE control center, and works fairly well, but is slower and not as clean. Again, though, the point is, the GUI itself works so well now that developers have in large part simply moved on to making things pleasant to look at.

You'll also notice some other niceties in those shots, such as the Karamba themes running on the desktop. For a Windows equivalent you'd have to think of something like MS's "active desktop", although both more limited in scope and narrower in focus, with none of the security or stability concerns of that crap Windows "feature". I think I can go so far as to say that Liquid Weather, which you see running in the bottom right, is about the most useful application of any kind that I've ever seen. And it sure is pretty. (The skin I'm using is just one of many - I have it set to a muted palette to blend in with whatever my constantly-changing desktop background is). Karamba makes heavy use of translucency effects, with no noticeable performance hit. This is advanced stuff, though - most users will not apply these customizations, but it's nice to know you can. A Linux desktop is whatever you want it to be.

I'm tempted to go beyond the GUI and talk a little about the underlying OS, but honestly, on the desktop it's the GUI that makes all the difference. A lot of people are still afraid of Linux because they associate it with command line interfaces - I can honestly say that since installing SUSE 9.2, there is not a single case when I have ever been forced to use the command line. Installing software is a one-click process, and running applications works exactly the same as Windows or Mac, for better or worse. (In fact, one thing I dislike about KDE and Gnome is that their default taskbars encourage you to close your apps when done with them - this is not the right way to use a PC, and it's only because of Windows' instability and security issues that we've been brainwashed into doing it. The Mac does a better job with its dock, which encourages you to leave all of your commonly-used applications open at all times - a much more efficient way to work.)

And obviously, Linux makes a better desktop OS because it's more secure. Honestly, I'm not sure how anyone can advocate using Windows knowing just how many zombie machines there are out there; how many virus-infected, spyware-infected, or other malware-infected PC's exist on this planet. It's ludicrous, and yes, this affects "grandma" way more than it does more experienced users. Windows has trained us that fully-updated anti-virus and anti-spyware applications are necessary components to security, which they are not if your OS is written properly to begin with.

What desktop Linux is missing is commercial application support, and for that reason alone I keep Windows on all of my machines and dual-boot when I have to. It sucks having to do it, but I play games and I use Adobe and Macromedia products - I have no real choice, as is true for a lot of others as well. I'd love to ditch Windows, but until the applications I want to run are supported on it, I can't, and application developers have no incentive to port to Linux as long as even the early adopters continue to run Windows. Chicken, meet egg.

But the OS itself is so there. And not just for the "freak mainstream", as The Register apparently likes to refer to half-nerds like myself. It's your grandma's OS, right now. Just as long as your grandma ain't gonna be playing no Half Life 2.

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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