Linux, for the masses?

The recent release of the Linux distribution Ubuntu has many wondering, is Linux ready for the masses? Version 7.10 of Ubuntu’s desktop Linux is definitely a Linux release that’s easy to use, navigate, and learn; especially if you’re computer literate. But what about those that aren’t? A friend referred to this release of Linux as, “Grandma ready,” in reference to its ease of installation and use. Yet, as good as it might be, I can’t help but think that there is still little chance of Linux, Ubuntu or not, being widely used as an operating system.

Reviews of the Ubuntu 7.10 release are full of praise for the distro, and greatly note it’s intuitive usability and natural ease of operation. While not perfect, this desktop operating system is certainly inline with other major OS heavyweights.

Many might ask, why bother with Linux in the first place? Well, for one, it’s free. It’s well supported by documentation, user groups, and support forums. It’s incredibly stable: Linux based servers will remain “up,” or in a state of operation, for years at a time. It’s safe from viruses and attackers. Plus, there is a large number of good, free applications for Linux, such as:

  • Open Office – Office application suite, offering word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and flowchart applications, among others.
  • Pidgin – an all-inclusive instant message program that supports AIM, Messenger, Yahoo!, GTalk, Jabber, and more. (Also runs in Windows)
  • Firefox – Web browser (Also runs in Windows)
  • GIMP – Image editing software, similar to Photoshop (And yes, this also runs in Windows)
  • ClamAV – Anti-virus software

There are also the bigger applications, like MythTV, and the photo/video/audio editing suite, Ubuntu Studio.

Besides the free software, Linux gives you the option of setting up and running your own email server, Web server, FTP server, SSH server, and file share server, all with varying degrees of ease.

So what is holding Linux back? Well, for starters, every new computer for sale comes with an operating system (mainly Windows) pre-installed. This means the majority of people are simply going to take their computer home and do what’s easiest: nothing. Why remove an operating system, one that you’re probably familiar with, one that you just paid for, to try a new system. And it’s these people, the average consumer, that is going to drive the market.

If you’re building a computer from parts, you’re already the kind of person who’s willing to give Linux a shot (if you haven’t already done so) before shelling out $200+ for the latest release of Windows. However, if you’re building your own computer, there’s also a good chance that you’re a gamer or power-user, and will want Windows so you can play the latest games, or run specific Windows based applications.

However, there is hope in the office environment. Companies that buy 100s of computers can save money by using free, open-source software and operating systems in the office environment. The computers will be safer, due to the low number of vulnerabilities and viruses, and more stable. However, there will be considerable costs involved in lost productivity as workers, especially in non-tech markets, learn new software and a new operating system. Plus costs of converting entire offices from existing Windows based operations to Linux.

Will Linux ever be mainstream? Likely, at least to some extent. But, from what I can tell, not anytime soon.