What IS Linux (and what it should be)?

Jack Wallen
May 16, 2010
Updated • Nov 29, 2012

I do a lot of writing about Linux - for Ghacks and for other sites. One of the issues I come across often is how Linux is perceived and what it needs to do to continue to grow. It's a very complex issue based on a lot of pre-determined opinions and deeply embedded history. Often I reach out and try to bring to light issues that can serve to push Linux into new territory and light. It's not often that I do so on this site, but sometimes I find it necessary to pull out my soap box and attempt to bring a little enlightenment to the masses.

In this article I thought it would be a good idea to discuss what Linux is and what is should be. This, of course, is based on many years of use and equally as many years as a member of the media, covering Linux and the open source community.

The societal history of Linux

Let's face it...Linux has always been faced with a steep, uphill battle against a competition that has been deeply rooted and accepted in the court of public opinion. No matter how buggy and how prone to viruses and attacks the Windows operating system is, the public (en masse) uses Windows in one for or another. It's familiar. It works. It's everywhere. Linux, on the other hand, began by one person as a DIY (Do It Yourself) University project and blossomed into a communal phenomenon. But, for the most part, that DIY stigma never left the project. To this day I still hear people disclaim "Don't you have to write your own drivers for that?" Maybe ten (or even 5)  years ago that was the case. But now not so much. Now, Linux just works. But the stigma is still there. Linux is still seen as best used in server rooms, rendering farms, clusters, and (now) clouds.

But there is a bigger issue at hand for Linux - than just the stigma of its past. With regards to society at large, on a grand-scheme scale, most people don't even know what Linux is. So to the masses Linux would be completely foreign. And those are the people the Linux distributions should be focusing on.

There is an old saying "You're preaching to the choir". That saying goes a long way with regards to Linux and speaking to IT admins and tech-friendly audiences. It's only when speaking to neophytes and the general public that the idea of Linux becomes unknown territory.

What Linux should be

Linux has reached a very important point in its history. Never before has this operating system been so user-friendly and ready for prime time. But it's at this point that it has a built-in hurdle that constantly is tripping it up. That hurdle? Inability to market and focus on the new user. Although it would seem distributions like Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS, and Linux Mint are geared perfectly for the new user, they seem to falter when it comes to helping out new users. Let me give you a couple of examples.

The first example is the dreaded mailing list. Yes, I belong to many a mailing list. I read them frequently, post some times, and always find something new. But when a new user comes into the fold the first thing they read is an assault on their noob-ness and their inability to RTFM or bottom post. Suffice it to say, the mailing lists are NOT new-user friendly.

Another example is the welcome screen - or lack thereof. You know when you first install Windows you get that Welcome screen that gives you links to documents on what to do or where to go? Most people just uncheck the box that sets the Open at start option so they never have to see this again. That window is pretty crucial to new users. Linux needs this. I have sent out a call to Ubuntu to create something just like that. Even though it is a bother to many users, it is a necessity to others. And think about it - having that simple greeting with useful information would go very far in bringing new users into the fold.

Recently I read (and wrote about) the news that Songbird is no longer supported in Linux. This was a sad bit of news because Songbird was the closest thing to iTunes that Linux had. Why does that matter? Because to many users iTunes is synonymous to music player. For many users, having an iTunes clone is a critical piece of a very large puzzle. Familiarity breeds new users, and in the case of Linux that is the single biggest obstacle to adoption. Familiarity.

I've written a lot of praise lately on where GNOME is taking the desktop (see my article A sneak peak at GNOME 3) and as much as I like what the GNOME developers are doing, I wonder if it is the right move. Yes I already use GNOME shell. I like it. I think it is where the PC desktop should be heading. But most users are so familiar with that task bar/start button/notification area that change will not be welcome. Fortunately for those users there is KDE. Unfortunately for Linux, most new users wouldn't know KDE if it slapped them in /dev/null.

Because of this, that welcome screen is going to be crucial. When a user first install (or boots up) a Linux machine, they should be greeted by a welcome window that allows them to do things like:

  • Choose the look/feel of their desktop.
  • Set their username/login info.
  • Set up their email account (make this optional of course).
  • Point them to documentation.

What about you?

You are a integral component in the success of the Linux operating system. You - the community. Unlike most other operating systems, you have a say. You could contact the developers of a Linux distribution and say I have an idea! and that idea could actually find its way into the next release.

So here's your chance to chime in. What do you think Linux needs to do to bring in more new users? What would you say to a team of developers of a distribution?


Previous Post: «
Next Post: «


  1. Miggdrasil said on May 19, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    On saturday I’ll say goodbye to Windows, after a 15 years (or so) relationship. Wish me luck! Ubuntu 10.04 will be my only OS.

  2. Lake said on May 19, 2010 at 9:55 am

    Wow you just put it perfectly, some time ago I read a comment in a linux thread that state something like “all people that use Linux have* to learn to use the terminal” adding that it is infinitely better than the common UI. Well in my opinion thats such a stretch mentality. I frequently use both the terminal/command line (in windows) and when I use the later I definitely miss a quicker more organized menu, most of the time I end up creating shortcuts/menus for the console tasks I use most. Most people have never used the command line in their lives, it belongs to the techie niche basic knowledge.

    So about the question “What do you think Linux needs to do to bring in more new users?” I would add, to “UIficate” as much options/actions as possible, windows does this extremely well and for the terminal lovers/more finegrained stuff, it will still be there.

    I second as well Chad opinion about the UI dev. focus.

  3. openuniverse said on May 19, 2010 at 5:23 am

    “Linux, on the other hand, began by one person as a DIY (Do It Yourself) University project and blossomed into a communal phenomenon.”

    yeah, that’s true of the linux kernel. people don’t use the kernel by itself, and all nitpicking aside, you’re really talking about something that was always intended to be a communal project- free software. even if you choose to call it something else, don’t deny so much credit as to actually rewrite history, ok? “the code” is not historically accurate, it’s finnish mythology.

  4. Joe said on May 17, 2010 at 6:13 am

    My one reason Ubunto will never compete with windows on a laptop:
    /try pluggin in an external monitor.

    //spent weeks trying to get it to work

    ///boderline pathetic

    ///yes, I’m a unix guru – standard in, out and error.

  5. Olivier said on May 17, 2010 at 5:51 am

    Windows has a monopoly on the desktop: its game over ! But on the smartphone/notebook front we have MeeGo, pushed by two major hardware vendors, which is a first. This could be a turning point …

  6. Jojo said on May 17, 2010 at 4:22 am

    “Linux has reached a very important point in its history. Never before has this operating system been so user-friendly and ready for prime time. But it’s at this point that it has a built-in hurdle that constantly is tripping it up. That hurdle? Inability to market and focus on the new user.”

    That might be one hurdle, but the biggest Linux hurdle has always been that there is more than one distribution, each created and maintained by different development teams. Which of course, makes for differences between distributions.

    There is only one Windows. It looks the same, operates exactly the same across the many versions and years. And that is a very big key to its success.

    I just don’t see Linux ever becoming widely accepted by mainstream users until there is only one version. Which is unlikely to ever happen. So add 2+2 and you will get 4. Linux will never replace Windows.

  7. Chad said on May 16, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    To me, one of linux’s problems (in terms of the general public) is that many of the applications are functional, but linux devs don’t take the time to clean them up. Open Office is a great example. It performs many of the funstions that MS Office does, but does so with a distinct lack of style and ease of use.

    Canonical’s done a great job cleaning up Ubuntu, and adding in a little style, but that work needs to be picked up by the rest of the development community. And therein lies the problem, it’s work that is time consuming, and not appreciated by many linux devs, who value function over style. Linux devs build stuff to work, not work beautifully.

  8. kalmly said on May 16, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    I’ m so glad you asked.

    Hearsays that keep me from even giving it a try:
    1. You have to be a tech to use it.
    2. Open source applications are poorly coded.

    Things I already know I don’t like about it:
    1. The UI. I don’t like cutsey little animal themes. I’m an adult. I like medieval themes :) and I can do that on my XP system.
    2. Limited software choices.
    3. Learning curve associated with #1 on my list of heresays,above.

    Things that keep me attached to Windows:
    1. A plethora of software/shareware/freeware to choose from. Yes. I’m a software junkie – and I refuse rehab.
    2. Able to create an environment that suits me – and no one else needs to like it.

    Things I hate about Windows:
    1. Being pushed and blackmailed into abandoning the OS I love and paid over $230 for, for an OS that costs even more and appeals to me not at all.
    2. Ribbons!
    3. UAC! Yeah, I’m told you can disable it. Me, I just don’t want to go there in the first place.

    Macs? No, no. Cost. Cost. Did I mention cost? Software. Gidgets, gadgets and thingys that take up space. You know, the things Windows is now emulating.

    I’m looking for a fourth alternative. When Linux gets there I will happily pay them, or donate to them, every bit as much as MS wants for their operating system.

    This is what I want:
    1. ALL software works on it.
    2. I can customize its look and feel (Why do we say that? Some MS person coined the phrase, perhaps?) from now until the end of time and it will never object or interfere.
    3. It will free me of running network services for my stand-alone system – without penalizing me in some way.
    4. I never have to work online – unless I want to (which I don’t).
    5. I can email the tech department with problems and someone will read my email.
    6. I can email the tech department with my helpful suggestions and someone will read my email.
    7. It will give me free or very cheap upgrades IF I want them and if I don’t, it will not stop supporting the OS I’m using.

    Now, is that too much to ask?

    1. bilbo said on May 16, 2010 at 8:20 pm

      you should give a try man, I started using ubuntu 2 years ago and still don’t really know anything about linux, so you honestly don’t need to be a tech. You can also customise ubuntu much more than you can windows-and its a lot easier, and there are way more themes (elementary is nice). A lot of the software is awesome aswell, and stuff like office 2007 (if you want it) runs pretty much flawlessly in wine.

  9. paulus said on May 16, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    i personally think that it lies in the little things like you writing that you writing that you “writing on more sites” without mention the name, of the sites your writing on. Therefore wilthholding me the change to learn about hopefully good Linux websites. Writing this i think its a good/great idea to maybe dedicated an article to websites, who support Linux articles. Mayday you can divided the article about those websites into groups like for starter, working with Linux, experienced user, advanced user, etc..

  10. Shineindigo said on May 16, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Hi jack,

    I completely agree with you. Ubuntu has become much more user friendly than before. I have been very successful in turning a linux hater into a lover. Seriously. He has already ditched windows 7! He loves ubuntu. I always try to explain what linux is and how wonderful it is than windows, and many a times I have succeeded. Almost all my friends who were windows lovers have turned into linux lovers particularly ubuntu. They love the software center where they can get all the softwares they want with a click. They also love the terminal.

    All in all I am always trying to motivate people to use linux.

    I do agree that there are things which have to be improved, it is good that it is improving. And also hope it will continue. There are a few softwares which also I would like to see. May be I should post what I want somewhere else, well, thats a different matter.

    Your posts are always awesome. I never miss any.

    Linux is awesome.


Leave a Reply

Check the box to consent to your data being stored in line with the guidelines set out in our privacy policy

We love comments and welcome thoughtful and civilized discussion. Rudeness and personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please stay on-topic.
Please note that your comment may not appear immediately after you post it.