What does the Linux desktop really need?

Once again, the Linux Foundation Desktop Linux (DTL) workgroup is polling users to find out what desktop Linux really needs. While the foundation folks conduct the poll (and I'd encourage Linux Magazine readers to participate), let me share my top three priorities for the Linux desktop in 2008: Applications, multimedia, and polish.

Once again, the Linux Foundation Desktop Linux (DTL) workgroup is polling users to find out what desktop Linux really needs. While the foundation folks conduct the poll (and I’d encourage Linux Magazine readers to participate), let me share my top three priorities for the Linux desktop in 2008: Applications, multimedia, and polish.


On the one hand, you can easily argue that Linux doesn’t lack for applications — and, to a certain extent, that’s true. Scour Freshmeat for a few minutes, and you’ll find a gazillion and one apps for Linux. Many of which are useful, actively maintained, and at a point in development where they’re ready for production use.

But, the question is whether users can find the applications that they need to do their job. In some cases, Linux apps just aren’t up to the task just yet. In particular, I’ve noticed a few areas where you’re not likely to find suitable tools on the Linux desktop.

For instance, finding a reasonably good contact manager for Linux has been quite a challenge. I’m not talking about an address book — Linux has some awesome address book apps, like KAddressBook, but lacks an honest-to-goodness contact manager that makes it easy to round up all my contacts and keep notes on the latest discussions I’ve had with those folks, and so forth. This is essential to me as an editor, to be able to track my discussions with various parties (especially writers) and an absolute must-have if you want sales folks to adopt Linux as a desktop platform.


Another area that I’ve noticed a lack of application support is multimedia production. Linux is making strong gains in terms of allowing users to enjoy multimedia content. Adobe has been taking Linux seriously (finally) with the Flash plugin for Linux, and GStreamer and other projects are making serious headway in enabling Linux users to use pretty much any multimedia content they wish to — especially if they’re willing to overlook licensing issues.

But if you’re wanting to produce multimedia content, well, Linux is still a distant third in a three horse race. I spent some time this year trying to find suitable video editing and production tools, and found very little that one could call production-quality. While the Kino video editor is a good basic tool, it’s lacking a lot of advanced features. Cinelerra is touted as a “movie studio in a box,” and it looks like a great tool — if you can actually get it up and running, which is a decidedly non-trivial task.

You can find tools to do screen captures (video) on Linux, or to create podcasts, but they’re few and far between, and seriously lack polish compared to the (usually proprietary) apps you’d find on Windows and Mac OS X.


One of the number one complaints I’ve heard from new-to-Linux users is that the Linux desktop often lacks polish when compared to other platforms — particularly Mac OS X. (Let’s face it, most users who have suffered through Microsoft Vista are ready to revert to clay tablets if it means not having to use Vista any longer. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s certainly true I haven’t found many fans of Vista…)

Open source apps do sometimes lack the integration and polish you’ll find on other platforms. As a long time Linux desktop user, it pains me to say this, but the fact is that some of the open source apps just don’t cut it as replacements for the proprietary counterparts.

For example, few users are going to say that KompoZer is going to compete head-to-head with Adobe Dreamweaver. Although several open source accounting packages are available, I haven’t heard too many devoted Quicken users willing to switch to GnuCash or other open source packages.

On a more personal level, I can’t think of any replacements for Delicious Library, a cataloging application for books, movies, music, and more. Yes, plenty of these apps exist on Linux — but Delicious Library is the only app I’ve found that allows me to use a barcode scanner to add media to my collection so I can cut down on the amount of time needed to add new items to my collection. I shudder to think how long it would take to type in all of my books or CDs by hand.

One can blame inertia and a tendency to stick with “the devil you know,” to some extent, but the bottom line is that many of the open source desktop alternatives are still in need of some polish before the Linux desktop will be ready to take the world by storm.

All is not lost

Unlike many of the naysayers, though, I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel and I don’t think the proverbial fat lady has sung just yet.

For one thing, I’ve seen just how far the Linux desktop has come in the last decade. We’ve gone from a sparse and user unfriendly desktop to pretty awesome desktop environments like GNOME, KDE, Xfce, and (if it’s ever finished) Enlightenment. The basic infrastructure — desktop environments, toolkits, etc. — exists, it’s the applications that need to catch up now.

For another thing, the trend towards Web-based applications is working in our favor. It’s nice to know, for instance, that I can use Google Docs for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and so forth no matter what OS I’m using. Have browser, will travel. If only everything was that easy. Of course, this isn’t going to solve all the application deficits — I don’t expect to see Web-based Final Cut Express clones — but it does help.

Finally, I’m heartened by the work that’s being done by the participants of the DTL workgroup, Desktop Architects, and Freedesktop.org.

So, if you’re interested in seeing Linux succeed on the desktop, drop over and fill out the survey. Tell ‘em how you’re using desktop Linux now (if you are) and exactly what you need and want on the Linux desktop in 2008. It just takes a few minutes, and you’ll be helping the DTL workgroup get set for their planning for 2008.

Comments on "What does the Linux desktop really need?"


I think the coment “We’ve gone from a sparse and user unfriendly desktop to pretty awesome desktop environments like GNOME, KDE, Xfce, and (if it’s ever finished) Enlightenment” points out one of the biggest problems with widespread adoption of Linux for the desktop. Most users don’t want to choose their desktop environment independent of their OS. You could have 20 computers in an office all with different configurations of Linux. It would be more difficult for users to switch between different Linux configurations than computers running Windows 2000, XP, and Vista. It would be better for Linux if many of these projects such as KDE and GNOME could merge into one keeping the best features of each.



Your link in the email newsletter is broken. Where does one go to fill out the survey?


I have to disagree with Don. I’d rather have the choice rather than someone decide what the ‘best features’ are and merge them together. Different Desktop / Window managers have different uses. (For instance, XFCE is a good lightweight option to have if you need a desktop manager on a laptop machine) … I don’t use either Gnome or KDE, in fact, I don’t use a desktop manager at all — I use the Fluxbox window manager. As long as desktop applications run, it’s all good.

I don’t think extra options cause problems with users. If they don’t want to learn how to use different desktops, they don’t have to…

I think the focus should continue to be on the applications that are available for Linux. I was trying to find a good password management program the other day, didn’t want to use one from a non-mainstream desktop software group because it would be a particularly easy program to write to collect passwords for websites and then dial “home” and share with the programmer. Gnome has started development on one, however, it seems limited to Gnome applications. I’d like to see one with less requirements to run… (like http://passwordsafe.sourceforge.net/ – which is specifically written for Windows, last I checked.)


Applications: It’s true that some “key” applications are in dire need of advanced development for the corporate environment. But from a consumer’s point of view, Linux is highly usable and lacks little; unless, of course one is a “gamer” in which case titles are better on a PS3 machine. Also, for the mass market, Linux remains a better alternative to MS Vista due to considerations of security and performance. After all, the best app in the world isn’t going to make you more productive if you have to constantly reboot or call the tech guy. (Do you know where your identity is tonight?)

Multimedia: Again, this isn’t much of an issue for the consumer market since playback resources are abundant, with the exception of image managers. As for production environments, Linux is worth hassling over to configure, given that the end result will exceed expectations: The film industry uses Linux to churn out high quality products, such as “Shrek”.

Polish: Eye candy should not be the driving force behind a great desktop; usability, stability, and security should be. But even so, how can you argue that Mac OSX or Vista could possibly be better than the astonishing Linux/Compiz environment?

I run my business with Linux and will never go back to Windows. My desktop is just fine, thank you.


the biggest complaint is not having windows based applications on linux. So make it easy for companies to deploy there windows app to linux.

c# + novell mono;

finish the mono framework; everything is half baked … no mit licensed ajax extentions and no enterprise library take the benefit from switching from asp.net to mono.

A lot of companies would like to grow their markets to other operating systems but linux needs to develop more in this area.


I am crazy about Ubuntu; however after 4 months of using it as my production desktop at work I had to return to windows. The reason? User authentication – PAM/Kerberos nightmare. It seemed to be properly configured as klist would display my current tokens; however my windows account was constantly being locked out. Fix this and I will be back.
My personal equipment still runs Linux 


Cant agree with you more on the Multimedia front! I’ve tried an array of linux/open source video editing apps. All of them came short. So back to paid software for my home movie creations. Following is a list of highlights in my search:
Cinelerra – Seems to have lot of features, but is none intuitive and a bit slow.
Jahshaka – Good for effects. Not much editing features.
Kino – Still too early in dev.
Pitivi – Promising since Ubuntu is backing them.


Love Linux, just would prefer if all adobe apps were able to run on it. They’re making some progress with the release of a Flex development enviro and appear to be taking Linux more seriously. I’m sure there are a number of equivalent programs but it’s just not the same as Dreamweaver and there still isn’t a Flash development app (that’s up to date).


I love Linux, but running the 64-bit version is a royal pain. I have a couple of the AMD dual-core Athlons, and what I get for that is NO good web browser (Firefox won’t run 64 bits, and Ice-ape, Ice-weasel, and Epiphany crash all of the time), and there is no 64-bit release of Adobe/Macromedia Flash, so you aren’t going to be watching YouTube. And most 32-bit plugins have no 64-bit counterparts either.

The situation is: Plan on giving up a lot when you migrate to 64 bits.


I like KDE the way it is at 3.5.2, I don’t want eye-candy, 3D, or transparencies, all I ask is even greater solidity, better documentation, and a built-in word-count for Kate. But I would suggest that the Quicklauncher be used as the default app launcher, rather than the wastefully huge panel icons.
I have no need of video editors, but there is a shortage of sound recording software, Audacity has no competitor that I can find, while there are hosts of rippers and playback programs.
Having used both Gnome and KDE I can see the appeal of Gnome for many, but KDE does the job better for me. Diversity should be encouraged, as should convergence, we need applications that are not desktop-specific, but we need different desktops for different kinds of work, and different kinds of people.


I’m a big fan of Linux. However, I think all of us reading this are developers or power users. Windows is still much easier for the average desktop user. As an example, I just added a hard disk to a Fedora 7 system. The various desktop environments are not really very integrated to the OS. To do this kind of upgrade the user must go to a terminal window and type fdisk and mkfs commands, and edit /etc/fstab with the editor of his/her choice. Adding hard disks to Windows systems is much easier.



migrate to opensuse 10.3 64 bit; i’m running it on amd dual-core athlons without a problem.

but most software in the repository strictly have 32 bit in the title. Good thing i haven’t needed any of them yet – so i haven’t tested if they’ll run on 64; however all major server apps seem to work [apache, postfix, bind, samba ect] .


Don Wilson pretty much hit the nail on the head. The biggest problem I see with Linux becoming a viable option for the masses (and I don’t mean those with personal tech support, i.e. you setting up Great Aunt Tilly’s box for her) is that it’s still being developed by people who still use vi. You should be able to fully configure and run Linux without ever knowing that the command line exists. Ditto for hand editing *.conf files. Build simple to understand, elegant GUI’s for everything. If that’s too onerous then fine, but please realize that taking that stance will eternally regulate Linux to power geeks and masochists like myself who are willing to waste hours on bulletin boards trying figure out how to do something as simple as auto mount a network share.

Linux desktop developers should be required to spend at least a month using nothing but a Mac to get the idea. (If I could run OS X on a white box, or Apple had a better selection of hardware, I’d leave Linux in a heart beat, though I’d miss the configurability of the desktop)

Another mindset issue I see is that even as Linux talks about a desktop community it seems to still be focused entirely on businesses. Point in case there was no option in the survey for using Linux in the home. I’m also guessing this is also why the switch to cifs for mounting Samba shares has required multiple headaches for my home network. By requiring static IPs and domain names to auto mount a share. Rather than just sniffing the local network for the share name.

All that being said, once configured I find that Linux is definitely easier and more reliable to operate than Windows. At least until you inadvertently install a new kernel while loading what you thought were “security updates”.

The reasons I still boot into my windows partition (I’d love to access it as a VM but all attempts to set up either VMware or Parallels to access my windows partition have failed) are as follows:

Printing photos: While I’ve gotten fairly accustomed to GIMP (I still feel more comfortable in Photoshop), the driver support for my firewire connected EPSON R1800 is severely lacking and there are no ICC profiles for Linux (They adjust what I see on the screen to look exactly like what will come out of the printer).

Editing home movies: Kino actually works? I installed it but could never get it to work.

Visual Studio: I’m a PHP/MySQL developer but I’m occasionally called on to integrate data stored in MySQL with M$ Office apps.



Yeah, Kino does work (or, I’ve gotten it to work) and have had pretty good luck up to a point with basic editing — but it lacks a lot of the stability, features and polish that would make it suitable for use beyond editing home video or playing around.


I could have sworn I’d seen something about barcodes with Tellico (collection manager), and sure enough: http://www.nabble.com/Barcode-recognition-t4433933.html

Since I just got an HP laptop with built-in webcam, I’m going home tonight to see if it works (though getting the webcam to work with Ekiga or Kopete would be nicer).


The wireless support needs to be put in place. Currently it simply does not work


Joe, I agree with lots of the things you said.

But this thing about there is no good contact manager,.. well, I still hesitate to use Evolution, but I have heard good things about how much it has improved. Have you tried it ? I also like, and use Jpilot, I think it is getting better, and better. Have you tried Jpilot ?


Hi Eddie,

Thanks for the comments. I’ve tried Evolution, several times — it’s not really a good contact manager *or* mail client, IMHO. I’ve also tried JPilot, but it doesn’t really work in the way I’m talking about, or at least didn’t the last time I tried it.


I recently installed Suse 10.3 in my laptop. The install was easy (used the internet install option) and largely proceeded without my attention. However when I went to connect my external monitor and configure a dual headed configuration I was stuck. It took me a full day of fiddling with the xorg.conf just to get it so that I could manually switch the second monitor on and off using xrandr. What about my next visit to the board room and it’s overhead projector? Will they wait patiently while I fiddle with my xorg.conf? Not likely. This is one of the reasons why a flagrant Linux bigot like me has to maintain a windows boot partition (and suffer the humiliation of using it in public).

Second beef? I only upgraded so that I could “meybe” play all those video and audio clips people keep mailing me. Well no luck there either, but I haven’t had a day do dedicate to the task….
Meanwhile I will continue to use linux to develop software using excellent tools like netbeans and eclipse. I will continue so support my customers via a variety of ssl based vpn connections… but I will have to use windows to make presentations and create word docs :(


getting multimedia playback support on Suse is actually fairly easy.
I’ve been using the Jem Report’s mtd since 10.0.


Opensuse-community.org also has this set up for 10.3′s new one click install


Joe thanks for the tip on Kino I’ll have to give it a second try.


I think Linux has sufficient desktop elements!
Why is it considered as being an operating system for the elites?
Because it is a preconceived idea.

http://dan.somnea.free.fr/2C/ pages dedicated for Linux;

prof dr ing Dan Gheorghe Somnea
Bucharest Romania


Every April lots of Americans do their taxes with programs like TurboTax. There seems to be nothing like this in the Open Source domain, nor is there likely to ever be one.
I’m eager to try the just released version of Gimp, but it has a very long way to go before it is competitive with Photoshop and comparable tools in the Wintel world.


I think wcn00 hit the mark when he talks about ‘fiddling’ to make some aspect of linux work like it should.

Take wireless networking for example. There dosen’t just dosen’t seem to be a definitive list of supported hardware that you can trust.

I spent 3 days fiddling with a card that almost every linux networking form said should work natively under linux. Evenually I ended up getting a different card (with the same chipset, mind you) Even then, I had to use ndiswrapper to emulate the windows API to get it to work.

Now I understand that there are issues with manufacturer support, developers getting their hands on reference cards, and even intelectual property issues when it comes to getting drivers made, but until wireless networking “just works” many who would switch to linux just won’t.


First of all I recommend the white papers of the Linux Magazine Connection to be read regularly.
Moreover, you should accept its weekly newsletter.
Then you might visit:
http://dan.somnea.free.fr/2C/prolinux.php, where you can find some other opinions about the Linux desktop:

prof dr ing Dan Gheorghe Somnea, Bucharest, ROMANIA


…lacks an honest-to-goodness contact manager that makes it easy to round up all my contacts and keep notes on the latest discussions I’ve had with those folks, and so forth.

The desktop only contact manager, such as ACT or Goldmine is being supplanted by web based CRM products. One interesting new Italian product, though not open source is Teamwork 3.2.1.



a list of open source CRM solutions written in Java.

Jim Callahan
Orlando, FL


Sad to say, but what the Linux desktop “needs” is a painfully close (but better!) emulation of the Windows environment as a starting point!
Migration of users will be QUITE EASY after this with rapid and significant new feature roll outs.
What this thing needs is momentum, not sporadic divided efforts!

-Shelon Padmore


If you are talking about Web-based applications, then there is also thin client architecture. My company supplies thin client software to for instance insurance call centres and 1 of our clients has about 1400 users. Now if they have changed all there systems to thin client then the operating system for the call centre users PC can be independent. That would be a massive cost saving if all the PC are on free Linux vs MS Windows. Also, the end user can then have more office applications on there PC as with MS there is always a limit to what applications they have due to licence fees costs.

So, I think that thin client architecture is also going to have a big impact on free ware Linux.


The biggest problem with Linux is that there’s too much choice for the average home and business user. Windows has the advantage of being driven by one company so there is a degree of certainty about future development, however limiting this might be.

With Linux there always seem to be many different options for doing something. At the technical level this is great, but at the management level it’s a disaster. Will today’s flavour of the month still be there next month? J2EE anyone?

To displace Windows in the home market would mean establishing the average users requirements and putting out a total solution that meets these requirements as easily as the equivalent Windows apps. Ubuntu is a great move in this direction but still has a way to go. (But see the current article about WalMart selling pre-configured Linux boxes to get an idea of how this approach can work). Most home users have very basic requirements.

In the business world it would be nice if there was a single organisation setting the future development agenda. Unfortunately I don’t see this happening any time soon because of the “hobbyist” nature of a lot of Linux development.


Absolutely the only thing that prevents most of the people in my company and the companies I consult to from having their choice of desk/lap tops is Office and Outlook interoperability. Ya, its a sloppy proprietary document and email/calendaring standard, but we are absolutely stuck with it.
I run linux on my desk/lap tops but I keep a session around on a windows 2003 server for document and email exchange. It’s inconvenient, slow, lousy at copy&paste and if the vpn isn’t available in my location I got nothin!

Can some one tell me what are all the linux system can do like trays and hardware and icons and stuff like that. What i mean is like windows has a system tray and icons and icons editor and dos commands, what im trying to say is like explorer has info like that. I hop you understand what i mean i just want to put windows and linux together to see whats the deffents is. thanks

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