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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.

Applications

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.

Multimedia

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.

Polish

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.

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