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What Is the Linux Desktop
Pages: 1, 2

The Ups and Downs

Although the Linux desktop is an intriguing proposition for many users, there are naturally both advantages and disadvantages to the platform in its current form. Luckily, many distributions provide live CDs (such as Ubuntu) that can be used to try out the desktop by booting and running from a CD. This can give you a hands-on idea of how well the Linux desktop works for your needs.

The advantages of the Linux desktop come in various forms and include:

  • Virus free: Although Linux can technically get viruses, the security model behind open source is strong enough to make them so rare that they are virtually non-existent. This is a major benefit compared to the virus-ridden Windows world.

  • Scalable: The Linux desktop is incredibly scalable and can run on both cutting-edge computers and older hardware. This is particularly useful when you want to re-birth an older machine. There are a range of window managers and applications that are particularly well-suited for older hardware, such as Xfce and Abiword.

  • Software installation: Software installation has traditionally been a pain on the Linux desktop, but with recent distributions such as Ubuntu and Fedora, software installation is as simple as selecting a package from a list. With Ubuntu boasting over 11,000 packages, the selection is vast.

Although the desktop boasts these advantages, there are also some areas that are not quite so nice, and sometimes rather frustrating:

  • Conceptual change: For users coming from Windows, the Linux platform is conceptually quite different to Windows--the GUI looks a little different, the icons are in different places, and there all of these new programs to learn and use. This can be quite off-putting for many users.

  • Hardware support: Unfortunately, some hardware devices are not well supported in Linux. This is primarily because the hardware manufacturers don't release specifications and don't create Linux drivers. This is less of an issue in modern distributions, but is still a problem with some specialist hardware devices.

  • Too much choice: With the huge range of applications and an array of different distributions, it can often be difficult for newcomers to get started with the Linux desktop.

Refinements and Improvements

Like everything else in the IT industry, the Linux desktop is certainly not standing still. There is feverish development going into its every nook and cranny, much of which is concentrating on truly innovative uses of technology. Although some of this technology will not be mature for the next few years, the work of today is promoting a promising future for the desktop.

The development of the desktop is largely pushing in two directions: refinements and entirely new concepts. The refinements are exactly what you expect--improvements and changes to existing tools. An example of this includes the constant attention to to slim it down, add new features, and refine the user interface. This work is happening across the full gamut of the desktop, with exciting user-facing applications (such as KDE/GNOME) and less-exciting but important applications (such as system libraries and compilers) getting buffed and sheened all the time.

In recent years, a number of developers have sat back and considered entirely new directions in which development should focus. Aside from intriguing niche projects such as SymphonyOS, both the KDE and GNOME projects have ideas about how a re-engineered version of their desktops will function. These proposed ideas are pushing for a different method of users interacting with the desktop that is more task- and people-oriented than application-oriented. For KDE, their vision is in the form of Plasma and the other components of their Appeal Project. For the GNOME camp, their visions of GNOME 3.0 are being solidified with Project Topaz. Both of these projects are heavily in the design stage and their developers are thinking of new and innovative ways to push the desktop forward.

One of the most interesting areas in which both Plasma and Topaz are keen to improve is in the quality of the graphical interface. In addition to usability changes, both projects are keen to create a truly attractive desktop. To make this easier, other developers have been working on underlying technology to improve the user interface. One such project is Cairo. Cairo provides a very high-quality 2D drawing framework that can be used to easily create graphics that are the same quality on the screen as they are when printed. Recently, GTK+ (the graphical toolkit GNOME uses for its buttons, scrollbars etc.) has switched to Cairo. This has opened up the possibility of high-quality Cairo themes in the future, such as Clearlooks. In addition to Cairo, other developers have been working on Xgl to provide a hardware-accelerated OpenGL interface for the X Window System. Xgl can be used to create exciting effects, such as spinning the entire screen, lighting effects, zooming, and more.

In addition to the look and feel of the desktop, work is also going on to better support hardware devices and multimedia. The already well-established Project Utopia stack is making it simple to plug in USB devices and work with them easily, and extra efforts are concentrating on better support of printers and USB sound cards. Many of the multimedia hardware devices are also benefiting from the powerful GStreamer framework, a comprehensive system that makes it simple to write applications to perform a variety of types of multimedia operations. GStreamer supports a range of codecs and has been used successfully with tools such as Amarok, Totem, and Rhythmbox. GStreamer is making the Linux desktop a particularly exciting place for video editing, with both PiTiVi and Diva promising exciting opportunities.

An Exciting Future

The Linux desktop is an exciting beast to observe due to its intense rate of development. When you consider the progress made in the last ten years, you can see how dedicated the developers behind the platform are to its success. As more and more people jump aboard and contribute to different parts of the desktop, it is sure to become a more compelling option for everyday users. When you roll into the mixture the work on technologies such as Cairo, Xgl, GStreamer, Plasma, and Project Topaz, the Linux desktop certainly has a bright, attractive future.

No one really pays that much attention to the predictions about the "year of the Linux desktop," but with so much going on, it is likely that it will be sooner rather than later.

Jono Bacon is an award-winning leading community manager, author and consultant, who has authored four books and acted as a consultant to a range of technology companies. Bacon's weblog ( is one of the widest read Open Source weblogs.

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