Penguin Counter Penguin: You Say Tomato, I say "Desktop"!

Posted by PaulFerris on Jan 24, 2005 6:05 AM EDT
LXer; By Dean Pannell and Paul Ferris
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Today dawns a new era of discussion. In the past, Paul Ferris and Dean Pannell (FeriCyde and DinoTrac) sparred impromptu in the talkbacks of many a respectable (and otherwise :) website. Today, for the first time, they make it official. The format is called Penguin Counter Penguin, and the subject random. Today the debate is on the slighter side of the Linux Desktop. Is the Linux desktop really ready for prime-time? Who knows for sure, but you can bet that Paul and Dean have their flamethrowers tuned for the finer points of the debate!


Penguin<Counter>Penguin LXer

You Say Tomato, I say Desktop!
by Dean Pannell and

Paul Ferris, contributors.

Penguin on the left!

Paulie, Paulie, Paulie, you dear, sweet, naive little puffball. I've read your recent ramblings, and see that you believe the Dawn of the Linux Desktop is upon us. Well, wake up, Toto, we ain't in Server anymore. Not only is this strange new land of Desktop ruled by the Wicked Witch of the the Northwest, all the little Redkins seem to like it that way.

Unlike Server where People Who Know What They're Doing carefully (we hope) select hardware configurations and set up systems, those cute little Redkins expect to pick up any old piece of hardware at the local Cheap-Mart and have it work in their machine. If they hear about a piece of software, they expect that it will run on their box. Never mind that reality and expectation don't always line up,

Desktop is a place where people don't like to be told "You can't do that!" Not only that, they expect to do everything short of launching the Space Shuttle (After all, even NASA has trouble with that one) without knowing anything beyond their own name, rank, and cereal brand.

Dean you ignorant ----! -- Wait, wrong forum.

Dean, as usual I can count upon you to predispose yourself of disposing of my predispositions before I can even begin imposing them. I'm not trying, after all, to suggest that people can start using Linux like a supported operating system. I'm suggesting it for people that need a box that can surf the web or check email somewhat securely. I'm saying, in other words, that the day of the sub $200 (US) Linux box is here.

Windows has become such a liability, that it needs to be relegated to the box used to run only Windows applications. People need the Web and Email more than ever, and today that, I'm saying, is the killer Linux app. Linux can do that -- so can Apple for that matter. What has Apple recently released -- go figure, a cheap Mac! Why? May speculations abound, but I'm sure it's so people can find out what a blessing it is to just do the simpler things in life and not worry about having the bank account info mailed off to Hong Kong in the process.

Penguin on the right!

Penguin on the left!
Paulie-boy, methinks you've spent way too much time trying to pass the Bunny Hill on Tux Racer. Surely you haven't forgotten the "Golden Age of the Web Appliance", a glorious era era lasting maybe three months back in 2001. You won't see any I-Openers at Best Buy, little guy, and the only Ipaqs they sell are PDAs, not the Keyboard with an LCD MSN-surfers that Compaq was trying to move at the time.

Admittedly, there were price & technology issues, but the biggest issue remains: People don't like to be limited. That little $500 Mac you mentioned (OK -- with a keyboard, mouse and monitor, we're talking more like $700) may be small, but it's still a Mac and you can do a whole lot more with it than send an e-mail.

So -- let's presume you can build a Linux appliance for $200 -- still a pretty tough price point 4 years after the I-Opener became I-Wide-Shut : what'cha gonna do with it?

You, Paulie, you geeky little bouncer of bits and bytes, might try hooking the thing up as a firewall for your Internet-enabled electric toothbrush, but most folks aren't going to do that. They'll stare at the thing and say, "Now what?" Maybe a friend will turn them onto a USB-attached toaster oven, or some really neat piece of software analyzing whether McDonald's has sold more hamburgers than Bill Gates has dollars.

And that's the rub. People might believe they can do cool stuff with a Mac because Apple has spent years selling the Mac as a smooth box for well-heeled non-geeks. Linux = Unix = Huh? What you talkin' about, Willis. And we're not talking wild speculation or exotic software here. Just walking into any BestCompCityMax store and you'll find stacks and stacks of TurboTax -- which, by the way, doesn't run on Linux.

Hmmm... While your points about the web appliances are sharp ones, so is the one on your head! I'm starting to wonder if you've had too much management experience to see clearly now, because the sub-200 dollar Linux boxes are all around us. You can get one from Linspire, or from

Microtel (Walmart is selling these on-line, but you have to "drill-down" on their web site to find them).

But the point I'm sticking to is this -- that there remains the most enormous problem of Windows security. Linux continues to get more secure while Windows exploits sprout faster than ugly little pimples on a teen-agers face. The exploitation of these security holes has become a cash cow for tons of people (for Crooks, Anti-Virus software makers, and now Microsoft since they're also selling anti-spyware software -- you can make a point that at least 2 of the three on that list are hard to distinguish).

A decent KVM (Keyboard, Video, Mouse) switch can be had for $30, and a second network card for a PC, $15. Make the thing an in-line firewall with an intelligent KVM -- bundle it with the KVM soft buttons so that a user can snap it into a working broadband connection. The final piece would be an intelligent Samba configuration that simply made the box's filesystem open for the user on the friendly side of the Linux box. The appliance is for the most part, transparent to the user.

Penguin on the right!

Penguin on the left!
KVM switch? Second network card? You might as well be talking flimflamgizmotron, my little wide-eyed friend. That's exactly the kind of thing I mean when I talk about the desktop being harder than the server room. Geeks inherently understand servers and the people who run them. They forget that desktop users tend to be a whole lot less interested in all that nitty gritty stuff.

And - security as a driver?

Maybe. After all, Firefox has really taken off thanks to the gaping holes in IE. What's it up to? Maybe 5% of the browsers out there? If you consider that a major hunk of the Firefox users are on Linux, that's not a huge chunk of Windows users. Still encouraging, though.

Still -- Do you think people will understand the concept that an OS can be architecturally resistant to attack? After all, Movies from DieHard to Ocean's Eleven have created the idea that a good hacker can get into any system just by plugging in and typing a few magic incantations. Just this season, 24's Chloe asked why a workmate didn't just hack into a highly secure government system. If people believe that the NSA can be hacked just like that, how do we convince them that there's a real difference between Linux and Windows?

Good point about the misperception of hackable operating systems! I always get blank stares when I talk about not using anti-virus software on my home desktops...

I'm suspecting, however, that you may have missed something about FireFox conversion. While getting people to use Linux is difficult on a desktop system, getting Windows users to download and love FireFox is an entirely different matter. Most of the growth coming out of the FireFox usage crowd are Windows users -- not Linux users. OSS is making it's way onto the desktop, just not the Linux stuff.

I do see what you mean about getting people to understand operating system level security as a feature -- but they instantly do understand appliances. They will buy, for example, a hardware router with a built in firewall without much cajoling -- which is more to my point about the $200.00 appliance.

Speaking of which -- why doesn't Linksys simply expand the distro on a WRT54G to include the ability to use network storage from an SMB share and some Xwindow Linux stuff? They could embed an entire desktop in there. Of course, they might need to up the RAM to a lot higher value and so on -- but it'd be a Linux desktop in ROM with mainly two features: Web and Email. Yes, we're again back to the Internet appliance territory of 2005 -- with two major market differences:

  1. Cheap broadband abounds.
  2. Viruses and Spyware, literally, everywhere.

Attach a monitor and keyboard and away you go. Optionally use the USB port for local storage, and it's a PC with a router and wireless capability. This is the kind of thinking I'm proposing -- yeah it's out of the box (there is no damn box anyway) but look at what I'm aiming at -- security minded appliances that people can use right now in conjunction with the desktop they have. Give this new appliance the right kind of tweaking: The ability to easily add applications from an on-line source.

The idea is really not out there at all. Everything exists today but the vendor who will step up to the challenge.

Penguin on the right!

Penguin on the left!

Well, Paulie, I can see that the stray particles zipping out of that display flickering in the dim light of your basement hasn't zapped away all of gray matter.

Yes, a router could definitely be a little itsy-bitsy Linux machine with Samba and the works, but then you've missed the whole starting point of the conversation. That ain't a desktop. People like to do things with their desktops. Some people will be happy with limited functionality appliances, but, so what?

Are we planning to win the desktop by giving up on it?

Paulie, you pessimistic little peanut you, we don't have to think that small. There's nothing wrong with appliances. More power to them, bu the desktop is there for the taking.

I know it's seemed that the desktop was Just Around the Corner for years now. But things really have changed, and Linux is beautifully positioned.

KDE has matured into a very comfortable working environment. GNOME is still there, but KDE is ready to embrace Windows refugees.

OpenOffice is getting ready to launch version 2.0, which I expect to be a serious shot over Microsoft's bow.

You already know about FireFox.

Should we forget that OpenOffice and FireFox, along with other free software like the Gimp,

MySQL, PostGreSQL, Blender, and who knows are cross platform products that work happily on Windows and on Linux? People who use those products on Windows don't have to fret over software at all!

And -- an ace in the hole: the Wicked Witch of the Northwest has been pushing .Net programming for the last three years or so. The purist crowd turns up it's nose -- even though .Net is freer than Java at this point -- but lots of work is being done on that platform.

Why is that an ace? For all of the guff Miguel de Icaza has taken for the last few years, the Mono project has gone 1.0. Novell is pumping money into it. Mono code runs on Windows. The vice versa is still a little dodgy, but Mono 2.0 is rounding into shape and will contain Forms support. At that point, we'll have a lot of Windows developers writing applications that run on Linux.


Our guys just have to remember:

  • Some of the desktops are already ours.
  • More desktops could be ours today.
  • We just have to believe, to keep our eyes on the prize, and, perhaps, to adapt the Air Force motto: The difficult we do right away, the impossible takes a little longer.
  • The Desktop is hard!!!
  • It ain't impossible

Hey, who's on what side here! I was the one saying that this desktop thing was too complex for the moment, or was I? I'm confused (what's new :).

I do think there's room for a good Linux desktop -- and maybe not just on Intel. A fellow Ohio Linux'er, Henry Keultjes, has an a rather persistent belief that possibly PowerPC based Linux's time has come.. I'm a bit on the skeptical side there but stranger things have happened. I'll leave room in my list of potential realities for this one, as I do think there are price points and power consumption issues that haven't always been in the forefront of the typical PC choice.

As for what the "desktop" is -- who is to say? If we let Microsoft define it, it's going to be something akin to a security nightmare, bloated and complex. The problem with a word like "desktop", after all, is that everyone can have a definition. So maybe I started off on the wrong foot by calling a security appliance a desktop.

Regardless, let's disagree to agree here on the points you've made: The desktop isn't easy, but the stuff in a well-bread Linux distribution (KDE for sure) makes for something fairly easy to use for beginning users. Free Software and OSS are making their way slowly onto the desktop, even in some surprising ways when it comes to Windows ports of Free Software projects.

How much time will it take to make a sizable dent in total "desktop" market share?

This, my fellow penguin, is the $200.00 question...

Penguin on the right!

Paul Ferris (fericyde) is an IT professional with over 15 years of *nix experience, and over 5 years of that implementing Linux in enterprise-class situations. He has been discussing Linux for more than 7 years in various publications, on-line and in print. He's an engineer, Linux community member, husband, father and more. Lately he's been contributing to to the general discomfort of the folks in the Northwest.

Dean Pannell (dinotrac) has been nourishing a general lack of any trades for years. Once a performance geek in BIG mainframe shops, he's been horsing around with Linux since 1998, and writing about it since 1999. Clearly brain-damaged along the way, he dropped out to attend law school and became a lawyer. Fortunately for the world, he has come to his senses since then. Of course, he does keep the license up to date... Wonder if therapy would help?

» Read more about: Story Type: Editorial, LXer Features; Groups: Community, GNOME, GNU, KDE, LXer, Microsoft, Mozilla, Novell, SUSE

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
Penguin Counter Penguin? You mean, PCP?? schwach 7 2,231 Jan 25, 2005 2:04 PM
Will you two shut-up? Glimmung 6 2,674 Jan 25, 2005 12:52 PM
Who is this 'Toadie' guy that voted against this story? PaulFerris 8 2,163 Jan 24, 2005 7:20 PM
Nice Graphics! SeanConnery315 10 2,687 Jan 24, 2005 7:13 PM

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