Is Linux ready for the desktop?

This question is an important one. And it's not one that can be answered easily.

For me, yes. It's ready. If I use Windows or Mac, I use all of the open source stuff that Linux comes with by default - Firefox, whatever Notepad application I can find, VLC Player, etc. I find myself missing Linux's features, such as the repository system or the UI customization.

For me, Linux is the only desktop ready. Windows and Mac simply do not fit my needs. But I am biased.

For other people, Linux doesn't have the proprietary programs or games necessary. If there's anything that Windows does better than Linux, that is being a home to millions of programs that some people simply need.

For them, would you say Linux isn't ready for the desktop? No. I would say that Linux isn't home to the applications they need. This isn't a fault of Linux, this is a fault of the current computer industry situation.

Just looking at it from a certain standpoint and making a judgement on it is silly. Is it prettier than the competition? Well, it's typically simple, clean and unencumbered with annoyances. I personally don't like the Mac OS X interface - the top bar changes too much and everything is all too dynamic. Windows 7 appears to be moving in the same "shifting UI" direction. I don't want that.

In that case, Gnome works. Openbox works. Xfce works. Are they works of art? No. They're computer interfaces. They're supposed to function. I use Gnome because it does so while being as simple as possible.

This is all subjective, but so is the initial question - is Linux ready for the desktop? Yes. Without a doubt.

What is a simple distro?

What is a simple distribution of Linux?

The question slowly leads to this question: What sort of simple do you mean?

You have technologically simple, such as Slackware and Arch, which are straightforward and unsurprising, and yet require learning curves the size of the Grand Canyon.

Then you have the usability simple, such as Ubuntu, Fedora or its ilk. They are easy to learn, but once you start digging around behind the curtain you'll find that it's all kind of a mess, technologically. Changing something as simple as a resolution can be a trip to Mount Doom and back.

Full disclosure: I mostly use distros from the second camp. This is mostly because of the unique situation my various computers are in right now, but also because I simply haven't grasped the entire learning curve required for the first gang.

Now, is simplicity in this case the choice? Minimalist Mac users would argue: No, it's not, choice complicates matters. Having to choose between all of those Linux distros is too much for the common user. But then, if choice wasn't minimalist, then we'd all be in Windows, using Microsoft Word 2007.

No, choice in moderation is worth using. The problem here is that we need to narrow down our choices into distinct groups and discuss the merits of each. This only needs to be done once. Being a fan or a simple user of Linux does not require the user to follow the news and play with distros every weekend. That's just a perk.

Are the interests of the common user the same as the interests of the minimalist? No, and here's why - minimalism is not as widespread as some of us think. If you look around at the laptops that are around you on the bus, in the coffee shop, or across the hall, you'll see clutter and "stuff" that lines the screen with useless shortcuts and information.

This isn't because the average user doesn't know how to clear the screen of all that. They choose not to subscribe to minimalism. In the Windows world, this really is very easy.

But back to the question - the common user and the minimalist have fundamental oppositions to each other. "Usability" is often defined by some as extra options and buttons. "Making everything accessible" would be a synonym for "usability" for these people.

Minimalism is similar to this, but tangential. It is making everything available, but making sure that "everything" is as small as possible. Unfortunately, this runs against the common user, who wants things, things, things. Again, marketing.

So the Minimalist Mac user is opposing the concept in their own argument. the common user does not want minimalism. Trying to find minimalism in the common user's distro is looking in the wrong area, which is the problem Mac users will find when they try to "minimalize" their desktop.

(The phrase "common user" does not come with derogatory labels attached - it's just an acknowledgement that the majority of computer users want more function, not less.)

Now, we must level with the user themselves. What kind of simple do you want? It is the value of the user.

Do you want a system that requires an install and then can be used without much configuration? While these are nice distros, they usually come with much more than the average minimalist needs out of the box. Ubuntu, for example, comes with games, an entire word processor, a dictionary, two music players, an e-mail client, and much more. While that sounds good to a lot of common users out there, it takes time to get rid of these packages. You'll never know if you removed them all.

However, the opposite is also a problem. When you ask the Linux community for something minimalist, they point you to a distro such as Arch or Slackware.

While these are totally minimalist, they require effort and mantenience. While Slackware is usually fairly stable, it includes no package management (and any that it does have is mediocre at best). And anyone who tells you they are running a "stable" and never breaking Arch installation is a liar. It's only a temporary place; Arch is bleeding edge and can fall apart with only a push of the finger.

Perhaps the best approach is a combination of these two. Slackware derivatives are fairly stable and secure, but fix the lack of package management.

Zenwalk is a minimalist distro (it uses only one program for each of it's predetermined "functions" all of which are easy enough to remove as necessary) that I've had technological issues with. It's theoretically very appealing.

Absolute is a bit more reliable. It was more minimalist than it is now, but it works and is still a bit "less" than your average Ubuntu.

In the end, it's up to the user. And that's not a bad thing.

Complex versus simple

What is a complex program?

I describe it as Eclipse, one of my least favorite programs. It's bloated and fat. It gets in my way. It completes phrases I didn't want and tells me my correct lines are incorrect, misused or wrong.

It's not that Eclipse is badly coded. It's badly designed. It's does too much in an inefficient manner.

Tying back into the introduction - I would much rather use a Text Editor than Eclipse. I am more efficient that way. Unfortunately, the world does not operate in the most ideal of situations, and I am more or less tied to this platform thanks to external forces.

Gnome is easy enough to use, as we explored in a blog post about ten days ago. It comes with a text editor, Gedit, which is surprisingly spry and easy. Leafpad is an equally easy to use program.

The problem is thus: using a computer program is generally inefficient. If that sounds computer-extremist, at least the revision - computer interaction could always be better - will suffice.

Now, the difference between Eclipse and Leafpad is that Eclipse approaches the problem in the wrong fashion. It assumes that to complete the objective in the best way possible is to assist the user. Complicate the environment. Help the user along.

Unfortunately, as more and more examples have proven, making a program "help" a user simply complicates the process and confuses the issue. Most of us have experienced this with Microsoft's animated "helper" programs that attempt to assist a user in their task. These simply complicate the matter by forcing more distractions, more buttons, more text and information that a user needs, onto the screen.

It's time to go back to the basics. What does a program need to function, and how can we accomplish what a program needs to do without obstructing the original intent?

For a word processor, most people need the means to type words and then spell check them. Perhaps even the spell checking is a bit overrated these days; just open up Firefox and dump the text into an empty blog entry window. Right click and correct as necessary. Slowly doing this will help users remember what words they spelled wrong throughout and consider finding ways of rectifying the issue.

Modern word processors are constantly trying to help and in the process only get in your way. They try to complete words and sentences, and force you to remember how to cancel their helpfulness. They underline phrases that are technically correct grammatically.

The function of a text program is not to help a user type text. It is there to allow a user to type text. It is a means to do so; a place for people to put notes, words and ideas. Computers are notorious for trying to help their human masters; they're infamously terrible at it. If there's anything that I've seen after using Windows for a pair of years and assisting the users around me, it's that their highest ranked annoyances were usually related to the computer trying to do something for them.

The reason for this is the constant upward struggle software will continue to have. Profit must be made for a program to be worth creating. Profit will not be created from programs that have no viable or visible improvements over its predecessor.

Marketing has suffocated large chunks of this; it has convinced users that buying this new thing will grant users this new feature that will change the way they use their software. The only thing I did with the new version of Windows was curse louder, but that's just me.

This is why I prefer Linux and its ecosystem. There's no necessary drive to create new products, features or needless mascots. Capitalism has not corrupted it yet. Rather, the project is free to continue improving, standing or stagnating at its will.

You will find hundreds of programs in the Linux and open source world that have not changed in years. These are your treasures. From each distribution (and on several Mac sites too, for those of you who like that sort of thing) you can find these stone pillars that have not moved, and will not move from their relatively featureless repertoire - again, compared to the marketing ZING of its competitors, where such is required.

Each day the simple programs work like they did the day before, and each day I am happy. All is well in my Linux installation.

Desktop Environment

Or Window Manager, whichever you prefer.

Which should a minimalist Linux user choose? This has a lot of options, questions, and possible selections.

There is the lightweight window managers such as Fluxbox, IceWM, or JWM (and in some cases, OpenBox). These are rarely over 2 MB in size and are well suited for older computers. For a simple computer, they work well.

Good distros in this area include custom Arch/Debian installations, Absolute Linux, Fluxbuntu (tragically underdeveloped, but it works very well with effort) or AntiX.

Then there are the even more lightweight tiling window managers. They separate the screen into many different tiles that you can swap between, and tend to be very minimalist by default. Terminal knowledge is typically required, though you may be able to get by. These usually come in under 1 MB; sometimes they can fall under 100 KB. Good tiling window managers include Awesome, Ratpoison, or for the more hardcore minimalist, DWM.

The main differences between the various tiling window managers is mostly the feature set. They're all very similar and somewhat related. DWM is at the lowest end of the pole, featuring only a few features to enable (which are all configured at source code build time). Awesome and Ratpoison add more features, such as support for multiple monotors, Freetype support for nicer fonts, and other such fun additions.

There aren't any mainstream distros that use tiling window managers by default, though installing them on a blank slate is fairly easy. Which slate you pick depends on your taste. If the repository version your distro gives you isn't good enough for you, you may need to compile the window manager from source, which isn't nearly as hard as that sounds.

Finally, there are full Desktop Environments. These include Gnome, Xfce, and LXDE. I suggest staying away from KDE; it is very far from minimal and does not try to simplify itself. But, in any case, which you choose is up to you.

Gnome is rather large, but it is simple and can be made minimal very easily.

Gnome distros: Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, Arch (practically any of them out there)

Xfce is even easier to make minimal. It's slightly lighter than Gnome, but sacrifices a few features and user friendliness for being so.

Xfce: Zenwalk, Wolvix (once it is out of beta), Debian, Fedora's Xfce spin

LXDE is a new DE that is extremely light, but still a bit unfinished. It may take a little bit of work to get running well.

LXDE: Debian

What is Minimalism? How do we make it work for us?

To answer my own question: it is as less as possible. There is beauty in simplicity.

Now, to take that and analyze how we can make this work for our computer lives is a tricky one. Where do we begin? There is so much that Linux can offer!

First, figure out what you need to do on your computer on a daily basis.

I need to browse the internet, check e-mail, listen to music, write, and code in eclipse.

Now, how can I do these things as efficiently as possible?

I should have a web browser. I will need Wi-Fi support, because my laptop is my main computer right now. Most of what I do on the Internet can be done in the Web Browser; I don't need dedicated applications for chatting or e-mail.

I need a music application. It doesn't need to be complicated. Something light that can play a looping playlist of MP3 or OGG Vorbis files. I also have a Sansa Clip MP3 player, so I'll need a file manager for moving files to and from the device.

I need a text editor or word processor. I will need to spell check it eventually, but that can be done later (I will have to print on a Windows Vista machine with Word 2007, so that's when I can spell check). Therefore, I can get away with having a simple text editor.

I need Eclipse. I'm not a fan of the application (it is much too complicated and gets in my way) but it is essential for my studies.

Now, the Distro that you choose is up to you. I am not here to preach about one Distro or the other. I suggest looking around Distrowatch and finding one that suits your taste, computer, and needs.


Personally, Ubuntu looks nice, but there are a lot of features that I don't need. I could strip them, but that would take time I don't have.

Arch is a nice minimalist Distro (that's their philosophy) but it seems like too much work to get running with my Wi-Fi. I am not as well versed in Linux as I would like to be. Maybe I'll try Arch Linux later.

Those KDE 4 desktops are nice, but they seem too busy and feature filled. I don't think I would be comfortable with them. I'd like to have a lightweight Window Manager, such as Fluxbox, but Gnome or Xfce would work, too. My computer is a powerful beast, so I'm not worried about how fast or slow everything is.

Tiny Core Linux looks cool. I think I will download it and install it on my computers as a backup, in case I hurt my main Distro in some way.

Juggle ideas. Test LiveCD's. Install and try them out for a few hours. Make mistakes. Linux isn't as fun unless you have found the Distro that suits your needs, so do not skimp on your exploration.

I tested Fedora 11 on my laptop. It works with my Wi-Fi without additional configuration. I can add a single repository and it will add MP3 support and the nVidia driver in case I ever want to play a game. Out of the box, Fedora doesn't come with too many features I don't need, so customization will be short and uneventful.

I downloaded the 64-bit version with Gnome, and it works very well. I think I could be happy here. It isn't perfect, but it will become Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6, which means I can use the free clones such as CentOS and Scientific Linux for years to come.

Install the Distro and customize.

I install "yum-presto," which uses delta patches so that updates take less time to download. Then I let my computer update itself. Then I set up RPM Fusion, download the MP3 player plugins, and the driver for my nVidia card.

I need Flash for applications in my studies, so I will keep Firefox installed. I go to the Flash website and download the Flash plugin, which Adobe distributes as a repository. If I install several extensions such as Flashblock and Adblock Plus, I can keep it fairly minimal and light.

I can keep Totem as my music application. It plays playlists and works well enough for now. Maybe I will go hunting for a player that allows me to turn off the visualizer later.

The text editor that comes with Gnome is good enough for my uses. I've used Leafpad, an even smaller text editor, before and I might switch back to it, just so I keep myself standardized.

I don't need Abiword, which comes with Fedora by default. Anything I don't like can be removed in the Add/Remove Software program, or done through the Terminal ("yum remove foo") painlessly.
I nuked Transmission, Rhythmbox, Brasero, the GIMP, Bluez (bluetooth tools), and Cheese.

I downloaded Eclipse from the Eclipse webpage. The one inside of Fedora's repositories is a little bit old, and I'd prefer not to clog up my Fedora installation with all of its medial dependencies.

Now I delete Gnome's bottom bar and move it to the top. I arrange Gnome to my specifications, showing as few menus, options, or icons as possible.

In the end, my perfect desktop.

About MGL

Welcome to Minimalist GNU/Linux.

Tumblr supplement here.

Debian is my favorite distro and you're my favorite reader.

gbarules2999 and aberinkulas are the same person. This blog was all written by one dude.

Email me for whatever at aberinkulas mails at gmail dot com. I probably won't write for your blog, but I'll probably answer your email.