Why doesn’t Linux work as a general OS?

I have wanted Linux to work for a long time but the reality is that I use Windows. But why? The reasons are important to me because I need to understand why I prefer Windows over Linux even though it costs more cash to run than Linux. Here are my reasons for Linux cannot succeed on the desktop:

It’s free, there are too many distributions and it’s not backward compatible.

I want to keep them in mind so that when I’m uncertain whether to use Windows or Linux I can be clear headed.

To someone looking to do something real with Linux: run a business, create a social media craze, foment could computing then free is good. To most end users it means crap or no support. Or even worse, putting up with the kind of condescending support geeks offer. We’ve all been there. Of course some will vehemently disagree to which I will respond “Apple”. Mediocre products attracting premium prices because Joe and Joanna Public can use them and take their overpriced product to a store to be “fixed” (an app loaded) if needed. Fundamentally free cannot continue forever because the people involved need to eat and that costs money.

The Linux community is unlike any other because the kernel is maintained and common (a good thing in my view) but there is no control of where it appears. This is by design and it has lead to the Linux kernel being used in applications from servers to toasters. The downside is that that there can be no focus on a single market such as the desktop. As a result, others took that space.

Choice is good. Economists tell us that there needs to be at least 6 competitors for a market to be fair. However, Linux is awash with distributions to the point of diminished (not diminishing) returns. Instead of banding together to create a single great and competitive product the nature of the environment means anyone can create a distribution which promotes fragmentation in a space that requires co-ordination for an effective product to emerge.

The kernel is not backward compatible by design. In some ways this is a good thing because it means the kernel can move forward and take advantage of new standards without being concerned that existing software will break (because it will) when a new kernel is used. Every Linux user knows this.

However in a retail space this is a disaster. End-users are not going to re-compile software products they have bought because their preferred distribution no longer supports their version. I experienced this on a server recently. We chose to use Ubuntu 10.04 LTS (that’s Long Term Support) to host an email relay service so we could implement anti-spam/anti-virus. Worked OK except that ClamAV is now out-dated on 10.04 and there are no back ports. What developer is going to spend their free time back-porting software to a version of Linux that ancient (3 years!) when they can work on something shiny and new.

For me, the solutions was simple: move to Windows. I confess, it costs $10/year more to run the service on Windows than it does on Linux. But there is zero chance that ClamAV will not work on Windows because the OS is backward compatible. Windows ME programs still run on Windows 8. OK, an extreme example but its the kind of support end-users need.

And this is me running a server. What would regular people think if they had to face this problem on their desktop. And don’t talk about getting USB and video drivers installed and working.

So those are my explanations. It doesn’t matter if OpenOffice or LibreOffice or Gimp or Inkspace or any other application is getting better. The Linux ecosystem (not just the kernel or a distribution) is fundamentally unsuited to the desktop. It is suited to many other niches but not the desktop. For example, it does work on mobile phones because Google has addressed the problems I describe. It is the only organization responsible for Linux on the smartphone. It pays developers to maintain it. There are no alternatives making the rounds. There’s no forking as a result of an arcane argument about feature support. Users see Google Android not Linux. They couldn’t careless what’s under the hood so long as it works. Which Linux doesn’t on the desktop.

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