What do you want your computer to do?

The Year of the Linux Desktop is here. It's been here as long as there's been a 'Linux' and a 'Desktop'. But it's also the year of any other operating system you can imagine on the desktop.

A few months ago (as of this writing) I reflected a bit about Linux celebrating its 28th birthday1. I got a little bit ranty toward the end, and I didn't think I'd revisit it, but, as these things go, I found a few more things that I wanted to say now that I had a few months to think about it. I'll try to take a more measured approach this time.

It's still January (barely), and January is symbolic of new beginnings and self-reflection and all that jazz, so I started to think about my relationship with my computing, with the Internet as a whole, and a bunch of other things2. I also got linked to the semiannual "Linux isn't ready for the desktop because I don't like it / I couldn't get it to work / I don't want to use it / I haven't had attention in a while, so I need to make an inflammatory post so I can get some attention and feel superior about my choice of operating system for a while" article, and it kind of dovetailed with the overarching theme that I had been exploring on my own, which is: What do I want my computer to do?

That's a question that I don't think enough people consider. And it's worth noting that there aren't (really) any wrong answers here.

For the large percentage of people, they want their computer to run software written for Windows. That's fine3. But you have some Linux evangelists (you have evangelists for other platforms, too, but they're usually less obnoxious (that's not strictly true, they're equally as obnoxious, but the platforms are smaller, so there are fewer evangelists)) who insist that Linux is the best operating system4 ever, and so much better than Windows.

So the person tries it and finds out that their programs don't work on it (usually games), things are different, some of their hardware doesn't work, you do have to drop to the command line to do some things, and so on.

None of those things means that Linux isn't ready for the desktop. All it means is that Linux isn't very good at being Windows. This seems obvious to me, but a lot of people don't see it that way. They just declare Linux not ready for the desktop5, throw up a few inflammatory posts on twitter or slashdot or Hacker News or wherever, a debate breaks out, everybody loses.

What if your goals are different, though?

What if you want to use your computer to write? Books, blogs, journals, scripts, whatever. You need a good text editor and a good way to enter and manipulate text. It turns out that there are good text editors for just about every operating system in existence. You could write a book using MS-DOS Editor if you wanted to. Lots of people used MS-DOS as their only operating system for years. On desktop computers. But it doesn't run Windows games. Or Mac software. Or support a lot of things that Modern Computing™ seems to require. Does that mean that MS-DOS is not 'ready for the desktop'? Even though it was sold and used a desktop operating system for years? Does an operating system somehow become not ready for the desktop after it was ready for the desktop for a period? Who decides?

I am of the opinion that if your computer lets you do the things you want to do in the way you want to do them, then that operating system is ready foryour desktop.

That means that Windows is ready for the desktop. That means that Linux is ready for the desktop. That means that FreeBSD is ready for the desktop. That means that 9Front is ready for the desktop. That means that BeOS is ready for the desktop. AROS, Solaris, MINIX, and so on. They're all ready for the desktop, as long as you have proper expectations about what the operating system offers and you know what it is you want to use your computer to do.

That's why I don't make blanket statements about what operating system you should use. Everyone's use case is different. Everyone's expectations are different. Everyone's willingness to learn is different. Everyone's threshold for dealing with problems is different.

It's almost as if everyone is different people.

I did kind of gloss over one point, though. Maybe the biggest one.


I see this all the time when the discussion comes up. Windows proponents will tell you that Windows is so easy to use (compared to Linux or whatever) and that Linux won't be ready for the desktop until it's as easy to use as Windows is. They conveniently forget, of course, that they weren't born knowing how to use Windows, they picked up skills needed to use Windows over years and decades of use.

It's kind of like human languages. I've been speaking and writing American English for my whole life. I like to think that I'm pretty good at it. That doesn't mean it's easy to learn. Your native language, that you've been speaking for your whole life only seems easy to you because you've got years of practice using it. If you want to learn another language, it takes time and effort. Nobody expects you to be an expert immediately. You have to work at it and practice.

Similarly, using Windows or MacOS only seems easy if you've been doing it for long enough that it becomes second nature. You have to put in the time to learn it. You have to practice. If you've been using Windows for 20 years, it's easy to forget the trouble you had with Windows when you started using it because they happened so long ago.

And if you're willing to give some other operating system a fair shake; If you're really willing to put in time to try and learn it and you decide you don't like it. That's completely okay.

But let's not pretend that if you don't like something or if something isn't done to your exacting specifications that it's unfit for the general 'desktop' case. It's unfit for your desktop case, maybe, but you aren't everyone, and your opinions aren't universal truths6.

It's worth asking yourself now and again what you want your computer to do. Or, rather, what you want to do with your computer. Be as specific as you can. If it turns out that you have developed a workflow that only works because you developed it while working with Windows, then use Windows. Same with Linux. Same with MacOS. Same with literally every other operating system in existence.

If, on the other hand, it turns out that you want to learn some other operating system for any reason7, then do that. Take the time to learn how the operating system works and how to do the things you want to do.

But, if you do decide to use some other operating system, please do me three favors:

  1. Don't expect Linux to be Windows. Linux and Windows are different and things will be different between them. The way things work in one might not work that way in another. (Replace 'Linux' and 'Windows' with whatever operating system you're switching from and to.)
  2. Do your research. Expect that nobody will hold your hand. If you need help, ask for it, but be prepared to learn on your own.
  3. Enjoy yourself! Yes, computers are used for Serious Business™ every day, but using them should be fun. If you're the kind of person that's considering using a different operating system, then you're already the kind of person that likes to tinker with their computers. Tinkering is supposed to be fun. Learning should be interesting and exciting, otherwise you won't continue with it.

I realize that the 'Year of the Linux Desktop' is a meme that will never die as much as I want it to. That's fine. But I can at least do my part to try and counteract some of the biases and misinformation that comes up every time the topic comes around. And now I have an article to point people to that articulates my position on things, so that's nice.


  1. Debating Windows vs. Linux is a pointless waste of time
  2. A lot of this isn't worth going into right now, but maybe in another article
  3. Seriously, I don't care what OS you use. Use what works best for you
  4. Yes, I know Linux is not an operating system, it's just a kernel. Debian is an operating system, Fedora is an operating system, slackware is an operating system. I'm calling them all 'Linux' for the sake of brevity (and, really, for this context, the specifics don't matter all that much).
  5. Which is exceptionally vague, by the way.
  6. Neither are mine, but I never claimed that they were.
  7. Nobody really cares about your reason for switching, or switching back, for that matter.

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