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Linux as a desktop... err... "needs a lot of work"

Ok, another tech rant. Sorry!

Earlier this week, I had to turn in my Mac laptop (read: my primary working device) for service — its keyboard was going bad. As a temporary replacement, I have an IBM laptop running Fedora Cord 4 Linux (I could not bear the thought of using Windows for 1-3 weeks). I had used Linux on a laptop and various desktops for about a decade; I thought it should be pretty easy to adjust for the duration while my Mac is gone.


Linux sucks as a desktop. I don’t think I ever realized how much until I was totally spoiled by a Mac for the last 1.5 years. I spent 5+ hours yesterday morning getting a [pseudo-]reliable set of Mail, Calendar, and IM working. I’m certainly not going to claim that Macs are perfect — they’re not (far from it, actually). But they do a lot more things Right compared to most other platforms.

Don’t get me wrong — the Linux desktop is way better than it used to be. But I’ve come to realize just how far it has to go — Mac’s philosophy is to make tiny little tools and then integrate the heck outta them. For example, on a Mac, there’s an addressbook. It’s not a calendar, it’s not an e-mail client, it’s not a kitchen recipie database. It’s just an addressbook. But that one addressbook is integrated with everything, meaning that it can talk to all those other applications — Mail, Calendar, Instant Messenger, Kitchen Recipient Database, etc. In this way, Mac reflects the BSD philosophy of “one system” rather than Linux’s philosophy of “lots of parts put together.”

Why did it take 5+ hours before I got something sorta-reasonable? Here’s some points:

  • FC4’s “install/uninstall software” tool still resolutely shows that KDE is not installed, even though it’s runnning as my main desktop.
  • If I shutdown my laptop or put it to sleep with the ethernet networking active, and then boot/restore it with no ethernet cable plugged in, I have to wait for DHCP on ethernet to timeout (60+ seconds?) before it will finish booting/restoring. That’s just absurd; why doesn’t launching the network occur in the background?
  • Thunderbird refused to import my addressbook entries. That’s a total non-starter (I have hundreds of e-mail addressbook entries, and I’m not going to re-type them manually).
  • Thunderbird also makes you wait while it sends every single message. For someone that sends dozens of e-mails a day, that’s also a non-starter (one of my students later gave me a workaround for this; apparently you can go into an obscure panel and change some hidden setting to make it not show the progress while it’s sending).
  • So I switched to Evolution. It loaded up my addressbook ok; cool. But it’s slow. It doesn’t handle multiple identies without adding multiple accounts (pretty non-intuitive, if you ask me — an “account” with no incoming mail server… pretty weird).
  • The Evolution calendar sometimes locked up (I had to have KDE kill Evolution after waiting for 10+ minutes) when importing my .ics files from my Mac calendar.
  • The Evolution calendar definitely has bugs in it. Here’s a humorous example — some of the day-long events that I imported set the “mark time as busy” flag. If I disable that flag on one of these events, it automatically changes the recurrance of the event from once a year (e.g., someone’s birthday) to every day. How these two are related, I have no idea.
  • Evolution periodically locks up and is essentially unresponsive for minutes at a time. This can happen when I click on “reply” to a mail, to simply try to go to the next mail in my index (e.g., click on “reply” and don’t get a compose window for 60+ seconds). Quite frustrating, since e-mail is a central focus of my work.
  • I was editing my signature blocks in Evolution when it crashed. Twice. Resulting in me [somehow] sending the same message to a public mailing list twice (how does editing a signature cause re-sending of an e-mail?).
  • Every time you make a change in your account settings, Evolution re-scans the IMAP server for all your folders (and re-caches everything). This is painful (I have a lot of server-side folders).
  • Right now, Evolution is refusing to update my INBOX. The last mail it shows is from around midnight, but it’s giving some obscure IMAP error every time it checks for new mail. So I quit Evolution and restarted; wallah — problem solved. Oh, look — I suddenly have lots of mail from after midnight.
  • Gaim did horrid things to my buddy lists. Both my AOL and MSN buddy lists got horribly re-ordered (buddies mysteriously went to different groups).
  • I can’t seem to load more than the 16 basic smileys in Gaim.
  • There’s a million other little usability issues (e.g., clicking on a http link in mail or IM — after tweaking both the mail and IM clients — finally does bring up a new tab in my already-open web browser [which is my desired behavior], but then I have to manually go switch to the browser application, which is sometimes in a different virtual desktop. One would think that when I click on a link, I want to see that link, and that I would not have to initiate one or more actions to see that link), some of which are just “different” from my Mac, and others showing a lack of integration between various tools.

There are probably reasons for all of these items above. Indeed, I’m quite sure that there are hard-working programmers out there working to fix all these bugs (if they aren’t already fixed; FC4 is “new”, but software projects keep evolving even after a Linux distro releases a version). And I know that no software is perfect — even my own software has bugs that we continually work to fix. OSX software has plenty of bugs too. So don’t get my rant wrong — it’s certainly not an attack on any of these projects or the people working on them.

Although the individual applications are not entirely blameless, it’s mainly the level of integration that is the problem. The distros are getting better at making it better, but they still have a ways to go (and I’m sure my rant is not news to them). I’m sure that I could have fixed many of the problems that I listed above. I could have done something different and either not had the problem or gotten a workaround (the Thunderbird about: editor is a good exanple). But my question is — why? I didn’t have these kinds of problems with my Mac because someone thought through all these application and integration issues and distilled down the information to what 90% of the world wants and/or needs. I don’t see many useless controls on my Mac simply because I don’t need them — someone else put a lot of effort into trying to figure out what people really need to do their jobs. It’s for darned sure that your Grandmother does not want to have to go into an obscure about: editor to turn off a hidden setting in Thunderbird. It raises the question of why that progress box is there in the first place — what if I frequently send large attachments? Thunderbird makes me wait there for a positive acknowledgement that the mail was sent rather than later giving me a negative acknowledgement if something went wrong. The latter allows me to be much more productive — I can actively be doing stuff before a “hey, something went wrong with the last mail you sent…” notice comes up.

Also — and this is something that all programmers should take to heart — quitting and restarting an application to fix an error is not acceptable.

In short, the state of the Linux desktop is quite frustrating. My productivity yesterday was rock bottom because I was trying to get my machine to do what I wanted it to do (but inevtiably resinging myself to letting it do whatever it wanted to do). I’m sure I’ll adjust better over the next 1-3 weeks, but I can’t wait to get my Mac back where things tend to “just work.”


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Comments (1)

I had to laugh, as someone who likes Linux alot, I do in fact agree with many of your point which is why my household grew by two Macs in the last 5 months :) Just keep muttering “it’s only 3 weeks” and soon the Mac will be back home and your sanity will recover.

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