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Linux desktop and geek supremacists

I have written about those who I refer to as geek supremacists a few months ago, discussing the dangerous prank at FOSDEM — as it turns out, they overlap with the “Free Software Fundamentalists” I wrote about eight years ago. I have found another one of them at the conference I was at the day this draft is being written. I’m not going to refer the conference because the conference does not deserve to be associated with my negative sentiment here.

The geek supremacist in this case was the speaker of one of the talks. I did not sit through the whole talk (which also run over its allotted time), because after the basic introduction, I was so ticked off by so many alarm bells that I just had to leave and find something more interesting and useful to do. The final drop for me was when the speaker insisted that “Western values didn’t apply to [them]” and thus they felt they could “liberate” hardware by mixing leaked sources of the proprietary OS with the pure Free (obsolete) OS of it. Not only this is clearly illegal (as they know and admitted), but it’s unethical (free software relies on licenses that are based on copyright law!) and toxic to the community.

But that’s not what I want to complain about here. The problem was a bit earlier than that. The speaker defined themselves as a “freedom fighter” (their words, not mine!), and insisted they can’t see why people are still using Windows and macOS despite Linux and FreeBSD being perfectly good options. I take a big issue with this.

Now, having spent about half my life using, writing and contributing to FLOSS, you can’t possibly expect me to just say that Linux on the desktop is a waste of time. But at the same time I’m not delusional, and I know there are plenty of reasons to not use Linux on the desktop.

While there has been huge improvements in the past fifteen years, and SuSE or Ubuntu are somewhat usable as desktop environments, there is still no comparison with using macOS or Windows, particularly in terms of applications working out of the box, and support from third parties. There are plenty of applications that don’t work on Linux, and even if you can replace them, sometimes that is not acceptable, because you depend on some external ecosystem.

For instance, when I was working as a sysadmin for hire, none of my customers could possibly have used a pure-Linux environment. Most of them were Windows only companies, but even the one that was a mixed environment (the print shop I wrote about before), could not do without macOS and Windows. From one point, the macOS environment was their primary workspace: Adobe software is not available for Linux, nor is QuarkXpress, nor the Xerox print queue software (ironic, since it interfaces with a Linux system on board the printer, of course). The accounting software, which handled everything from ordering to invoicing to tax report, was developed by a local company, – and they had no intention to build a version for Linux – and because tax regulations in Italy are… peculiar, no off-the-shelf open source software is available for that. As it happens, they also needed a Mandriva workstation – no other distribution would do – because the software for their large-format inkjet printer was only available for either that, or PPC Mac OS X, and getting it running on a modern PC with the former is significantly less expensive than trying to recover the latter.

(To make my life more complicated, the software they used for that printer was developed by Caldera. No, not the company acquired by SCO, but Caldera Graphics, a French company completely unrelated to the other tree of companies, which was recently acquired again. It was very confusing when the people at the shop told me that they had a “Caldera box running Linux”.)

Of course, there are people who can run a Linux-only shop, or can only run Linux on their systems, personal or not, because they do not need to depend on external ecosystems. More power to them, and thank you for their support on improving desktop features (because they are helping, right?). But they are clearly not part of the majority of the population, as it’s clear by the fact that people are indeed vastly using Windows, macOS, Android and iOS.

Now, this does not mean that Linux on the desktop is dead, or will never happen. It just means that it’ll take quite a while longer, and in the mean time, all the work of Linux on the desktop is likely going to profit other endeavours too. LibreOffice and KDE are clearly examples of “Linux on the desktop”, but at the same time they provide Free Software with the visibility (and energy, to a point) even when being used by people on Windows. The same goes for VLC, Firefox, Chrome, and a long list of other FLOSS software that many people rely upon, sometimes realising it is Free Software. But even that, is not why I’m particularly angry after encountering this geek supremacist.

The problem is that, again in the introduction to the talk, that was about mobile phones, they said they don’t expect things changed significantly in the proprietary phones for the past ten years. Ten years is forever in computing, let alone mobile! Ten years ago, the iPhone was just launched, and it still did not have an SDK or apps! Ten years ago the state of the art in smartphones you could develop apps for was Symbian! And this is not the first time I hear something like this.

A lot of people in the FLOSS community appear to have closed their eyes to what the proprietary software environment has been doing, under any area. Because «Free Software works for me, so it has to be working for everyone!» And that is dangerous under multiple point of views. Not only this shortsightedness is what, in my opinion, is making distributions irrelevant but it’s also making Linux on the desktop worse than Windows, and is why I don’t expect FSF will come up with an usable mobile phone any time soon.

Free desktop environments (KDE and GNOME, effectively) have spent a lot of time in the past ten (and more) years, first trying to catch up to Windows, then to Mac, then trying to build new paradigms, with mixed results. Some people loved them, some people hated them, but at least they tried and, ignoring most of the breakages, or the fact that they still try to have semantics nobody really cares about (like KDE’s “Activities” — or the fact that KDE-the-desktop is no more, and KDE is a community that includes stuff that has nothing to do with desktops or even barely Linux, but let’s not go there), a modern KDE system is fairly close in usability to Windows… 7. There is still a lot of catch up to do, particularly around security, but I would at least say that for the most part, the direction is still valid.

But to keep going, and to catch up, and if possible to go beyond those limits, you also need to accept that there are reasons why people are using proprietary software, and it’s not just a matter of lock-in, or the (disappointingly horrible) idea that people using Windows are “sheeple” and you hold the universal truth. Which is what pissed me off during that talk.

I could also add another note here about the idea that non-smart phones are a perfectly valid option nowadays. As I wrote already, there are plenty of reasons why a smartphone should not be considering a luxury. For many people, a smartphone is the only access they have to email, and the Internet at large. Or the only safe way to access their bank account, or other fundamental services that they rely upon. Being able to use a different device for those services, and only having a ten years old dumbphone is a privilege not the demonstration that there is no need for smartphones.

Also, I sometimes really wonder if these people have any friends at all. I don’t have many friends myself, but if I was stuck on a dumbphone only able to receive calls or SMS, I would probably have lost those few I have as well. Because even with European, non-silly tariffs on SMS, sending SMS is still inconvenient, and most people will use WhatsApp, Messenger, Telegram or Viber to communicate with their friends (and most of these applications are also more secure than SMS). That may be perfectly fine, I mean if you don’t want to be easily reachable by people, that is a very easy way to do so, but it’s once again a privilege, because it means you either don’t have people who would want to contact you in different ways, or you can afford to limit your social contacts to people who accepts your quirk — and once again, a freelancer could never do that.

Comments 3
  1. Agreed. Sure you can theoretically fix most problems on your Linux desktop, but for most people that’s infeasible. It’s cheaper, in a time=money sense, to use a commercial OS.Small correction: s/ticket/ticked/

  2. Being a linux user since slack 3.4 and gentoo since 2002/3, I agree about the “Geek Supremacist”. But thanks for calling me a nobody, with :”the fact that they still try to have semantics nobody really cares about (like KDE’s “Activities””. I do love activities and its one of the major reasons why I cannot use any other desktop the same way as KDE. But my love for activities probably comes from the love for “Multi Desktops and Multi Virtual Desktops” that enlightenment 0.16 had on 1998. ( which is basicly the same workflow )

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