There was some recent discussion on this site about Linux and whether it was a consumer-ready operating system or not, and having installed Kubuntu on my PC alongside Windows7 recently I now feel much better qualified to comment.
Installing Kubuntu 10.4 (Lucid Lynx) is a breeze. I mean, really simple. All you have to do is download the ISO, get the little application to make it install from memory stick, configure your BIOS to boot from memory stick and reboot. Then it asks you a few simple questions, sets your timezone for you if you’re net-connected, gives you some hard-disk options like “use all of this one” or somesuch, and then it chugs away happily for really not very long at all. To anyone used to installing Windows, this thing is a lot faster than the usual 45 minutes.
Then it says “OK, I’m done now – pull out your install media and hit enter” and reboots the machine when you comply. Then it loads up GRUB and from there the default Kubuntu option.
Job done, it really is that simple.
Unplug your LAN and look to your wifi, and LO! You are not able to connect to your router if you have any wireless NIC using the popular Ralink RT2860 chipset because it does not support WPA2 out of the box. This is a driver issue. No big deal, right? You just go to the Ralink website (back on wires) and get yourself some fresh Linux drivers and install them … except not. No, what you get is source. You have to edit a couple of files and compile them yourself, then work some command line magic to unload the old drivers and load the new. To do this you just apt-got build-essentials which is GCC, a bunch of Linux headers and whatever else the average joe will need to be able to compile stuff.
This is ok, not too much trouble for a geek. Especially given a nice walkthrough after a short google. I’m not scared of the command line, and I know a bit about using bash. Edit a couple of files because WPA2 is disabled by default here too, run make as root, etc etc.
Then you notice that if you have an nvidia graphics card, Kubuntu has gone straight for the Nouveau open-source driver, which is great so long as all you want is 2d graphics. But really, if it’s not prettier than Windows why would you bother with KDE? I love kmail, but I’ve done without it for years.
Installing the proper binary nvidia drivers is somewhat less simple than compiling your own wifi drivers. It requires that you unload and then seek-and-destroy every mention of Nouveau, adding it to a soon-to-be-depracated (according to a warning that pops up on the command line from time to time) blacklist file, hopping into and back out of single-user root mode from the recovery options in GRUB before installing the drivers from the command line. Thankfully it configures X for you.
I wasn’t giving this my full attention, so it did take me a few weeks to finally nail down getting Kubuntu installed with working wireless and nvidia drivers, but I was still getting this weird thing happen every time I started up Kubuntu: the system would boot, everything would load up and then a few seconds later the screen would go all single colour and the computer was completely unresponsive. I SSHed in from another machine and had a look at what was going on, and Xorg was running 100% CPU. Why? I still have no idea. I found the simple fix was to disable ACPI on the startup command in GRUB.
What this means is that my computer now runs a Linux desktop that can’t turn itself off without help.
So it’s taken a bit of work, a bit of searching internets for answers, compiling my own drivers … and it’s been a lot of fun getting here and getting it working. There is a sense of achievement involved in the journey taken to get me here, writing this article in the same OpenOffice I run in Windows. But this is not what you would call the consumer operating system experience. This is pure hobbyist stuff, plain and simple. This is what makes Linux great for people like me, and if you’re reading this probably people like you. Although I bet most of you, if you love UNIX on your desktop, are using OSX instead because stuff just works and you hate having to faff about with drivers ever.
But if you are a Linux advocate who says it’s ready for the masses, ask your grandma what chipset her wireless NIC has.
Kubuntu is very nice. It’s pretty simple to install and I bet it works just great on a netbook or something so long as what little hardware it has is properly supported. But the second you run into any kind of problem you are in the shell if you’re lucky, or fighting a losing battle with dependencies if you’re not.
It’s just not ready to compete with Windows or OSX on a consumer level yet, and I rather suspect that as long as X lives and breathes it never will be. No consumer is ever going to want to have to know what sits between the desktop they can see and the drivers or kernel they can’t. Most people never want to have to hear about windowing systems or compilers. These are the kind of people who refer to their computer box as their hard disk, and will tell you that they write their letters in Microsoft. The best advice you can give someone like that is to go buy themselves an iMac.