Monday, July 28, 2008

Linux Revolutions

Big things are happening in the Linux world these days. In fact, what is happening in no less than a revolution. I would like here to point out three key developments that are going to shape the computer desktops in years to come.

1. Ubuntu: Before Ubuntu came along, Linux was by the geeks and for the geeks. It was written by people who were computer experts and used by people who were computer experts. These geeks were, no doubt, very passionate about FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) and wanted others to use it. However, they made no effort to make it possible for normal humans to use it. If you wanted to use Linux, you'd have to raise yourself, slowly and painfully to the exalted status of geekdom.

Enter Ubuntu. With it's motto of 'Linux for Humans', Ubuntu began serious work towards making the Linux desktop simple. After over four years of development, Ubuntu has become as simple to use as any other OS - Windows or OSX. In fact, I tried out the latest version of Ubuntu a few days back and I have no reservations in saying that I recommend that every informed layman try it out. You can now recommend Ubuntu to your mothers and girlfriends.

2. KDE4: Before KDE4 came along, linux desktops (be it Gnome, KDE3 or XFCE) were merely copying the apple user interface. Windows too was copying the apple user interface. So, all of them had a start button, desktop icons, system trays, taksbars and desktop widgets. Of course, the exact nitty-gritties of features available changed from one DE (desktop environment) to another. Linux was always a lot more flexible and customizable than Windows or OSX, but at its core, in its philosophy, it was still copying the OSX.

Enter KDE4. With it's motto to 'bring a breath of fresh air' to the linux desktop, it completely revampled the whole desktop metaphor. Out go the desktop icons and taskbar and everything became widgets and containments. Although KDE4 is still very much a work in progress (despite the rather misleading version number of 4.1), even in its infancy it promises a radical desktop experience, completely different from the OSX model that the entire world is familiar with.

What's more, KDE4 actually promises that it will become a lot more easier to port Linux applications to Windows or OSX. I can't wait for Amarok to slaughter all other media players on Windows.

3. Open Document Format: Before ODF came along, computers users were caught in the myriad world of proprietary file formats. If you used MS Office, you had to save your files in the native file formats (.doc, .xls and .ppt). If anyone else wanted to view your documents, the absolutely had to install MS Office. In a way, Microsoft ensured that if one person used Office, at least one other had to use it too.

These file formats were proprietary and Microsoft was under no obligation to release their documentation. As a result, other applications could read office files, but poorly. Formatting would go off, things will not work in exceptional cases and like.

With the recent adoption of ODF as the worldwide standard for documents but the ISO (International Standards Organization), I would no longer be forced to buy MS Office if I don't want to. ODF is an open format and anyone can develop applications to read it. A lot of applications on Linux already read it. What this means is that even if you professor insists on using MS Office, you don't have to buy Windows and Office to read his assignments. You can do it only any OS - Linux or OSX.

The above three developments are, in my opinion, key to the rapid adoption of Linux desktops in the future. The road ahead seems well lit and smoothly paved and I'm eagerly looking forward to the journey.


  1. Interesting post. I've been wanting to try out Ubuntu for a while because I've heard its quite friendly. My Linux experience is very basic -- just tried out some of the live CD versions.

    If the ODF becomes a standard, it is going to be great for people like me, having used Open Office for almost 10 years and lately trying to convince people --*cough* idiots *cough* -- not to push MS Word's docx format down my throat because, hello, I can't access it!

  2. @ Payal - You should most definitely try out Ubuntu. But better still, you should wait until next year and then try out Kubuntu with KDE4.2 As the pun goes KDE 4.2 will be the answer to life, universe and every thing. :D But seriously, KDE4 is the next milestone in desktop awesomeness. The linux people are actually talking about a desktop prettier than OSX because of it.

    OpenOffice for ten year!! Wow! Hats off to you lady. I myself am a bit divided on the whole issue. I don't like MS's proprietory formats but I do maintain that MS office has the best usability amongst all office suits. Lets see how ODF changes that.

  3. I did a review of the current MS Office suite some months ago, and I'm really impressed at how much they've developed the interface and all that. Yes, I agree that usability-wise MS has the beating of OOo, but then, I've had a long time to get used to the interface.

    To be honest, I'm not sure ODF will make too much of a difference generally. Apart from us geeks who really cares? ;-) And as long as piracy is rampant in India, most people will keep on thinking (like the IT guys in one of the companies I consult with!!) that OOo is the office suite that comes "bundled" with Linux!

  4. @ Payal - That's not true!

    1. Many govts. especially in the US and Europe are switching to ODF to archive public documents. The philosophy is that public documents should not be archived in propreitary formats because they have to be easily accessible to all and at all times in the future.

    2. After ISO standardization, MS has promised to support ODF in MS Office from 2009. Once that gets done, you can actually send ODF documents to your non linux friends plus request similar documents from them. Interoperability will become easier.

    3. What prevents a lot of people from switching to free software is compatibility. As ODF becomes popular, some people might start using OOo even if it's only because it doesn't cost money. For example, people who don't use advanced features of MS Office are much better off with OOo.