Forget desktop Linux – small systems are more fun

The diligent reader will have noticed I’ve been a little lazy when it comes to blogging lately, occupying my mind with various other things. One of those was the production work on the Computer Active Ultimate Guide to Raspberry Pi, which was a fun little computer to play with, and as Tony Smith astutely comments over at The Register, is probably being used by a lot more grown-up hobbyists than schoolchildren.

It’s not a popular opinion in some quarters, but I do believe that this is not going to be the year of Linux on the desktop. Nor is next year. And nor have been many of the other years heralded as a great breakthrough. While some big companies may use it, or even whole city councils, when it comes to home computing, Linux remains an also-ran.

You, dear reader, might be quite happy using it. But if you’re even thinking of posting a comment pouring scorn, on a small blog, because someone doesn’t think Linux is about to take over the world then, I have to say, you’re not a typical computer user. Typical users want the thing they’re familiar with; they want to plug in their camcorders and music players, and play their DVDs and hook up their printers, with the minimum of fuss, probably following the instructions in the box, and maybe even the CD that came with it.

That doesn’t make them “sheeple” or some other insulting nonsense. It makes them people for whom getting the job done is more important than evangelising. Whether it’s Windows or Mac, a huge majority of people are happy with what they have and what they know. Pointing out the lock-ins of proprietary systems, and how they can do so much more with Linux doesn’t cut any ice. They want to do the things they want to do, and for the most part, they can do that with a standard system with less hassle, and more readily available friendly help than then can with Linux as their desktop operating system, even despite the tremendous advances it’s made in user friendliness in recent years.

Small is beautiful

What that doesn’t mean is that I think Linux is pointless; I’ve been a long term user of Linux/UNIX systems of one sort of another. Back in the 1990s, most of my freelance writing was done using a Wyse50 serial terminal connected to a PC running SCO OpenDesktop, with WordPerfect 5.1 for UNIX. I did my spreadsheets using Wingz, too. Sitting in my office equipment rack at the moment is an ancient Cobalt RaQ, and above that is my home-built mail server, running OpenBSD. A huge amount of my time, I seem to end up with a terminal window open, either to do something odd on my Mac, or to tinker with a setting on one of the servers.

In short, I think Linux/UNIX systems are great; I just don’t happen to think that, for an average user, the desktop is where the action is.

Regular readers of the UK edition of Computer Shopper will have seen at least one of the Linux Expert columns that I’m now writing for the magazine, and in those, I’m following this philosophy. Home users very probably won’t be using Linux full time on their main PC. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for it in the home. I’d argue that, for a lot of people, it can be a much more useful employed in a secondary role, rather than as the main PC.

What sort of role would that be? Well, there are loads; in the first of my columns, I’ve looked at a device that many people may have already, a Synology NAS. Not only are these jolly good bits of kit in their own right, but it’s extremely easy to add additional software to them, via the desktop management interface. So why not take advantage of that, and add a mail server, putting all your emails in house, where it’s easy for you to find what you want, and rather less so the NSA?

Synology’s not the only game in town, but other NAS platforms can similarly be tweaked and expanded, and so too can many other devices. In the third column, I’ll be looking at a £50 router, the TP-Link TL-WDR3600, which is arguably even a better bet than the Raspberry Pi for some people who want to tinker. For your money, you not only get a cable router, but a Gigabit ethernet switch, wireless access points, and a flexible computer in a case with a power supply. It’s capable of running media servers, mail servers, and as I explain in the magazine, the Asterisk phone system too, thanks to the OpenWRT firmware.

I’m going to blog more about that separately, but I think this is pretty damn cool; much more so than desktop Linux. With many people having smart phone that are capable of running a VoIP client, it’s simple to set up a phone system, whether it’s for your home or even a small office. Add a VoIP service that costs a few pounds a month to provide real phone numbers, free SIP software for the phones, and a few hours spend on configuration, and you have something that, not so long ago, would have cost hundreds of pounds, and quite possibly involved expensive maintenance contracts too.

So, I really do believe that when it comes to Linux, small is more fun. Whether it’s the Raspberry Pi – ideal for projects where you need a TV display, or want to play with the IO ports – or something like a router with a Linux-based firmware, for providing network services, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and a lot of uses that these small systems can be put to, without having to teach everyone else in your house how to get to grips with a completely new desktop.

The TP-Link £50 router than can turn into a phone system

One Reply to “Forget desktop Linux – small systems are more fun”

  1. >> using a Wyse50 serial terminal connected to a PC running SCO OpenDesktop, with WordPerfect 5.1 for UNIX. I did my spreadsheets using Wingz, too. Sitting in my office equipment rack at the moment is an ancient Cobalt RaQ

    Now I need a few minutes to recover from nostalgia overload ! Never had a RaQ, but I remember them as expensive bits of kit with funky cases. First met “Unix” over 20 years ago in the form of a customer’s Xenix system for which I borrowed the manuals overnight. Then spent over a decade managing first that Xenix system, and then the OpenServer system it got upgraded to. And only recently I got called back in to help migrate it to a VMWare guest as the old hardware was obsolete and getting flakey.
    But I digress down memory lane too much …

    I agree with you, most users don’t care what they use, but they expect to “just install” standard stuff and have it work. IMO the biggest hurdle to mass apodtion of Linux on the desktop is the hardware vendor support. Until you can pick a PC off the shelf at with Linux installed, take it home, plug in and have it “just work” then it’s not there. The trouble is that the manufacturers of many just don’t see that there’s anything in the computing world beyond Windows – and so there is a lot of hardware out there what works with Windows just fine, but just doesn’t work with anything else (either “at all” or “without fiddling around”).
    As a fellow Mac user I expect you’ll be familiar with this – finding all sorts of stuff that either doesn’t have Mac support at all, or needs it to be downloaded from the unfathomable depths of the vendors taiwanglese site. For Linux it’s worse unless is popular (and old) enough for support to have been baked in to the kernel.

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