Why Linux captured computing and not the desktop

It’s clear that the Linux desktop failed even as Linux became the single most widely deployed OS behind the scence. And as Linus Torvalds, the creator of the OS knows, the reason is the fragmentation of the user experience.

Even knowing this abstractly didn’t stop me for spending a good bit of the first half of 2022 building a PC and playing with Linux, I’ve built a few PC with my youngest son as gaming rigs. I fell in love with the Teenage Engineering mini-ITX case they call the “Computer-1“. So when they became available again at the beginning of last year, I bought one and then the parts to put together a Linux box. Just Intel on chip graphics since the case is too small for a high powered graphics card and I wasn’t looking to use the build for gaming or other graphics uses.

What I wanted was a fast, minimal system not filled with distractions and extras. Since Linux runs fine on hardware ranging from my Raspberry Pi to multiprocessor servers, I figured that a well configured box would be about as fast as possible on standard tasks like text editing and browsing.

My biggest motivation was to really try a tiling windows manager. One of my biggest frustrations with MacOS is how inconsistently windows are spawned and so randomly placed. Working with two large external monitors multiplies the problem. I’ve mostly dealt this this by using a utility called Magnet which quickly allows screen tiling. And the new Stage Manager OS approach actually helps a bit. But using a minimal system with a tiling WM is just another experience altogether.

So I used a Linux distro called Regolith which integrated the I3 tiling windows manager with the Gnome System Mangement tools on Ubuntu. Sounds complicated already, doesn’t it. These distros on Linux are absolutely necessary because of the complexity of putting together a full suite of system management tools. There are literally dozens of distros. I found it pretty easy to find a distro and get it loaded on my newly built machine. But when something goes wrong or you want to add a functionality and keep it updated, it starts taking time to look up how to install or change some settings file to get things right. So far from the experience of running MacOS or Windows.

I can see how if one were running a certain configuration and just wanted to maintain function, it would be a reliable way to go. But as a user, there’s just so much friction that I can see how any casual user would be detered from continuing. Lets just say that to run Linux as a user, one needs to be at “Hobbyist” level. Willing to invest time into running the machine to learn how it all works and customize an experience.

So I got my Linux machine up and running. In the end, I ended up with a full Gnome install running with I3 loaded as the window manager at startup. That was just the start of the journey though, as I spent more time after that going down the Emacs and LogSeq rabbit holes. But I think those are tales for another day.

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