Yes, Linux has issues; let's work on them

What's Wrong

Article from Issue 185/2016

maddog reflects on the fact that Linux is not perfect, but it's still arguably the best.

In the past month, I have found two people who have stated that Linux is not the best operating system in the world.

One person was at SCaLE, a Linux conference recently held in Pasadena, California. This person has made presentations several times with a title along the lines of "Linux S*cks," but as he goes down the list of topics, he typically exposes the concept that although GNU/Linux does not do everything perfectly, it still is preferable to a lot of the alternative operating systems, and he still uses GNU/Linux every day. Having heard his talk several times and read articles from him, I have now become used to the hyperbole, and I even gave him some pointers on how to make his talk more accurate.

The second source is a paper called "Major Linux Problems on the Desktop: 2016 Edition" by Artem S. Tashkinov [1], and it is a very detailed list of issues that the author has gleaned from bug reports and comments in forums on the Internet.

Many of the items in Tashnikov's paper are things most of us have heard before. Issues like too many distributions, incompatible packaging systems, lack of games, lack of vendor hardware support (particularly for graphics cards), or incomplete support in the case of scanners and printers.

I found his writing style reasonable. In some areas, the issues he mentions are "merely code,"and he shows distress that a "bug" has been around for 10 years. In other spots, he points out that various projects are woefully understaffed.

The issues Tashkinov presents often stem from a mixture of code and market or business reasons. Games are a good example. Games may not be prevalent across the many GNU/Linux distributions because of differences in Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) or Application Binary Interfaces (ABIs), but this situation also has to do with market issues of low desktop penetration plus the reluctance of certain users to pay for anything. If the rate of game purchase is 1 percent on an OS that has 90 percent desktop penetration, and the rate of game purchase is 1 percent of an operating system that has 3 percent desktop penetration, guess where game developers are going to concentrate? Game developers, like anyone else, need to make a living writing their games.

Other areas of his paper talk about the attitudes of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) "evangelists" in defending their favorite systems. The often given explanation of why FOSS software is "more secure" than proprietary operating systems has been that "many eyes detect the bugs." FOSS may or may not have as many eyes checking code as proprietary code does. In my mind, the reason that FOSS is more secure than proprietary code is because of the availability of the sources. Once the problem is understood and the patch is available, it is made available in both binary and source form so it can be applied immediately to most existing systems in binary form and to older systems and systems of other hardware architectures by compiling and installing patches. A system like Microsoft's XP, for example, may have a critical bug come about, but because the company has dropped support for XP, the user of the XP system is prevented from having someone help them patch the system.

Likewise, once the patch is created, people who are interested in the issue and the fix can investigate the patch and either give feedback to the programmer who created it or provide another patch.

Some criticisms of Linux are what many people might call "user created." The great freedom that FOSS offers also creates a lot of the problems that people do not recognize in other operating systems. I have been using GNU/Linux on three different ThinkPad notebook models for about 10 years. During those 10 years, I have used three or four major distributions, and as far as I can remember I have had no installation problems on any of those ThinkPad models. On my current ThinkPad (a W510), I even had items such as the fingerprint reader working. I use applications that I pull down from the distribution's repositories, or I use web applications. I have had few problems.

I could understand that if people were switching between distributions or different graphics boards, they might have a problem. Sometimes in his paper, Tashkinov leaps out of the specific problem and makes a sweeping statement like "Linux developers don't care about backward compatibility … ." The truth is that some do not care and some do care, but only if the backward compatibility is at the source code level.

I think Tashkinov's paper is worth reading, but it should be read with an open mind. Let's fix the issues that can be fixed, work toward fixing the market issues, and acknowledge that no operating system is perfect; with a little more work we could make the GNU/Linux system the best – even for the desktop.


  1. "Major Linux Problems on the Desktop 2016 edition" by Artem S. Tashkinov:

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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