Can a Linux Desktop Ever Become Mainstream?

Professionally and at home, I have been a dedicated Windows user since I can remember. Windows 3.1 was my first foray into the Windows world. I have never really had any need to use anything else. When I used to work in the games industry all of our development was done under Windows, even if we were targeting other platforms like the Playstation platform, Gamecube, Wii etc.

Every now and again, I take a little dip into the Linux world just to see how it is coming along. One thing that has always interested me is if a Linux Desktop can ever compete in the mainstream against Windows and OSX. By this, I mean would it ever become a feasible operating system to use for non developer hacker types. Or to put it another way, could my Wife or Dad ever use Linux as a general all purpose operating system?

Transition from Windows to Linux

Transition from Windows to Linux

Every-time I take a look, the answer I come too is, No. It is just too hard to use for the lay person. For someone like my Dad or Wife, expecting them to do any kind of configuration from the command line isn’t really appropriate, and the GUI’s of Linux past have been pretty grim. Hackers love them, but not the average guy / girl on the street.

I recently took another look to see how Linux was progressing, because fundamentally, I love the idea of it. A Free, and Open operating system that is not tied to any one particular company. First of all I tried Ubuntu with their new Unity interface. After about 30 minutes use of this new GUI I was left thoroughly underwhelmed. Why, because it doesn’t feel like Windows. Don’t flame me just yet, let me explain. In my opinion, to get an experienced or novice windows user to switch to Linux, then they need a certain level of familiarity to make the transition easier and Unity just didn’t provide it. Sure it has it’s own identity and you can’t knock it for this, but the whole experience felt clunky and incomplete. Next up was Linux Mint 16 with their Cinnamon interface.

Linux Mint is actually based off of a fork of Ubuntu, which is in turn based off the Debian linux distribution.

I booted up the live disk image and had a little play around, and I was instantly impressed. The Cinnamon interface felt familiar. It felt Windowsy(tm), but it was Linux. This was a great start. Instantly I was finding my way around, launching applications, browsing the file system, changing background and all the other things you take for granted when you have been using Windows for so long. My immediate impression was that they had the balance right. Cinnamon felt and operated similar to Windows XP and Windows 7, yet it had it’s own identity. I think we are on to a winner. I decided to create a virtual machine in Virtual Box and do a proper install.

I have documented part of the process and my impressions below.

Installing Linux Mint

Before we begin, I just want to reiterate the angle I am looking at this from. I am not looking from a developers point of view. A decent developer can adapt to any system, and if you need to do configuration from the command line, then that is normally fine. I am looking at this from your average PC user, who is not necessarily that technical and certainly not a developer / hacker. If you are a developer and don’t see the point of view I am writing this from, then you will probably think I have gone mad, writing about what seems to be such trivial things.

Installing Linux Mint into Virtual Box is very easy. When you create the virtual machine, you need to make sure you set the base OS type as Ubuntu 64bit (or 32 bit if you want to install the 32 bit version). I also made sure to set the hardware 3D acceleration so ensure things ran smoother. The installation process is very simple indeed and actually quite slick. I mounted the ISO image as a drive and set Virtual book to boot with it. First of all you are booted into the live boot version of Cinnamon. This allows you to have a little play with the OS before you commit to installing it. Once you are happy to proceed you double click the ‘Install Linux Mint’ icon to kick start the process.

Linux Mint Installation

Linux Mint Installation

You have to work through a few configuration screens, but overall the process is very easy. Certainly no more complicated than installing Windows 7 or 8. The installer even seems to select sensible defaults.

Linux Mint Installation - Select Timezone

Linux Mint Installation – Select Timezone

The whole installation process too about 15 minutes. It was really quick and easy and then I was booted back into the main desktop. The first thing I did was change the desktop wallpaper. I thought I may as well start off with a nice looking desktop. Doing this was very Windows like, you just right click on the desktop and select to change the background. They have provided some nice images, so it is nice to see that care has been taken on the little things. Once I changed the background, I had a desktop that looked like the following.

Linux Mint Desktop

Linux Mint Desktop

What is nice about this installation is that they seem to have decent display drivers. When I installed Ubuntu and Unity I was locked into a lower resolution, so I couldn’t extent it past 1280×720 for some reason. But this wasn’t the case here. I could easily go full screen (RIGHT CTRL + F in Virtual Box) and it picked my native resolution of 1920×1080 and it ran smoothly because of the hardware acceleration.

Next up I wanted to checkout the file browser. Windows has a pretty decent file browser and just about everyone is familiar with it, so I wanted to see if Mints browser past muster on usability.

Linux Mint File Browser

Linux Mint File Browser

As you can see from the image above, everything about the file browser looks familiar to the window user. I was able to easily navigate around and not have to resort to the command window once.

Next up is web browsing. By default Linux Mint has Firefox installed which is a good choice of browser to start with. You can go and install Chromium (The open source version of Chrome, but I was happy with Firefox). The browser just worked and I didn’t have any issues with it. Linux Mint connected to my Wifi OK, so there wasn’t any connectivity issues, and I was happily browsing. I also tried Youtube as previous Linux distributions I have tried before don’t have any form of Flash player pre-installed, but Linux Mint did.

Linux Mint Web Browser

Linux Mint Web Browser

So far, with what I have experienced in Linux Mint it feels like I am using a somewhat different looking version of Windows, and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. Things are looking really good for this being a valid transitional route from the Microsoft Eco system into the world of Linux. So, what’s the next big Windows feature people will want? Well, it has to b e the start button (I will gloss over Windows 8 for the moment). The Cinnamon interface in Mint has a very nice looking and usable start button. I will even go out of a limb and say it is better that that of Windows 7. It feels so natural to use that you don’t even need to think twice about what you are doing!

Linux Mint Start Buton Alternative

Linux Mint Start Button Alternative

Everything you need is there. You have the quick launch and shutdown/restart/logout controls to the left. The middle column is your application categories, and the right hand column is the applications inside your selected category. There is also a flexible and fast search box at the top of the start button.

One of the beauties of this distribution (and this happens in a lot of linux distributions now) is you get so much good software pre-installed. On windows you get a fairly bare system. If you want to use a decent productivity suite, then you have to purchase and install Microsoft Office, or download Open Office / Libre Office. But on this Linux Mint system, Libre Office is already installed, which is great as it is my preferred office suite.

Linux Mint Libre Office Writer

Linux Mint Libre Office Writer

You also get lots of other decent applications. For example Gimp is included and this is an excellent Free Photoshop equivalent, which is very powerful indeed. Normally on Linux if you need to edit text files, you either have to use a very complex (for the laymen) command console editor, like Vi, Vim, Emacs etc, but Mint has available a pretty decent notepad equivalent (gEdit). It’s a small thing, but it makes all the different to a novice user.

The final little test I wanted to do was installing a commercial application. I know many die-hard Linux enthusiasts will hate me for even suggesting this, but it is nice to have the option to install another application that is not available from the normal Linux Package managers. I decided to install the 30day demo of PyCharm from JetBrains. PyCharm is a python IDE that is very good imho. I have tried some of the open source IDE’s but have not been that impressed with them, especailly as I am spoilt by using applications like Visual Studio 2013! I went to the Jetbrains website and downloaded the installation package that went into my Downloads folder. Using the file explorer I browsed to the file and unpacked the file.

Linux Mint PyCharm

Linux Mint PyCharm

Then I went into the Bin folder of the application and double clicked on the file to set-up the application. This proceeded to run the IDE, but it also set up the application icon in the Start Menu. For me this installation process was just as easy as doing it in Windows.


In the title of this post, I asked the question, Can Linux ever become mainstream? I am glad to say for the first time in all the times I have tried Linux, that the answer is Yes!. Linux Mint offers the perfect transition from Windows XP / 7 where the user interface is both familiar to windows users yet has its own unique identity.

With Windows XP going out of support, there are still a huge amount of people with older hardware that may not be capable of running Windows 7 well, or people are not prepared to pay the upgrade cost to Windows 7. This is especially true for large corporations. Before people completely move over the Linux Mint though, they may need to take some transitional steps. If they are used to only working with Microsoft Office, then they will be out of luck if they want to carry on using this in Linux. My advice to anyone in this situation is to try switching over to Libre Office and working with that for a short while. I made the switch to Libre Office a few months ago, and I haven’t looked back. It is backwards compatible with Microsoft Office and so far I have not had any issues with transferring Word files, Spreadsheets and Power point files between the two.

I strongly think the people behind the Linux Mint distribution are onto a good thing here. This is the ideal distribution to help move people away from windows and I really hope they continue to put in the support to making this an even better distribution. It’s driver support seems excellent, and out of the box it contains a huge wealth of software so you don’t actually have to do that much to a base install except install any additional applications that you need. I was genuinely surprised when I started playing around with it. It is what I have been waiting for in a Linux Distribution for a very long time.

11 thoughts on “Can a Linux Desktop Ever Become Mainstream?

  1. Luke

    As a long-time Windows user that has recently switched to Ubuntu, this is very intriguing. Ubuntu is good but a little too alien for me to be 100% productive. I might give Mint a go tonight. Cheers!

  2. Hugh

    Having just got Broadband back last night, I installed LinuxMint. I haven’t done much with it yet (the “new” broadband is only old, sluggish ADSL) but I have updated it with the builtin update tool. My only issue is that it asked me if it should overwrite a file, which would undoubtedly confuse the non-technical.

  3. Riley Trautman

    You should check out elementary os; it is very intuitive, although it does not come with an office suite.

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  7. Anonymous Caller

    I disagree that Linux-based distros aren’t suitable for the non-technical use.

    Almost all a non-technical user needs is a web browser… maybe with some plugins (which sometimes causes a step into unsuitability due to a desire for Flash support.) Those users are covered by many distros. Users comfortable with performing technical tasks are also covered by many distros. The users somewhere in the middle are left out, those wanting some technical tasks done who are used to “double click and click Next until it’s installed” and good user interfaces that give configuration choices without obfuscating them.

    Those middle users are nearly never catered to, because making choices on behalf of non-technical users and writing man pages for technical users is EASIER. People constantly come out with Yet Another Easy Distro that’s “better” or “just works,” thinking they’re doing people a service, but all they do is make a nice theme for the existing UI and a few patches from the distro they’ve forked’s bug tracker (MAYBE they’ll even go all the way and include the odd upstream patch.)

    What’s needed is new configuration tools that inform users in that middle comfort level of what the options are and what the consequences of those options are. Give them good documentation that is organized as a learning process until they’re more comfortable and can skip to the nitty gritty. Give a man a fish…


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