Let's not beat around the bush. When I talk about desktop Linux, what I really mean is Linux on laptops.
An unfair benchmark? Maybe so. Still, today the notebook is king. Tasked with serving the needs of real-world professionals, a growing number of IT shops have all but forsaken traditional beige boxes in favor of black briefcases.
So how does Linux fare on your average laptop today? Actually, pretty well. Most distributions correctly identify laptop screens, pointing devices, and other peripherals. Support for wireless networking is functional for many chip sets. PCMCIA cards are well-supported. Even basic power-saving features are in place.
Although these are all impressive achievements, they're not enough. Getting a car's engine to turn over is one thing; taking the car out for a spin on the freeway is something else. Although basic mobility functionality is available today, casual users are likely to find that Linux is still deficient in areas fundamental to how most people use their laptop.
By way of example, let's look at two installations I attempted just last week. One was Ubuntu 5.04 on a Fujitsu P5010 ultraportable. The other was Novell Linux Desktop 9 on an IBM ThinkPad R31. Neither machine was chosen for any particular reason. As is often the case at most companies, they were simply what was on hand. I chose the Linux distributions because they both offer a polished desktop user experience.
Novell's product isn't based on the latest Suse Linux, so I thought it best to run it on conservative, older hardware. Sure enough, it installed on my R31 without a hitch. It even offered to shrink the existing Windows partition on the drive and install the OS in the newly available space. Three discs of installation media later and I was looking at a brand-new Linux desktop.
To my disappointment, however, I soon found that the mouse cursor would sometimes fly around uncontrollably, launching applications at random and dragging menus around the screen. A Google search revealed that this R31-specific problem is related to -- wait for it -- the Linux power-management software. Disable any programs that might be polling the battery level, I was told, and the problem would probably go away. But where to find those programs? The system will be practically unusable until I track them down.
The newly released Ubuntu fared better on the P5010. A year ago Intel's Centrino chip set would have given Linux pains, but the latest kernel handles the chip set with no trouble. The only problem here was the screen. The tiny Fujitsu runs its wide-screen LCD at an unusual resolution. It works fine under Windows, but Linux can't use its full area. There's a fix available, but it involves compiling C source code. No Linux distribution ships with the fix by default.
And forget old habits such as shutting the laptop screen to put it to bed. Advanced power-management features such as Standby and Suspend did not work properly on either machine.
As a hobbyist, I found these to be minor problems. For business users they would be showstoppers.
If Linux is to escape the datacenter, laptop compatibility needs to be job one. But this task doesn't rest solely with developers. Hardware manufacturers must first take on their share of the burden. Why aren't vendors such as Dell, Fujitsu, HP, IBM, and Toshiba doing more to support open source on their hardware? Are they waiting for their competitors to do it first?