The Seven Tools that Linux Needs to Have A Chance on the Desktop

Don’t get me wrong, I love Linux. It’s everything I wanted from an OS. Speed, flexibility, games, eye candy, productivity, and powerful development tools. But there are certain things it lacks that remain as barriers to wider adoption.


The grand daddy of third party applications for Windows, Photoshop from Adobe, is the de facto standard for graphics editing. Designers use it to mock up websites, photographers use it to modify their artwork, it is the tool to end all tools for graphics manipulation.

But what about The Gimp? Yes, there is a very powerful tool out, in the form of the Gimp, arguably the most complete and useful tool to come out of the Gnome project. (In fact, much of The Gimp was used as the basis for Gnome, notably GTK). Gimp has gone through many updates and truly is the most polished of the available apps. In this, Gimp can be considered a useful replacement for Photoshop, incorporating many of the features that PS provides. But it isn’t Photoshop. Just as Photoshop’s interface can seem impossible to fathom to the regular user, Gimp’s toolset is just as complex. While they both have similar feature sets, the learning curve for both is quite steep, and there are far more Photoshop users than there are Gimp users – at least in the professional market.

Quicken and Quickbooks

In this, there can be no argument. There are no applications for Linux that have the depth of support and comprehensive abilities of Quicken and Quickbooks from Intuit. There are several attempts going on in the form of GnuCash and others, but none come close to the functionality level of these tools. Entire businesses base their very existence on these applications, not only as a desktop tool but an online resource for money management.

The Intuit applications are one example where a rewrite to mimic functionality would not be sufficient. There must be industry support for the file formats, the online services, and the support infrastructure behind the applications to make it a viable choice for a small business to make. As it stands now, that structure is not available to a Linux user. In financial applications, unlike desktop applications such as word processors and spreadsheets, years of historical data is frequently stored within the application. A user invests in the software and the company behind it. Very few opensource applications can provide the long term guarantee of support and service required by a personal and/or business financial application.

Microsoft Office

Love it, hate it, despise it, consider it the root of all evil; however you like to approach it, there is no denying that Microsoft Office is the lynchpin of Microsoft’s hold on the desktop market. The comprehensive software suite is the carrot by which any user will naturally migrate toward Windows as a desktop environment. “I’ll use any machine as long as I can email my word documents around and do group scheduling.” That simple statement unfortunately only has one answer, and that’s Microsoft Office, and from there, that means Outlook.

Because of this reality, there is zero chance Microsoft will every port Office to Linux. It is not a paying environment (unlike the Mac where users will happily pay Microsoft for the application), and supporting Linux as a desktop environment will only hurt Microsoft’s hold on the desktop. Also because of this, the Office problem is one that has gotten the most attention among opensource developers and, it must be said, commercial ventures.

On the opensource side, OpenOffice is the clear leader in Office-like applications. Spreadsheet, presentation manager, word processor, graphics editor – they’re all there, and to a large degree, they work fairly well, even with Microsoft documents – a fact that is not lost on the software giant. Microsoft knows that compatable tools will hurt their market position, which is one of the reasons they vehemently oppose the Open Document Format (ODF). Why pay a thousand dollars for an Office suite from Microsoft when an opensource version can work just fine on the same files?

Unfortunately, OpenOffice has some serious deficiencies, not the least of which is performance. Microsoft has had 15 years to tune and tweak Office, and has hundreds of developers whose job it is to make Office fast, stable, and useable. The OpenOffice developers have no such luxury, and the application suffers because of it. Tasks that can take a few second under Excel may take 3 minutes under OpenOffice Calc.

And then there’s the the Outlook problem. First, in terms of ‘pleasure to use’ – Outlook is a bad email client. Microsoft has attempted, in one application, to appeal to all users from the stay at home dad up through the Fortune 1000 installations, all within the same program. The result is a muddied, difficult to use, enormous application that, unfortunately, CAN do everything, it just does it all poorly. Most of the functionality in Outlook can be replicated in other email clients, and there are thousands available. The one thing that has never been reproduced to the level that Outlook provides is scheduling. The lack of an OpenSource, usable, shareable calendar system for Linux is the final nail in the ‘Not available for business’ sign across the Linux desktop. Outlook’s group scheduling functionality, when coupled with an Exchange server, is unparalleled. Yes, there are plugins for clients like Evolution that can talk to an exchange server, but that still requires the Exchange server. The net win is zero, and can be argued to be a loss because a Windows box is still required for Exchange, and Windows client is still required to configure and maintain the Exchange server. Where is the win?


What? Skype? Cmon, there already is Skype for Linux! Sure there is, but as anyone who has worked on the Windows version will tell you, the differences between the two versions are noticeable in one huge issue. The Linux version of Skype does not support video.

It could be argued that Video under Linux is hardly an advanced, well supported technology. But with the wide ranging availability of v4linux, and well documented support for various webcams, it’s inexcusable for Skype, two years after providing a Linux version of its software, has not provided a working video interface.


In the world of multiprotocol clients for Windows, Trillian has come out on top as the best supported, most frequently updated, and arguably most profitable package around. Supporting all of the major chat systems (Yahoo, MSN, ICQ, Jabber, and IRC), all within an easy to use interface, Trillian has become the default client for a sizeable portion of the community that wishes to not be wedded to only one IM system.

But again the cry goes out. What about GAIM^H^H^H^HPidgin? It does all these protocols just fine, why not use it? Friends, I encourage you to sit down with a Trillian user, and suggest to them to try GAIM. The interface is laughably primitive, so wrapped up in its Gnome roots that the developers are blind to how painful it is to use for someone not intimately familiar with Gnome already. I’ve tried on numerous occasions to use Gaim to try and unify my two primary communication mediums (IRC with X-Chat, and Jabber-Client-Du-Jour for others), and each time I’ve found myself chewing the furniture over the idiocy and outright painfulness of GAIM’s interface. Perhaps now, with the legal issues with AOL out of the way, there may be hope for updated versions, but I believe Cerulean Studios is missing out on a golden opportunity to get into the Linux market by not providing a version for Linux.


Object-based drawing and charting. Many companies revolve their businesses around Visio drawings. There’s really no decent alternative for Linux, and Visio has adamantly refused to allow compatable applications to be developed.


This is a generic category. Lets face it, compared with Windows, Linux is a poor gaming platform. Sure there are some ports for some great games, and the folks on the Wine project have made fantastic leaps in providing a runtime environment on a Linux host for playing the most popular games, but… they’re not native. Getting World of Warcraft to run under Linux can be a long frustrating experience, which begs the question “why bother?”

Certainly Microsoft has a hand in keeping the Windows platform viable for gaming, primarily in the form of DirectX, a licensed multimedia interface that many (actually, most) of the game developers adhere to. Windows provides the hardware interface to the devices, DirectX provides the API to the games. It would be great if DirectX were available for Linux, which would make porting the games easier. I don’t need to explain that pipe dream.


Many times the media has proclaimed “This is the year of Linux on the desktop!” and, to be fair, Linux has made great inroads here. Many governments are questioning the monolithic “single vendor” problem with Windows and are looking for alternatives. It’s a great challenge to these organizations, as there is little lure to Linux on the desktop other than throwing off the yoke of subservience to Microsoft, and until either these applications are made available or viable alternatives are around, Microsoft will never really be displaced as king of the desktop.


A wandering geek. Toys, shiny things, pursuits and distractions.

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24 thoughts on “The Seven Tools that Linux Needs to Have A Chance on the Desktop

  1. Oh, come on – there are a good number of games for Linux. Thousands of free games and there are a bunch of commercial games, too. There is at least one good alternative to Skype out there, even with open protocols. Check out the modern software packages and you’ll see more comparable software packages. Less crying and more helping these groups fix their minor (cosmetic?) deficiencies so we can all share an open, powerful and Free operating system.

  2. Heck, even if you could *get* Photoshop ported to Linux, the real value-add is with the plugins. There’s a zillion of them out there to work all kinds of magic. I have several that are absolutely critical to my digital imgaing business. That’s why I, of all people, am running Windoze for my business…

  3. Even if OpenOffice gets as fast as MS Office, it will never be a serious threat to MSO.

    The reason is the OO developers are under the delusion that they have a better UI, so they refuse to reproduce the look ‘n’ feel of Office. I’m talking about keyboard shortcuts, toolbars, etc. Until that happens, OO is dead in the water. (As an aside, why did the OO developers insist that formula parameters in the Spreadsheet use the semicolon as the delimiter instead of the comma? Are they stupid or just so anti-social that soap and water are things they only read about online?)

    The cost for going from MSO to OO is not zero. It includes time spent learning OO’s interface well enough to not make simple mistakes or have to take time to hunt for features. The cost includes the time it takes for a user to get familiar enough with the OO interface to not have to think about it.

    Even though the American way of driving on the right side of the street may not make sense to some (Brits), it is the standard in America because everyone does it, not because it is better or worse. The same goes for the MSO interface.

    Two facts;
    Like it or not, MSO is the STANDARD for Office interfaces, with the 95% market sewn up.
    The higher the cost, the less likely someone will switch. Retraining/learning is just as much a factor as the price.

  4. It is far from a replacement, and has its own quirks, but look into ‘dot’ if you absolutely must do Visio-like activities on Linux.

  5. Eagle says: There is at least one good alternative to Skype out there, even with open protocols.
    I’ve investigated several. The only one that came close was Wengo, and we regular, consistent crashes with it for the 4 months we were working with it. We certainly tried very hard to make it useable, but the application was twitchy and buggy, and support was non-existent.
    It’s hard to compare an opensource very narrowly used system like Wengo to Skype, which, as I sit here, is showing 7.1 million people logged into it. Any one of them I can call up and video chat, play games with, or do voice calls.
    How’s wengo doing?

  6. We use the Zephyr chat protocol here at Permabit (one of the few sites to do so that isn’t MIT), and I tried using GAIM with it. It made the text-mode client I had been using look like a paragon of UI design.
    Of course, all of these tools, or equivalents, are well-supported on the Mac. But I expect that what’s most likely to end Microsoft’s ownership of the desktop is web-based applications.

  7. Interesting comment, ceo. Perhaps it is “Google Calander”, “Google Document” and “Google Spreadsheets” that will be the great Linux enablers, but then will these be open, Free formats? On the gaming front, Linux users can play thousands of web-based Flash games with the recent release of Flash 9 for Linux.

  8. Regarding MS Office; if you are faced with upgrading to MS Office 2007 versus migrating to OpenOffice, you must consider that the new MS Office has a completely new interface. This means you will need to retrain/learn the new interface for either choice (MS Office or OpenOffice). Add in the cost difference, and OO is now a more attractive alternative.

  9. You talk about each these as seriously preventing widespread acceptance of Linux on the desktop. I can see where you come from in terms of large corporations that use and depend on these applications, but that is not the market that Linux is going to emerge from–it is more likely the end user.

    What applications does the end user need? A word processor to write documents, a picture viewer/editor to make minor enhancements/changes, an e-mail client that checks their e-mail–updates as to when new messages arrive are a nicety, an IM program that supports so that I can chat with my friends, some form of entertainment (MMORPGs are fun, but not all of them are necessary).

    For the end user, they don’t need photoshop, they can use kpaint or whatever other picture editors that come with the distro they are using. MSOffice is nice when its available, but people won’t be too concerned that they can use OpenOffice writer for whatever they need (I for one don’t even use OO calc at home–I never do spreadsheets except at work). Also, there is the solution of CrossOver Office which allows you to install MSOffice on linux
    Video conferencing is nice, but not a necessity and for the duration of time in which the bugs are being worked out in the video conferencing programs on linux, the people that will be switching won’t be missing it.
    Trillian is nice, and so is Yahoo IM, and so is MSN/Win Live, and so is… but still, people don’t need , gaim will work for them, or there are also others that will work for multi or for individual protocols that will work.
    Visio–I can see where you come from, but I don’t use visio, even at work–at least for the time being. Most people who use Visio only ever use it at work at companies that use it.
    Games–Yes there are a lot of really cool games written for windows and there are very few really cool games written for linux (though they do exist). There is the solution of Wine/Cedega the later of which is basically designed to run the really cool windows games on linux
    Quicken/books–This here is the one program that will most hinder linux adaptation as a lot of people and not just big businesses rely on this program, and there (currently) isn’t a comparable linux equivalent.
    However what I will say here applies to most all programs that are windows only: As more people switch to linux, more programs will be ported/written for linux and more development will go into linux programs, and eventually there will be very few programs for windows that don’t have a comparable (or in some cases better) equivalent for linux.
    Let me also remind you that Wine, Cedega and CrossOver Office are specifically designed to run windows programs on linux, and most programs do work using these programs (I was pleasantly surprised that even the latest versions of Finale–composition software–runs with few problems on Wine)

    Sure linux will see very slow adaptation in the working world where businesses are tightly coupled to the applications that they use, most of which are windows only. But as for end-users who are very loosely coupled to the OS and the applications, and many of whom don’t mind different versions as long as it still works, only two items you listed may hinder widespread adaption, but only to a degree: Quicken/Quickbooks and the games (only because of the extra hastle to buy Cedega and install with that).

    I don’t see 50% of the market switching from windows to linux this year, but that doesn’t mean that I am not optimistic about linux adaptation this year. Currently people site linux market share at around 5%. I can see that doubling in the next year, and if it reaches 15% by 2008, I will be ecstatic.

  10. graphics editing is about 0.0001 % of the population so…. if you really want it use use wine
    for normal user, krita and gimp are there
    trillian -> kopete
    visio -> kivio
    for the game, there are some good opensource game and many opengl game go out for linux
    you don’t know what your talkin about… very newbee

  11. I have two machines: one AMD 2400 MHz with 256 Mb RAM running Win 2k and the other a K6-2 500 Hz with 128 Mb RAM running Debian. So far, I am spending more time with the second machine exploring all the thing I can do that I did on the Win machine. It takes a little time to find a match to some Windows software and to learn them but personally I consider that as a learning experience as well as time well spent.
    Do I need Photoshop, Quicken/Quickbook, Trillian, Visio, Skype and MS Office? Not really! I use Abiword and OpenOffice, VLC, Firefox and Thunderbird, GAIM and aMSN, GnuCash and others that are good enough for my needs.
    One day, I will transfer Debian on the first machine and will be done with Windows and nobody will know… This is the only thing that is important for me!

  12. Wow talk about nothing special in an article. There are very viable replacements/alternatives to Photoshop, MS Office, Quicken and Quickbooks. As for the other stuff there is Skype for Linux, GAIM (now Pidgin) is more than adequate to take trillians place, plenty of games available native and through Wine/Cedega. Visio has a couple of replacements as well that not only read visio files but can save in that format as well for cross platform compatibility. People like to make excuses when asked why they don’t switch. What they should do is try to switch and use the tools given them by FLOSS community before they specualte as to what is “needed”.

  13. Say WHAT? Trillian is easy to use? come on,can u tell me how to use THIER IRC Plugin Plz?and do u know How Annoying trillian works when connecting to Internet after starting it? u just cant tell if it is online or not.
    1 more thing,Did u EVER my dear friend PAYED for GIMP to help the project develop? w8 that was a bad question?and about SKYPE its not Linux’s problem if thy r Lazy with there Propr……… Software what was that word again,yes u guessed it right.
    sry for the bad language,but for so an ignorant and non-objective review,i couldnt hold my self back.

  14. Is this all Linux needs to become popular? Heh.
    I see one possible way to get all this done at once: Wine with a catch. The Wine project should offer to port over a company’s application for a fee (or perhaps even for free in exchange for support, donation etc). Every successful port will fill out WINE until it has successfully copied Windows’s API.

  15. What a load of crap! Basically the entire article is “To stand a chance on the desktop, linux must be just like windows”! Rubbish! What linux needs is more exposure and more exposure for the great applications it already has. If more people knew about, for example, the gimp and its user base was higher then it wouldn’t matter that it wasn’t photoshop because it is FREE – something that photoshop can never be.

  16. No disrespect, but get a clue. IS an out of the box replacement for 90% of office users. Very few clients actually use the high end features where it makes a difference. There are even some nice toolsets for working with Access available.
    Trillian may have nice glitter, but I use Kopete and it does all I need…
    The same can be said of the Gimp.
    Calendaring / Scheduling can be overcome by one of the MANY PHP applications that exist or can be written (And offer better results with a webpage allowing telecommuters to access the site)
    I will agree that Intuit needs to be drafted.
    I object to the assertion that Linux is not a good gaming platform. Those games written to OpenGL (R.I.P. thanks to Vista) run faster with fewer resources when linux ports are compared to windows ports.
    I believe the real issue is techo-myopia. Too many businesses make decisions based on their annual performance review rather than what best over several years. Without a doubt an upfront investment in opensource is not only cheaper in the long run, but makes life so much better in the long run as well.
    Can we also mention another VERY important point that I’ve not heard mentioned that I believe is relevant? What about HARDWARE requirements? We recently had to add 40 PC’s on our manufacturing floor that need to run a web browser (to get data from our PHP intranet site) email client, Telnet Client, and the ability to read PDF’s and Word/Excel Docs. When you concider the hardware requirements to run those as an adequate speed with XP (worse for Vista) vs. Linux, what do you think made more sense??? And don’t even get me started on SECURITY related issues.

  17. I feel that Linux can compete with the Microsuck powerhouse. If more people make the switch the more people that will develop software for it. It is a simple cause and effect type of thing. MS has the market share on their desktop. No one owns Linux (so to speak) hence there will always be many projects out there that are trying to accomplish the same thing that some one else has already, perhaps, started to do. UNITY is the answer.

  18. Evolution for linux even integrates into exchange. Kontact isn’t that great, yet. But give it time. Windows has also been around how much longer than linux? Get the facts straight, first.

  19. Windows has also been around how much longer than linux? Get the facts straight, first.
    What a ridiculous statement.
    WHAT version of windows? Windows 2.11? Windows 95? Windows 98? Windows 2000? Windows XP? These are massive rewrites and major revisions to each of these platforms, and each of them had associated major overhauls of contact management and email stuff. At what point do you assume that “windows has been around longer than Linux?”
    The first Linux kernel was released in 1991. The very very first version of Windows, Windows 1.0, was released as a DOS add-on in 1985. So yes, Windows could conceivably be considered being around ‘longer’ than Linux, but Unix, from which Linux is derived, has been around since 1969. Where are you drawing the line?
    Is there anything from those early platforms of Windows that has anything to do with current environments? None. I used Windows 1.0, 2.11, WFW, Windows 95, etc etc. If you’d like to actually mark the usefulness of Windows, it would probably be Windows 95.
    Even then, it was a single-threaded, primitive (No networking at all) platform.
    “Get the facts straight” as you so assert, is something easy to toss out, but hard to substantiate with facts. What facts would you like to present?

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