The recent hubbub over Linus Torvalds’ comments towards Nvidia as well as Nvidia’s response to those comments have once again brought up intense debates between Linux users and the rest of the computing pack. Reading the comments on Engadget or The Verge for these news articles, I realized that the general public has some misconceptions about Linux and its ecosystem. I use Linux distributions every single day both on my phone and on the desktop. When I read such comments, I find it kind of funny, but also kind of sad that the Linux that I use so routinely and productively is getting this sort of rap. So here, now, are five misconceptions I think I see most commonly on the Internet regarding Linux and its ecosystem.
Misconception #1: Linux is an operating system
I just wanted to get this one out of the way really quick. Linux is not an operating system. Instead, it is a kernel. It sits in between the hardware and the actual operating system (Linux distributions, as they are called) to enable all the userspace software to run smoothly and correctly.
Misconception #2: Linux has terrible driver support
The whole news about Torvalds’ Nvidia comments I mentioned earlier stemmed a bunch of comments on driver support in Linux from a ton of people. Neglecting the fact that most of the commenters didn’t actually see the talk in which Linus made his remarks and thusly assumed he was just saying Nvidia’s driver support on Linux was awful, most of the comments were pretty misinformed in general.
In regards to Nvidia, its proprietary drivers are actually pretty superb as far as performance goes. This is one of the things Engadget and The Verge participators were griping about, and rebutting that AMD’s graphics drivers are terrible. The truth is, AMD’s Catalyst drivers (its proprietary set) are also excellent and wonderful and masterful and all that. Its open source driver, dubbed “radeon” in the Linux kernel, works pretty well too, albeit with some 3D performance issues.
Apart from graphics, I’ve never had any real problem with other drivers. LockerGnome writer Ryan Pierson talked with me earlier and make the comment that he had struggles with a wireless card in one of his old notebook computers a few years ago. To be honest, those are edge cases, especially in this day and age. Wireless cards are fairly well supported (by the manufacturers, even) on Linux, especially if you have one of the mainstream brands (Broadcom, Intel, etc.), which you most likely are to have. As such, I can only assume that any driver issues that one person might encounter is either: a] user error, or b] a rare edge case, which means you shouldn’t go spouting off on a technology site to complain that Linux has terrible driver support if you can’t get your collection of silicon to work correctly.
I should note, however, that notebooks with Nvidia Optimus are a problem area — one that Linus was specifically targeting when he made his remarks. The issue with Optimus is that Nvidia has refused to support it on Linux in its proprietary driver, and it offers no support to the open source alternative, Nouveau, whose team is forced to reverse-engineer Nvidia cards in order to write the drivers. This lack of support on Linux can cause a variety of problems, from both GPUs (the integrated GPU as well as the Nvidia GPU) to run at the same time and waste battery life, to the worst case scenario of your laptop booting to a black screen of death, so to speak. This isn’t Linux’s fault, though, it’s Nvidia’s. The Linux community has been asking Nvidia to merely release the specifications behind its hardware so that the open source community at least has a good shot at writing working drivers. AMD has done this with its Radeon graphics line, even going so far as to committing employees to assist with the development of the open source driver. One last note if you’re reading this and you are affected by the Optimus issue on Linux: Try giving the Bumblebee project a look.
Misconception #3: There isn’t any decent software available for Linux
I have had this discussion with the other LockerGnome writers plenty of times, and we usually come to agree that the software available on Linux is definitely usable save for a few specific workflows. If you need a photo editor, use the GIMP or another alternative. If you want an office suite, there’s LibreOffice or you could even use Google Docs online. Linux has games, browsers, video editors, vector image editors, screencasters, instant messaging and IRC clients, development tools (oh boy, the development tools!), and so much more to offer if you’re simply willing to look around.
As I mentioned, there are a few areas where software on Linux can use some work. LockerGnome’s Ryan Pierson, in particular, wishes the video editing solutions on Linux were more competitive to the Windows and OS X market. Like I said, they exist, but they’re no Sony Vegas or Adobe Premier. When will the situation get better? It’ll have to wait for either: a] the developers of the open source alternatives to get more free time on their hands (unlikely) or b] for the commercial developers to pay more attention to Linux.
When will this attention arrive? I personally think the arrival of Valve’s Steam platform, Valve’s collection of games running on the Source engine, as well as Unity’s newly baked Linux support, will start the ball rolling. More games on Linux means gamers will start to see the platform as a useful, free alternative to Windows. As the desktop Linux market share increases as a result, more companies will consider developing ports of their software for Linux. It’s a snowball effect that I hope happens soon.
Misconception #4: Linux has a small market share
This was a fun one to read about on Engadget. Apparently, Linus’ “school project” that is Linux has failed to gain any market share for all the computers in the world whatsoever, and he should just give up and call it quits. What the ill-informed do not understand is that, quite frankly, Linux dominates computers everywhere. More than 90% of the world’s Top 500 supercomputers run a Linux-based operating system. Over half of all mobile smartphone devices now run Android, which is built on top of the Linux kernel. In addition, more than 60% of Web servers are running on a Linux distribution.
Only in the desktop space has Linux yet to leave its mark. Like I mentioned in the previous section, I expect the arrival of Steam, Source, and other gaming platforms to help boost Linux’s desktop market share considerably. Let’s hope so, anyway.
Misconception #5: Linux is only for developers and computer “experts” (aka Linux distributions are too hard to use)
This one is kind of silly. Granted, I am a developer and have been using Linux for many, many years now (since I was ten years old, at least), but the ease of use of Linux distributions has improved drastically over the years. Ubuntu, specifically, has helped make desktop Linux usable enough for ordinary human beings, as per its motto. Like I said, the software is there, so all it takes is getting used to a slightly different desktop environment when switching from OS X or Windows. I dual boot Windows and Debian here, and I hardly ever touch Windows anymore; Linux distributions have come far enough to be my daily driver from here on out.
I think Linux distributions can be intimidating and scary. I get it, though; new and different things naturally repel most of us (I’m a certified creature of habit, I’ll have you know). Many people shrug Linux off as difficult to use because they haven’t spent the time with it that it really deserves. Spend a couple of days trying to get your workflow up and running on a Linux distribution and see how you like it. Perhaps then you’ll gain a different perspective.