2018 – The year of Linux on the desktop

Just kidding, this post is a review of Kubuntu / Ubuntu 18.04 (Bionic Beaver)

I’ve been running Linux on my desktop – either directly, or in a virtual machine (VM) – since Mandrake 8.1 in 2002, and I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it.  Love: Free (as in both beer and speech) Open Source, configurability, wide array of available tools and software, great community, ability to just go in and fix things that are broken => huge choice in a community where it feels good to both contribute and partake. Hate: lack of hardware compatibility, drivers that break regularly, patchy interoperability with proprietary software, sometimes fractious community, overengineering => stuff doesn’t “just work”.

I spent a few years running Linux directly on my hardware rather than in a VM, but had a couple of bad experiences that shocked my into retreating back to Windows and running Linux in a VM.

The first bad experience was when a seemingly random kernel update broke my WiFi driver, and I had to spend the next couple of days trying to figure out how to fix it using a computer without WiFi.

The second bad experience was when I was negotiating an investment agreement, and brought along my printed copy of the proposed shareholder agreement which had been written by the lawyer in MS Word, and printed using Open Office. The other team’s lawyer started with, “If you look at section 6.3 (ii), let’s get started with Liquidation Preferences”. I looked at my copy, and section 6.3 had nothing to say about Liquidation Preferences.  I kept looking down the document and saw there was a second section 6.3, which wasn’t about liquidation preferences either.  How embarrassing.  I tried running Word under Wine for awhile, but it kept crashing, so I went back to running Windows and Word, and running Linux in a VM where I did all of my development work.

Just getting stuff going was a major hassle, and it always seemed to take a few days of tweaking things on a new release before I got back to being productive.

But that’s changed.

Last week, I thought I’d install the new Kubuntu (Ubuntu with the KDE desktop environment) 18.04 codenamed “Bionic Beaver”, in a parallel environment next to my running Kubuntu 16.04. I had expected it to take awhile to set up, and to eventually uninstall it and wait for it to become more stable before having another go.

I was blown away.  It took about 15 minutes to install, and everything just worked. No futzing around finding codecs, researching deprecated configuration parameters (with one very minor exception), searching for software I’d depended on but was no longer available … it just worked.

I was especially impressed with the boot time – my 16.04 rig takes over a minute and a half to boot up in a VM, whereas 18.04 is up to speed in about 20 seconds. And the new KDE environment is really slick. A number of packages I’d had to build by hand (eg TOR browser) were delightfully present in default repositories, and some interesting more complex suites (eg Jupyter) are available as snaps.

A week in, I can’t find anything to fault. If I weren’t paranoid from visceral experience about drivers breaking and proprietary document formats rendering incorrectly, I’d scrap Windows and install Linux directly. But it works so well in a VM, I’m very happy with that.

Will it ever be the year of Linux on the Desktop? Dunno. But we seem to be edging ever closer.

Based on my experience, Ubuntu 18.04 Bionic would be a great candidate for the distro that made 2018 the year of Linux on the desktop. I’d certainly encourage you to install it in a VM using VirtualBox, and have a go for yourself. Then 2018 could be your year for Linux on the desktop.