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Ten Years as Desktop Linux User: My Open Source World, Then and Now

A look back at the ways that using desktop Linux and open source software has become easier (and harder) over the past ten years.

I've been a regular desktop Linux user for just about a decade now. What has changed in that time? Keep reading for a look back at all the ways that desktop Linux has become easier to use -- and those in which it has become more difficult -- over the past ten years.

I installed Linux to my laptop for the first time in the summer of 2006. I started with SUSE, then moved onto Mandriva and finally settled on Fedora Core.

By early 2007 I was using Fedora full time. There was no more Windows partition on my laptop. When I ran into problems or incompatibilities with Linux, my options were to sink or swim. There was no Windows to revert back to.

A Decade of Improvement (Mostly)

Circa 2007, running Linux as a desktop operating system was tricky in most ways. Here's a look at the biggest pain points, and how they have been resolved today...

Wireless connectivity

I owned two wireless cards in 2007 (and as a college student, I wasn't in a position to invest in new ones): A pluggable USB device with some kind of RaLink chipset, and a built-in card with a Broadcom chipset. The RaLink device worked with ndiswrapper, a utility that let you use Windows drivers to control networking devices in Linux. But it would crash my entire PC periodically. I never figured that chip out fully. I have no idea if it would work better today.

Meanwhile, the Broadcom chip worked well, but only if you installed proprietary firmware that you "cut" out from a Windows system. This was not beginner-friendly work, and it took me a long time to figure it out. It also posed legal issues because the firmware was not licensed for use on Fedora.

Today, life is much easier for Broadcom owners. Free firmware is now available, and most Linux distributions come with tools that will extract it automatically. Plus, my laptop today has a wireless card with an Intel chipset, which performs excellently on Linux with absolutely no configuration required on my part.

Display

My laptop in 2007 had an Intel GPU, which worked very well out-of-the-box in Fedora. But I also had a desktop with an NVIDIA chip. It functioned by default, but only in a very primitive way. In order to get the NVIDIA chip to support graphical acceleration and decent screen resolution, you had to install a closed-source driver. That was easier said than done because to run the installation script, you had to stop your display entirely and work from a terminal.

In retrospect, the process was not very difficult for anyone with command-line experience. You just downloaded the script, made the file executable with chmod and ran it with a ./ command. But for a Linux neophyte like myself, it was a huge challenge. I suppose the work paid off, though, because it was a sort of baptism by fire in learning about the CLI.

A decade later, it has been years since I have had to install a display driver manually on Linux. Mostly that has been because all of the computers I have acquired since I began using Linux have Intel GPUs. But I gather that NVIDIA chips are now much better supported in Linux, thanks to open source driver projects like nouveau.

Office Software

I was impressed in 2007 by OpenOffice, the office software that came preinstalled with most Linux distributions. It more than met my needs at the time, which mostly involved writing mediocre history and English papers for my college courses. And I loved that it had a neat button for turning any type of document into a PDF file. My friends were jealous of that.

However, my relationship with OpenOffice and its descendant, LibreOffice (which I now use most of the time), has become rockier since 2007. Both platforms remain solid office suites. But my requirements for compatibility with Microsoft Office are much more strict today. I now write scholarly articles and books (not to mention mediocre blog posts). Every academic press with which I have ever worked expects files to be submitted in Word format, and I need to ensure that everything I see when working on a document is identical to what the editors will see when opening it in Word. For that reason, I keep Word on my Linux system and run it via Wine when I am working on a manuscript. I still use LibreOffice for writing less official documents, however.

PDF Readers

Working with PDF files is the one area that has perhaps become more challenging during my decade as a desktop Linux user.

Back in 2007, you could install a native version of Adobe Acrobat Reader on Linux. But Adobe stopped supporting Linux with Reader 9.

In general that's not a problem. Open source PDF readers can display most PDF documents just fine. But occasionally, I need to work with special types of PDFs that, for whatever silly reason, are only compatible with Acrobat. (Here's an example.) I have yet to find a good solution to this. Acrobat 9 installed on Ubuntu won't let me make comments on PDF documents. I can't get the Windows version of Acrobat 11 to work via Wine. As a workaround, I have to boot up a Windows virtual machine. I curse Adobe while I wait for the Windows virtual machine to boot, and long for the days when Acrobat Reader "just worked" on Linux.

Netflix

Last but not least there's Netflix. The change here is pretty simple. Back in 2007, when Netflix streaming first debuted, it did not work with Linux at all.

Then, in 2012, it became possible to run Netflix on Linux using a special script that was not supported by Netflix. By 2014 Netflix officially supported Ubuntu. Today, the service "just works" for me in Chrome -- which is good because Netflix is the only thing standing between me and the outrageous cost of cable.

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