It’s 2020, and there are fewer reasons than ever to use Linux on the desktop. Yet, I am still doing just that--as I have been for the past 15 years. Why? Let me explain …
Failing Pro-Linux Arguments
Let me start by pointing out why using Linux on the desktop may no longer seem as appealing as it once did.
Back when I started using desktop Linux, circa 2005, the world of computing looked wildly different. Windows Vista loomed on the horizon, and everyone knew it was going to be a disaster. (We didn’t yet know that Microsoft would keep supporting Windows XP all the way through 2014, nor did we know how quickly Microsoft would roll out Windows 7 to provide an alternative to Vista.) Not wanting to use Vista was one of the major reasons why I started exploring the world of Linux on the desktop.
Fast forward to the present, and Windows has come a long, long way. Windows 10 is lean and mean. I find the interface kind of annoying, but perhaps I just haven’t given it enough of a chance. Otherwise, Windows 10 seems like a solid OS, and I can imagine myself being happy using it.
Security was also a major consideration for becoming a Linux user back in the mid-2000s. When I switched to Linux on the desktop, I loved that I didn’t have to worry about my PC being overtaken by viruses, or by resource-hungry antivirus software that undercut the machine’s performance almost as much as the actual viruses.
The Windows security scene has improved drastically since those days. Malware is still a thing, but Windows is no longer the singular target it once was: The bad guys have extended their reach to include smartphones and their attacks to include platform-agnostic techniques like phishing. And I get the sense that Windows antivirus tools no longer consume half your CPU cycles.
And then there’s cost. Most desktop Linux distributions are still free, and most Windows installations are not. That hasn’t really changed since the mid-2000s. However, what has changed is that I’m no longer a heavily indebted college student living in a bat-infested hovel. The price of a Windows license is not a huge setback for me financially these days, so I can't say cost makes me a user of Linux on the desktop.
Last but not least is reliability. When I started using Linux, one of the chief arguments of Linux advocates was that it was more stable than Windows. That was already ceasing to be true by about 2005, by which point Windows XP had proved not to be the BSOD-prone embarrassment that its predecessors had been. And although I don’t use Windows on an everyday basis today, I certainly have the sense that the modern versions are pretty reliable, too. On the other hand, I’d be lying if I said my Linux kernel doesn’t panic from time to time. Thus, I don’t think it’s fair to claim that Linux is less crash-prone than Windows at this point.
For all of these reasons, it is harder to make a case today for Linux on the desktop than it was 15 years ago. And I don't seem to be alone in thinking this way; although reliable data on desktop Linux market share is hard to come by, most data sets suggest that the use of Linux on PCs has remained relatively flat for the past several years.
Why Linux on the Desktop Lingers
Yet, despite all this, I continue using Linux on the desktop--specifically, Ubuntu. I don't even have Windows partitions on any of my desktops. (In the exceedingly rare event that I need to boot to Windows, I use one of Microsoft's free, time-limited virtual machine images.)
Why do I remain a Linux user, even though the primary alternative--Windows--is now just as reliable, just as secure and (for me) just as affordable? Well, for several reasons.
1. Don't bash Bash.
One reason I continue to use Linux on the desktop is the Bash shell. When I first ventured into the world of Linux, the CLI terrified me like nothing else. But over the years I've learned to use and love it. Sometimes, there are things (like reordering a list of words or searching for a string inside a set of documents) that you can do in a few keystrokes using a Bash shell that would take much more time using a graphical interface.
And while Windows has PowerShell, it's just not as, well, powerful as Bash. It doesn't integrate as deeply with the typical Windows application, and it lacks usability features like rich autocomplete.
2. Developer tools are readily available.
Along similar lines, I love that developer tools are always a stone's throw away when I'm working on a Linux PC.
Want to run kubelet or Docker, for example? If they're not already installed, I can install them in seconds and then get to work. The same is true of almost any programming language I might want to work with, or any type of database or Web framework I want to spin up locally for testing purposes. And I haven't even mentioned tools like SSH, which I use all the time to connect quickly to other machines.
Linux just makes it easy to access these tools in a way that Windows never will.
3. Linux is what you make it.
I also like the customizability and extensibility of Linux. The fact that you can design your own adventure has always been a selling-point for Linux, and it remains valid today.
To be sure, Windows provides some basic customization opportunities; you can, for example, tweak the UI a bit. But that's a drop in the bucket compared to what Linux allows.
I love that I can choose an entirely different desktop interface if I want on Ubuntu. (And I do, because Gnome 3 is the most confusing thing I've encountered since the 2017 U.S. tax reforms.) I like that there are a half-dozen well-developed music and video apps that I can choose to install. And, in general, it's a huge boon that there are tens of thousands of software packages I can add to my Ubuntu system for free in just a few clicks.
4. Linux is more fun.
Finally, I'll admit something that some Linux advocates would prefer I keep to myself: Part of the reason I like Linux is that it feels extra good when things "just work" (and no, I'm not being facetious here).
On Windows, you assume your wireless card or printer or complex display configuration is going to work, because you know vendors have invested lots of time and money in testing them for you.
On Linux, however, there is no such guarantee. So I get a little bit of a high when I plug something in or install Linux on a new computer and see that the hardware and software all work together flawlessly. (This is almost always the case these days, by the way, which is a big contrast to 2005).
Maybe this is a weird reason to like Linux, but it makes it more fun for me. I feel like I've accomplished more when I use Linux to get work done. It's like the difference between hiking a mountain and driving up the same mountain with a car--it's just more satisfying to do things the hard way.
The bottom line: The arguments in favor of Linux on the desktop are no longer as powerful as they once were. Most people are probably fine using Windows (and I never thought I'd write that). But in certain key ways--especially if you're a developer or power user--Linux still takes the cake by providing an experience that Windows never will. And that's why I'm still a very happy Linux user.