2020 Marks my 10 years of using Linux, a decade of my life that I also spent in supporting, promoting and developing free software both in my local community and globally. But the Linux ecosystem today was nothing like 10 years ago, and we are here today to take a look at the past and how both the Linux ecosystem and other open source software developed through the decade.
Drivers… A Horror Show
If you asked anyone who used Linux in 2010, what was your biggest issue? They would tell you: Drivers. Back then, drivers for literally everything on Linux were not that good, and in a lot cases didn’t even exist.
My first Linux distribution was Linux Mint 7 Gloria, which was based on Ubuntu 9.04. The distribution itself was indeed quite good and fast at the time. I enjoyed the other desktop apps that were shipped in the distribution by default. However, a killer issue existed in the distribution: It couldn’t identify my wireless card.
This left me with no Internet, and with no Internet, there was a little usage of the OS that I could perform back then, especially that games didn’t work on Linux back then. So I was forced to go back to Windows XP SP3. I still remember how heartbroken I was to face that issue.
Later on Ubuntu 10.04LTS got released… And I was told that it had new drivers because it had newer kernel. So I tried it, but again no luck, and again went back to Windows. This situation lasted for around a year.
But the light finally came with Ubuntu 10.10 beta. The driver was finally there and I was able to make the full switch and detach my Windows installation. And from that point, I started my Linux journey.
However, this was only one side of the drivers issue. NVIDIA was selling a lot of graphics cards back then, and the open source nouveau driver was so bad and horrible in terms of performance. The closed-source drivers had a lot of issues on Linux where a lot of programs and games would suddenly crash under pressure, and not all graphics cards were supported. You would also have a bigger problem if you had a NVIDIA Optimus laptop, which contains two graphics card. But back then you would be able to only use the integrated one, not the discrete.
The drivers issues became more problematic with sound cards. Some sound cards weren’t working on Linux for a lot of reasons, and it was a totally normal thing to use a Linux distribution with no sound nor video drivers back in the time. Configuring anything to work with PulseAudio and Jack back in the days was like writing a kernel from scratch.
Today, all of that – or most of it – is gone. The drivers got better and the issues and bugs got fewer. Today’s Linux users enjoy a lot of things that they take for granted; Things that were so luxurious to have back then, and they don’t even feel it.
The common office suite for the Linux desktop back then was OpenOffice, which was formally developed by Sun.
OpenOffice was extremely horrible in opening Microsoft Office’s Word and PowerPoint files, let alone save to their formats or modify them. If you used OpenOffice back in those days, only an OpenOffice user like you would be able to read the documents you wrote.
Later on when Oracle bought Sun, people didn’t like to put their future in the hands of the new company and forked it into what’s known today as LibreOffice (By the Document Foundation). A competition between the two lasted for a short time before Orcale announced that it is donating the OpenOffice suite into the Apache foundation, but now most of the development was happening on the new LibreOffice instead of the old OpenOffice.
The Document Foundation performed extremely well in the new LibreOffice suite. Today, LibreOffice can perfectly open Microsoft Office’s files and export to their formats. Most of the bugs and issues that existed in the early 2010s are solved now. Today you can even run a full Microsoft Office suite under Wine if you would like.
It’s about time!
Flash on Linux
Flash was a very dominant technology back in the days. Most major news websites and even YouTube only supported playing videos via Flash. Adobe didn’t care for Linux users and kept the Linux version too old comparing to the Windows version, so it was normal to open a news website or a YouTube video and not be able to play anything.
Later on, Adobe even went ahead in dropping Linux support for Flash completely. Users had to use some workarounds and import some files from the Windows version in order for it to work. It was a total shitshow.
One can finally breath the fresh air knowing that Flash is no more, and that it became a bad memory of the past. Today, the entire world believes in web technologies like HTML5.
Games on Linux were on a totally different level… A level that didn’t even exist. The open source games on Linux were nothing compared to the closed-source ones, and none of the closed-source ones worked on Linux. Steam was not a thing yet.
People back then would use Wine with some workarounds to play the games they loved on Linux. The AAA titles never worked, but the older titles were generally playable under Wine. People also used PlayOnLinux to easily install the games they want.
Because of this situation, dual booting between Windows and Linux was a very common thing in the days. It went on like that until Steam on Linux was released by Valve. Valve contributed a lot to the gaming experience on Linux, because not only did it bring its platform here, but it hired tons of developers to work full-time on fixing Intel, AMD/ATi and NVIDIA drivers on Linux. Today, 25% of all Steam games work on Linux, and the other 75% have a huge chance of working too, thanks to the Proton technology implemented inside Steam.
The entire gaming on Linux industry owes Valve a debt that can never be re-payed.
Virtualization and GNOME Support
Because of the above issues, a lot of people used to install Windows inside a virtual machine on Linux. Most people used VirtualBox, but back then, the virtualization technology was too limited, and the performance you would get is too low comparing to native Windows. The software you were using were all closed-source. The open source KVM technology was new and had a lot of bugs and issues, unlike today were things like QEMU and KVM are the default for virtualization.
Also, GNOME 3 got released, but it was impossible to run GNOME 3 inside any virtual machine, as it only supported 2D if you are running it from there. Because of this, people weren’t able to test any GNOME 3 distribution at the time. It was until a Red Hat employee came and wrote a complete library to allow 3D graphics to be played inside the virtual machine. Sadly I do not remember the name of the employee nor the library, but was a big relief at that time to be able to run a GNOME desktop inside a virtual machine.
Today’s users don’t even know that such bugs and issues existed.
The Bottom Line
We have come through a long way, folks. Today the Linux ecosystem and all the apps that run on it are nothing like they were 10 years ago. Today, any average user can get more than he needs from any Linux desktop, and all of those blocking issues and bugs became too rare compared to the past.
I would love to hear your memories and thoughts about the past decade in the comments below.