The perfect convertible? – a leftfield choice part 2

Laptop PC sales are falling, tablet sales are dropping, and even the might smartphone is plateauing. Wearables have been a bit of a damp squib, and VR is just starting out. In the midst of all this, one area does seem to be (anecdotally at least) doing well… the convertible laptop.

In Part 1, I discussed how the “unified experience” has been a way to deal with the post-PC world. A new product category; the convertible laptop seems to have come to the fore, and most laptops sold now are of this type. They show this unified experience in action. The Surface series being an exemplar with many other vendors and OS’ available. Each have their own limitations. None are perfect, but I think, in my humble opinion, that quietly, and kind-of-by-accident, the best convertible experience has arrived, and nobody knows about it (well actually, some nerds do know about it, but for some reason don’t seem to like it… but more on that later).

It’s GNOME on Linux.

Before you say “What the Firefox OS is he talking about?” Let me back up a bit here.

Linux is a free, open-source operating system which first started in the early 90s. It is found everywhere. It powers most servers in the enterprise space. It’s often in “internet of things” devices and is the basis of a couple of mobile phone operating systems, the biggest being Android. Yes, Android runs a variant of the Linux kernel. But so does ChromeOS, so does Tizen, and so does Sailfish. It is however, conspicuously absent from the mainstream desktop/laptop computing space. Advocates of it have been discussing “the year of Linux on the desktop” for years ad nauseum, however global Linux desktop usage is still about 1.5% (about the same as Windows Vista, though interestingly 5 x more than Chrome OS).

Part of this is due to the heterogeneous nature of the system. It is open-system, and there are multiple package systems, versions, desktops etc. All of this can get very confusing for someone who is new to the subject. How do you get Linux? Is Ubuntu Linux? (yes) Is Fedora Linux? (Yes, but not compatible with Ubuntu –  eh?) What are all these different desktops? WWhat’sKDE, Cinnamon, GNOME? Unity?

Also, the simple fact exists that it is difficult to actually buy a computer with Linux pre-installed. There were a few in the early netbook days, and specific vendors sell them now. But fundamentally if you want to try it, you have to download and install it yourself it on either your own hardware or a virtual machine.

I came across Linux about 5 years ago as a way of resurrecting an old Windows XP laptop. Once I installed a version of Linux on it, it really breathed new life into that laptop and is still being used today.

The easiest way to think about Linux is kind of the same way as thinking about Android. Android is the underlying OS, but there are many other bits that need to be with it for it to actually function, for instance drivers, graphics stacks and a whole host of other things. These are all collated and created by different software teams either by different OEM skews (Samsung=TouchWiz, HTC=Sense etc). These may be created and maintained by a community as different ROMs (CyanogenMod, etc). On top of that, there are multiple launchers e.g. default manufacturer ones, or the Google Now launcher, Nova Launcher etc. And each of these steps have a degree of configurability and customisation to them. It is possible to have a different launcher on different versions, e.g. Samsungs Touchwiz comes with a launcher but you can replace it the Nova Launcher if you wish. So, to continue my analogy, Linux is the OS, Ubuntu/Fedora/Debian/Linux Mint/and many others (referred to as distributions/distros) are modified versions/ROMs and GNOME/Cinnamon/KDE are different launchers.

This is a gross oversimplification, and doesn’t take into account packages/upstream, and a variety of other things. But it does make it easier to understand. For a better overview check this out.

Anyway, GNOME is one of the most commonly used desktop environments. It started off in 1999 looking like a Windows 95-clone, which is perhaps not surprising, by the GNOME foundation. It then became more famous in the 2000’s with its inclusion as the default DE in Ubuntu. Ubuntu was a Linux distribution backed up by a company called Canonical, and run by a maverick space-tourist-millionaire called Mark Shuttleworth (no, I’m not making that up), and is the arguably the most commonly used Linux desktop OS. The version 2 interface then had matured into something with hierarchical menus a la Windows, but was highly customisable. Many would make it look more windows, others would make it look like MacOS. Fundamentally it was and still is very configurable, so you could make it what you want.

This all changed in 2011 with Gnome 3. This was a completely different desktop metaphor. It did away with menus, you searched for your applications, it had a very unified theme which wasn’t very configurable, and seemed to be dumbing down on many of its tools (the file manager for example). This did not go down well. The hard-core linux nerds liked their menus and their desktop icons. And it’s understandable. Many people had been using it for years and years, and had an established workflow pattern (change is not always progress, look at the reaction to Windows 8.) They wanted to have more configuration options, not less. It seemed like change for changes sake. Karen Sandler, the head of the foundation was often cited as an inspiration in her ethos. So the GNOME team kept at it and kept to their task.

The perfect convertible?   a leftfield choice part 2

The perfect convertible?   a leftfield choice part 2

To me it seems they saw the way things were going. For what they made is a desktop that works both with touch and trackpad/mouse. It works on a tablet, and also works with a keyboard. The search function means that you get to your apps and files quicker, and behaves much more in common with Android & iOS than Windows. Yet you get full-fat desktop apps on it, and access to the entire linux open-source eco-system. Depending on your base distro (which is short for distribution, and examples are Ubuntu or Fedora), you’ll have different apps pre-installed. But all the basics (an office suite, browser, music player, photo gallery, system tools) will all be there in some way or form.

Why do I think its the best OS for a convertible? I recently got a Lenovo Yoga 2 because I wanted to try out Windows 10 as a convertible OS and as a secondary laptop for the house. My curiosity got the better of me and I installed Ubuntu and GNOME on it. It was a revelation. It was so easy to use, quick and responsive, much better in touch then Windows 10 and much better then Android/iOS with a physical keyboard. I finally ‘got it’, and could see the vision the GNOME team had. Yes, Linux as an OS requires a bit of tech know-how every now and again. But here’s the thing. It installed in about 20 minutes, and I customised it to my liking within another half an hour.

For a more in-depth look, and review at the actual system I have, wait for Part 3!

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.