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Bill Bennett


Thoughts on iPad-only the new desktop Linux

iPad Pro 10

“You like the iPad because it’s simple. But if you’re using the iPad as your primary computer, you may just like it because it’s a challenge.”

Watts Martin hits a nerve writing iPad-only is the new desktop Linux.

Martin says people who use only iPads for their computing do it because it’s a challenge. He says: “Figuring things out is part of the allure”. This, he says, is just like things were — maybe they still are — with desktop Linux.

When desktop Linux roared

Remember desktop Linux? Kids ask your parents. It was huge in the late 1990s and peaked around the year 2000.

At the time many thought Linux would replace Microsoft Windows for day-to-day desktop computing. Although a handful of organizations imposed it on their workers, It never got beyond being a fringe freak show. Yet it shook Microsoft and had a widespread effect on commercial PC software.

Desktop Linux was hard work. There were practical reasons to use it. Linux needed fewer computing resources, it would work well on older, cheaper computers. Eventually Microsoft responded by trimming the fat on its software.

Free and open

Linux fans would find political or philosophical justifications for choosing a more difficult personal computing path. They’d talk about it being free, about how it was open source and so on.

One common idea at the time was that Linux forced users to get down and dirty with how computers worked at a basic level. This,  the theory says, increases people’s understanding of computing. The knowledge would, in turn, make them safer and more productive.

This idea sounds great until you realise it takes a day to recompile an obscure but necessary piece of code that everything depends on.

Freedom has a price

While the freedom to tinker aspect of Linux could be useful. More often it was a terrible time sink. You could spend hours or days down software rabbit holes.

Desktop Linux was more difficult than Windows or Apple’s operating system. Maybe it didn’t challenge developers so much. They spend all day using esoteric commands and compiling code. But for those of us with little coding experience, desktop Linux was challenging. At times it was an ordeal.

Martin writes:

Don’t deny it, folks who prefer the iPad to the Mac or PC: you like the challenge. It was awesome to check out and edit files in my company’s Github repo and make a pull request, all from the iPad.

Myke Hurley made an observation on his Analog(ue) podcast that even if you could prove that a given task was easier on the Mac, he’d still rather do it on his iPad because it’s just more fun. I absolutely get that.


Now, this is fine. There’s nothing wrong with people choosing difficult paths. They are pioneers, they find ways through the thickets for the rest of us to follow.

One of the reason that OS X is so good today is Apple built it on FreeBSD. OS X stands on the shoulders of open source giants.

FreeBSD isn’t Linux, but the two have a lot in common. Both are Unix-based and both are open source. Many commands are similar. Hacking around in the OS X terminal is a piece of cake for anyone who mastered Linux.

Tweakers of the world unite

Moreover, open source pioneers wrote and tweaked a lot of code powering modern desktops.

Some of today’s iPad-only pioneers may be developers who fix code. It’s unlikely they’ll fix or improve iOS because it is a proprietary operating system.

Even so, they will be helping to find ways through technical thickets for the rest of us to follow later. They’ll figure out how to cope with, say, the iPad’s lack of a formal file system. They’re more likely to be writing useful new apps than parts of the underlying system.

What’s more, they’ll won’t all be passive consumers of technology. Many will submit bug reports and feature requests to Apple’s developers. We’ll get better tablets and tablet software thanks to them.

So while Martin is right about iPad-only pioneers doing it for the challenge, their curiosity and exploration isn’t a waste of time. iPads and other tablets are the future of personal computing, it may take years until they are the mainstream, but the pioneers will help us get there sooner.



9 thoughts on “Thoughts on iPad-only the new desktop Linux

  1. I use the new ipad pro as my daily driver simply because the software is coded right. I always struggle with my mac being slow but even the old 2012 ipad mini is still fast. Applications are forced to use less memory and multi-task intelligently. The screen, sound, and battery life are absolutely fantastic. This is coming from a 5 year Debian contributor.

  2. This idea sounds great until you realise it takes a day to recompile an obscure but necessary piece of code that everything depends on.

    In 2016, compiling the kernel takes around 15 minutes. I don’t expect (or care about) the “year of the Linux desktop” arriving anytime soon, but for those of us that do run Linux nowadays, it is straightforward, much more secure and just as productive as any of the alternatives.

    Perhaps you could give it a shot again before dragging out a canard from the 90’s?

    1. Totally agreed with you. Bill’s article wasn’t prefaced with my personal experience of Linux in the 90s.

      My Linux desktop (Elementary OS) updates are non-obtrusive, happen in the background and don’t cause my computer to take several minutes to boot up while the updates are being applied, unlike Windows 10. Installation of the OS is quicker too. Frustrating when I run back to the office to print a file for an appointment.

      However, I am well aware of the downsides of Linux desktop too, the tinkering and steep learning curve with Linux as Bill wrote it was a big time sink. Windows 10 is ubiquitous for the software applications in my industry and so it will remain my workplace OS of choice and Linux desktop my hacking OS.

      Back to the iPad, it might be fine for client visits but to do spreadsheeting work, give me a mouse, a large screen and a keyboard please.

    2. Recompiling the kernel is irelevant. Its been about 15 years since i had to recompile anything to run desktop linux. It generally just works. Boot off usb, install, reboot, done.

  3. I think everything you say is true, but there’s a world of reasons left out, and those left in have very different priorities to different users.

    My impressions about i-anything is that people who want the cachet (such as it is) will suffer a great deal for fashion and to impress observers. In this iFans are akin to Linuxen, suffering for their beliefs. I use Linux, among other tools, and one of the reasons for upgrading to Windows 10 was the novel availability of bash (the Linux command line.) It’s very useful if you know how to use it and have the need.

    From functionality to fashion, you go where it is, and you accept the burdens it might impose.

  4. My iPad Pro is my go to device. I don’t it as the new ‘Linux’ in fact I can do pretty all the tasks my work PC does plus a lot more. Going all in with an iPad doesn’t need to require considerable tinkering but if its what you want to do then more power to you! I liken tinkering on my iPad to using apple scripts/hazel/launchbar on my mac.

    I like your site Bill – good work

    1. I split my time evenly between MacBook Air and iPad Pro. I like the iPad Air for writing, but the MacBook Air keyboard wins that battle. Many of my blog posts start on the iPad, then move to the MacBook for editing. The iPad Pro is fabulous for reading material, surfing the web, watching video material and dealing with social media. If I need to do file system tasks, then the MacBook is the best tool.

      If I travel away from home, it’s iPad Pro all the way. Early in the year I spend ten days in Europe with it as my only work device… perfect.

      1. Not sure what app you write with but give Ulysses a go on the iPad I personally think its now better than the Mac version and you can publish direct to WP now.

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