Sometime this July will mark my seventh anniversary of becoming a desktop Linux user. While I may or may not bake a cake to celebrate the occasion, it has gotten me thinking about what has changed in the world of Linux since I entered it -- and, especially, how much more usable my Linux PC has become then. And what better way to quantify those improvements than to take stock of just how many apps are now available for Linux users that were not seven years ago?
To take stock of exactly which apps most PC users depend on today, I turned to CNET's list of the most popular Windows apps, as measured in terms of downloads. Granted, the list changes from week to week, is skewed toward free apps and is not a comprehensive representation of the most widely used Windows applications the world over. But it's a start, and browsing through the top twenty most-downloaded apps, the following observations became clear:
- The top five apps simply serve no useful purpose for most Linux users. These include several antivirus programs (Avast Free Antivirus, AVG AntiVirus Free 2013, Malwarebytes Anti-Malware) and a couple of utilities (CCleaner and Advanced SystemCare) for Windows system maintenance. Being unable to run most of these apps on Linux poses few problems for most users -- and for those who, for whatever it's worth, do want an antivirus tool for Linux, Avast is available for most distributions, even if the packages can be tough to find.
- The sixth and seventh most popular apps, YTD Video Downloader and Free YouTube Downloader, cater to a niche for which there are plenty of good programs available for Linux. YTD Video Downloader itself is cross-platform, and if that's not enough, youtube-dl is a great tool for quickly downloading YouTube videos.
- The eighth most popular app, Virtual DJ, arguably has several good, Linux-friendly equivalents. PiTiVi, which used to ship by default in Ubuntu and is still available from the repositories, makes video and basic audio editing pretty easy. And cross-platform Audacity is fantastic for advanced audio mixing.
- Hotspot Shield, the ninth most popular app, comes the closest on the list to representing an area where Linux comes up short. Hotspot doesn't run on Linux, and similarly free-to-use VPN services are elusive. But advanced users will point out that configuring one's own VPN server using open-source software is easy enough, and most enterprise and university networks provide VPN services that achieve the same results as Hotspot Shield.
- WinRAR, the tenth most popular app, works just as well on Linux as Windows. Not much to say here.
- Much of the functionality of Internet Download Manager, number eleven on the list, can be achieved via plenty of geeky tools on Linux, like wget. But for normal users, modern open-source Web browsers tend to be pretty good at providing many essential download-management features.
- Camfrog Video Chat, number 12, works fine on Linux. You need not use Windows to engage in potentially disturbing video chats with strangers from around the world.
- Apps 13, 14, 16 and 19 are media players. Linux has plenty of those that work very well -- including VLC and UMPlayer, which are on this list.
- Number 15, Glary Utilities, is another fix-what's-wrong-with-Windows app that serves no purpose for Linux users.
- Apps 17 and 18, Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, both run exquisitely on Linux, and have for many years.
- The last item, SlimDrivers Free, fills a role -- downloading device drivers -- that is rarely necessary on modern Linux systems, which come with device modules built in. To be sure, there are exceptions for troublesome wireless cards or fickle printers, but those scenarios are much less frequent today than they were back in 2006.
For Linux PC users today, the list of most popular Windows apps, and their status on Linux in the present day, bodes well for the future of open-source computing. There's very little crucial functionality available on Windows that remains elusive on Linux -- that is, at least, on the traditional desktop. The stakes may change as companies like Canonical work aggressively to push Linux onto mobile devices. But for now, rest assured that this is no longer 2006, and that the Linux ecosytem has come tremendously far since the heady days when I first installed Mandriva as a curious college student.