Pi To Take Over The Desktop?
Pi To Take Over The Desktop?
Written by Harry Fairhead   
Wednesday, 04 January 2017

The amazing success of the Raspberry Pi has had many impacts on the computing world and some of them are yet to be felt. The latest move makes the Pi's OS available for existing desktop machines, and this might have more effect than you imagine.

For a long time Linux fans have been looking forward to the day when Linux was the dominant OS on the desktop. It seems like a reasonable expectation as Linux is free and it does the job reasonable well. Why pay for something when there is a free version, in more senses than just money? However, the world has so far not succumbed to the tempting offer and Windows is still the dominant OS on the desktop. 

The problems are many, but it seems that the overall burden of taking on a new OS is just too much for most. And then there is the problem of which distro of Linux to use? The fragmentation of the Linux desktop hasn't helped get it established. Ubuntu has done a lot to create a market leader that is easy to use, but this hasn't been plain sailing and an emphasis on style rather than pragmatism has sometimes alienated its user base, who probably don't like unnecessary change any more than Windows users do. 

However, there is a dark and creeping force in the Linux world and it goes by the name of the Raspberry Pi. Since its introduction the number of fairly innocent users I have encountered who know how to SSH into Linux, use the command line and its Desktop interface via VNC seems to have shot up. This isn't a statistically reliable result, but consider for a moment the number of school children who are being taught all varieties of computing with the Raspberry Pi. These are also the programmers and the users of the future. Put simply, people are being introduced to Linux by the Pi and many of them are young. 




In September 2016 the Raspberry Pi Foundation launched Pixel, its own take on a desktop environment. Now we have Pixel for x86, which means you can run the same OS and desktop on your Pi and on your existing PCs. You will also find all of the same apps you use on the Pi on your PC, with the exception of Mathematica and Minecraft because the licenses only cover the Pi hardware.

What is more you can run it on old hardware as it is a modified Debian which works on an i386 hardware model. This doesn't mean that you can run it on very old hardware because it will only boot from DVD or USB stick. Older machines often only have CD and most don't have the software to boot from USB even if they have USB. 




This brings me to the other little problem. You can't actually install Pixel. You can run it "live" from DVD or USB stick. If you run from DVD then you can't change anything and you get the same clean OS every time you boot - which might be an advantage for some, but it is a big disadvantage for most. If you use USB you can opt for a fixed or a modifiable installation, and this is more useful but still not perfect. You can carry the system around with you on a stick and find some new suitable hardware and carry on, but having to have a USB stick poking out of the side of a portable or desktop isn't ideal for long term use. The Foundation says that this is only a beta and in the future you will be able to install to a hard disk. This is when we will discover the true attractiveness of Pixel.

Of course if you are a Linux grand master you will know, or can Google, how to install an OS from a USB stick to a hard disk and do the job ahead of time.

So what is this all about? Is it really so important?

This is what the Raspberry Pi Foundation has to say: 

  • A school can now run PIXEL on its existing installed base of PCs, just as a student can run PIXEL on her Raspberry Pi at home. She can move back and forth between her computing class or after-school club and home, using exactly the same productivity software and programming tools, in exactly the same desktop environment. There is no learning curve, and no need to tweak her schoolwork to run on two subtly different operating systems.

  • And bringing PIXEL to the PC and Mac keeps us honest. We don’t just want to create the best desktop environment for the Raspberry Pi: we want to create the best desktop environment, period. We know we’re not there yet, but by running PIXEL alongside Windows, Mac OS, and the established desktop GNU/Linux distros, we can more easily see where our weak points are, and work to fix them.

Not so sure about the second point because really all that is needed is for Pixel to serve the Pi and there are going to be lots of issues caused by different hardware that don't occur and are irrelevant to the Pi. In fact, the Foundation might have more problems that it can handle in trying to support an OS running on such a wide range of hardware and this is one area where it might go horribly wrong.

The saving grace is that really Pixel is only a lightly modified Debian 8.6 (Jessie) and so most of the hardware problems are Debian's anyway. Even so things get tougher when Pixel installations start bricking existing hardware with no easy way of recovering. At the moment just "take out the DVD and unplug the USB stick" are all the recovery instructions needed.




I already know a handful of Pi users who find Pixel on the x86 the small push they need to make the break from Windows. If enough children encounter the Pi and then use Pixel on an x86 at home or on their laptops, the future could be a very different place. After all why learn two OSes when one will do? 



More Information

Pixel For PC And Mac

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BBC Micro:Bit Goes Worldwide 


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