Why pre-installation is so important

Linus Sebastian of Linus Tech Tips recently did a long-form chat about the Steam Deck and Linux in general. A major complaint was that Linux is too hard to install, and this gets to the heart of why I believe pre-installing our software on devices like the Steam Deck is so important.

The truth is that Linus is right; a Linux-based OS is too hard to install. Only huge nerds can manage it or even have the courage to try in the first place, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed in the process. But let’s face it: this would be the case for Windows or macOS as well. Imagine if every computer was bought as an empty shell and the user needed to choose an operating system, research compatibility, flash a USB drive with the selected OS or buy a DVD or something, and then install it. You think grandma is gonna do that? I don’t think so. How about a busy professional? Forget it.

The only way this works is if the OS comes pre-installed on the physical hardware that people can buy. Then the overwhelming selection process and the technical fiddliness are gone, and people can just start using what they bought. …Like they can when they get a Steam Deck, which comes with Plasma. Or one of the other devices with Plasma pre-installed.

Pre-installation is the only way to grow Plasma out of the clubhouse of the uber-nerds like us. Which means we need to focus on the kinds of issues that are barriers to vendors wanting to ship their hardware with Plasma, or to regular people using the system normally.

This is what matters!

46 thoughts on “Why pre-installation is so important

  1. To hard to install? Sorry… don’t agree. Pick simple distro – ubuntu or something like this. Plug into usb and click next few times. 10 minutes later ur all set up. Hard is intalling gentoo, or LFS. less hard is isntalling arch. I know. I’ve done them all. And ive settled on arch. Proper mix of controll and ease of use. If you come to linux with pre-existing notions that is should work like windows then clearly linux isn’t going to fit you. Simple.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, but how do you know what a “simple distro” is? You do research. Say, what’s a distro in the first place? More research. Which distro supports your hardware? Turns out it’s largely (though not entirely) based on the newness of the kernel relative to the newness of your hardware, so now you need to learn about distro release policies and cycles. More research. How do you get the distro you chose onto the hardware? More research, new software, trial-and-error because there are 15 ways to make a bootable USB flash drive from an ISO file. You do have a couple of USB flash drives lying around, right? No? Better go buy one.

      And so on. This stuff is easy for us because we’re nerds. It’s not easy for people outside our bubble. For them, this stuff is tedious, un-fun busywork that will keep them from experiencing the FOSS world to begin with.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. > Ah, but how do you know what a “simple distro” is? You do research.
        And this is one of the areas where linux community falls flat on the face. There are many distros that claim to be easy but arent, and projects like KDE and Gnome should at lest recommend some that they think it works out of the box pretty good. You might say it’s not KDEs job. But one might argue that if distro does shit job you look bad as a whole kde.

        > How do you get the distro you chose onto the hardware
        It’s not 2005 where you had do research cuz there were so many issues. Where you installed a distro that bricked your cdwriter the moment you installed it ( ill never forgive you for this mandrake!!) I remember those days. Today if you aren’t using something you pull out of your ass its almost sure it’s supported. Sure there are some outliers but there are usually there cuz company refuses to support it.

        > Trial-and-error because there are 15 ways to make a bootable USB flash drive from an ISO file.
        Tell me Nate how do you install windows? And don’t tell me it all comes preinstalled. Cuz it doesnt. There are still a mass of people who buy parts and build their own pcs. Is it easy for them to install windows but not linux? Are those people nerds?

        > This stuff is easy for us because we’re nerds.
        You don’t need to be nerd to install linux. You (as in kde) just need to make sure that using your software is simple enough and appealling. With steamdeck coming soon and exposure for linux that it creates maybe its time to focus a bit on gamers? Especially that steamdeck runs kde. Im still wondering if any of you applied to get one to make sure it runs smooth on it, and make sure any pappercuts are resolved. And for the love of God make sure that transition to wayland for nvidia folks doesnt look like it does now. With some gamers looking at linux during this transition experience might be shit.

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        1. About people who build their own computers, being unable to install Linux: they are nerdier than average, since they took on the challenge to build a PC. Most people are afraid to even swap out a hard drive (and many don’t even know, and never had to know, what a hard drive is), and overcoming that is already a step towards being a nerd. The DIY PC folks surely can install Linux, and Nate wasn’t talking about them, but people who just buy a PC and use it. Compared to those, the people who build their own PCs are nerds.
          About KDE’s recommendations: they would need to be working actively with the distro maintainer to provide a smooth experience, in order to be in the position to recommend a distro. They kinda have their own distro, KDE Neon (and GNOME has Fedora), so there’s that. Also, if KDE were to be affiliated in any way wit, say, Manjaro or openSUSE, they would get a lot of poop flinged at them from the very vocal Arch and Ubuntu and Solus and Gentoo users who would feel left behind.
          About Nvidia and Wayland: there are a lot of issues, but most of them are either Nvidia’s or Wayland’s fault, neither of which can KDE devs do anything about, so it is both pointless and rude to demand that KDE devs do something about it.
          About KDE devs getting a Steam Deck: they didn’t need to apply, Valve sent them hardware, so they can optimize their software for it. KDE is, and has been for months now, working hard to make KDE as smooth as possible for the release date of the Steam Deck.
          Hardware compatibility is still spotty at best, many things are plug-and-play, but there are still problems with certain network adapters, gaming peripherals in general, certain graphics cards, fingerprint readers and IR face scanners, and edge cases like what Linus from LTT has (he wired all his peripherals through an optical Thunderbolt link). This is also out of KDE’s scope, and nagging KDE devs about it is pointless.

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          1. > About KDE’s recommendations: they would need to be working actively with the distro maintainer to provide a smooth experience, in order to be in the position to recommend a distro.

            No need to actively work with people to see something and recommend something. Neon is a different beast on its own. It’s a testbed for them. Why would anyone feel left behind just cuz someone from a specific project (ie kde) said that out of the box experience on the distro is good and they recommend it. Arch people ? why? i install arch and i get tty. Its a diy distro, same goes for gentoo and any similar.

            >so it is both pointless and rude to demand that KDE devs do something about it.

            Did i demand anything? Did you read between the lines something that wasn’t there? I’m not demanding anything. I’m asking for little attention knowing some people might come and see a mess. I know most of issues regarding nvidia is their own making. I’ve been using linux for 15 years…

            >About KDE devs getting a Steam Deck: they didn’t need to apply, Valve sent them hardware, so they can optimize their software for it. KDE is, and has been for months now, working hard to make KDE as smooth as possible for the release date of the Steam Deck.

            I asked since i didn’t know that they did. Never saw any info that they did. I’m glad Valve stepped up.

            >Hardware compatibility is still spotty at best, many things are plug-and-play, but there are still problems with certain network adapters, gaming peripherals in general, certain graphics cards, fingerprint readers and IR face scanners, and edge cases like what Linus from LTT has (he wired all his peripherals through an optical Thunderbolt link)

            And all those issues comes from the fact that manufacturers don’t support linux. It’s not the linux’ fault. It’s a chicken and the egg problem.
            Linus decided to test for “new non-technical user experience” with his setup that is neither non-technical nor any new user ever would use. Its a fringe setup that only technical people would be able to setup and use. And that’s the whole problem. His assumptions are wrong. Luke however has typical setup and from what i’ve seen he had no major issues.

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          2. > They kinda have their own distro, KDE Neon (and GNOME has Fedora)

            KDE has Fedora too! Heck, I’m pretty sure Nate uses Fedora! KDE Neon’s equivalent for GNOME is GNOME OS, not Fedora, and like KDE Neon, is not meant for regular people to use.

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          3. Linus decided to test for “new non-technical user experience” with his setup that is neither non-technical nor any new user ever would use. Its a fringe setup that only technical people would be able to setup and use. And that’s the whole problem. His assumptions are wrong. Luke however has typical setup and from what i’ve seen he had no major issues.

            Yeah, that’s true. A hyper-optimized setup is always going to be a pain to migrate, no matter what it is or what you’re coming from or going to. I hope he acknowledges this.

            Heck, I’m pretty sure Nate uses Fedora!

            Indeed I do! The Fedora KDE spin is really good.

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        2. Average mass non-technical users will always follow large entities (states, religions, corporations) and their narratives (myths, traditions, stories, marketing). For nerds, the computer is the sum of its parts, but for the mass user, it is the whole. Average mass users will not choose niche products, even if they are technically superior to those dominating the market. Average mass users do not install operating systems themselves, not even Windows. If this https://www.howtogeek.com/750043/how-to-turn-off-an-ubuntu-pc/ article is funny to you, you are a nerd.

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        3. That there even is a debate whether people who build machines on their own are “nerds” or not in this context, let alone the implication they are not, is everything that is wrong with “the Linux desktop”. Yes, they absolutely are. Regular people buy an OEM machine or have their kids / friends / whoever set it up for them, and past that point it needs to work without hiccups. Most Linux-based OSes fail in all important points to be suitable for that.

          Good hardware support? Well, with Ubuntu LTS my Zen 3 based machine had no support for the Ethernet controller OOTB, which left me with the options of compiling the vendor driver on another machine (how am I compiling a driver on a vanilla, offline system without GCC and friends…?) or installing a fresh mainline kernel. My Zen 2 based laptop had no proper support for the iGPU, so it wouldn’t even really boot outside VESA mode, and again required a manual kernel update at the time (this was ages ago). This is not only something regular people cannot do, this is something I, as a software engineer, don’t want to do. I want to install the OS, and then I want it to work and stay out of my way. Ubuntu LTS, one of the most “easy”, “beginner-friendly”, and “mainstream” distros, did not allow for any of that, on both of my machines. Fedora does, but I will not recommend beginners Fedora. I obviously cannot recommend them Ubuntu LTS either. Frankly, I *cannot* recommend anything to people who do not *want* to use Linux specifically over just having some OS to drive their web browser and text editor.

          I hard-agree with all of Nate’s points and believe people who do not should not be involved with designing for mainstream end-user systems to be honest. If Plasma and GNOME are not mainstream, then there is no mainstream. And that’s okay, but then it’s time to acknowledge desktop Linux was, is, and will be a niche.

          Thanks, Nate!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. This is not only something regular people cannot do, this is something I, as a software engineer, don’t want to do. I want to install the OS, and then I want it to work and stay out of my way.

            Somebody gets it! You took the words right out of my mouth.

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        1. Exactly. Which is why most Windows users got the OS preinstalled on their computer. The ones who didn’t are those who built their own PCs from parts, who are significantly nerdier than average. Regular people don’t do that.

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    2. It’s as easy as driving a stick shift.

      If you know how to drive a stick shift, it’s no big deal and you get these stick shift aficionados proclaiming how it’s the easiest thing in the world, and how they’ve driven everything under the sun..

      But if you don’t know how to drive a stick shift, you’re not going to get the car off the driveway.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Mostly because we don’t need to since practically all cars sold in the USA are automatics, but this is getting a bit off topic. 🙂

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    3. He’s talking in normie terms. For a normie, installing ANY OS from scratch is hard. Just imagine a random non-IT person getting their hands on an empty Android-compatible device but you have no idea if a stock Android or LineageOS will work or not, and if it doesn’t, then you gotta inspect the hardware yourself and find out what drivers you’ll also need.

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        1. Sounds like quite the aspiring nerdling! Teach him well. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that he’s a normal person, because he’s not. He’s exceptionally bright and technically skilled for his age. He needs the kind of guidance that’s tailored for an exceptional person, not a normal person, because exceptional people face different challenges in life.

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    4. Tell me when a normal user buys a laptop, does he or she changes os? Why would they if the preinstalled operating system works for everyday usage? If you use an android phone (you should), probably it’s compatible with /e/ or lineage os rom. Did you install it just after you bought?

      If users are given linux/KDE as preinstalled os, they’ll stick with it probably. Like android or chrome os. It’s linux but preinstalled.

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      1. Tell me do people buy laptops with specific os or do they hope they get what they want in a lottery? And ye i bought redmi note 4 3 years back and unlocked it the moment and currently im running pixel experience on it.

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          1. You are right. But me, and other people won’t buy a thing that they aren’t sure they are going to use. So this issue is mute. People will buy the things that they want to buy.

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  2. I agree. Average user can’t and won’t install their OS. It might be an easy task for us, tech-savvy nerds, but imagine an average user doing research about Linux, its distributions, downloading it, figuring out how to flash it to a flash drive, getting into the machine’s BIOS, choosing all the appropriate settings, and finally — installing it. How many people will bother to do this? Very few, I expect. Also, most people stick with the defaults as long as they’re not bothered enough to change them. This is partly why proprietary platforms like Windows and macOS dominate.

    Then there’s the risk of data loss if they used the machine before. Most installation wizards warn about the data loss, but some people won’t read them. Or if they asked a friend for the help, they might assume that data has already been backed up. Once this happens, they’re going to blame this on Linux, probably.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. In an ideal world every computer bought would come as an empty shell and the user would have the option to choose their operating system. Installing an OS, just like cooking rice, isn’t hard on its own, but you need to understand some basics, no professional help is truly required for both cases.

    In reality, however, most computers already come with an OS pre-installed, therefore anything else below that bar is playing at a great disadvantage. And that’s why pre-installation is important, it is not because of the little or not so little difficulty of the process, is because there is a standard practice that should be met by every player in the market that doesn’t want to play at a disadvantage. Microsoft, Apple, and Google had set the entry bar to a height, GNU/Linux has to lower its own bar to at least that height if we want to attract the masses, the lower, the better though.

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  4. It’s easy to install, provided you are familiar with what a PC is. If you are a Joe Average installing Windows will be just as thorny, but in a different way. Pre-installation does matter for the second group of people, though, and there is more of them than the first.

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    1. I doubt it. Most of the people who curse and struggle with Windows just live with it and don’t install a Linux distro with Plasma.

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      1. Hell, most won’t even consider trying anything different, even after struggling often with Windows, even if you tell them that you will be there for them (you always are anyway).

        Because to them, computers are some kind of slumbering monster that they really don’t want to mess with. Now I realize how Windows has done a reaaaaally fine job in the past decades with their pavlovian education, people have learnt not to poke, so the monster doesn’t wake up… O.O

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Look, i take offense on this generalisation, not only makes people in general to be reeeelly dumb (yes i know there a many of those) but at the same time dismisess the big amount of work put into installers like the one ubuntu and mint use which even a tech iliterate can use to easily install a system in less than 15 min on a 15 year old PC/laptop.
    The hand holding of those insatallers is 9/10, the only thing missing is some spooky pop up warning when selecting manual mode for the absolute “normies”.

    You got gentoos, nix, your meme distro (arch) with no installer at all and those with daunting installers (fedora/opensuse), “normies” don’t go for those, they go for the buntus and manjaros which use literally “next next next” kind of installers.

    Sure, having a pre install system beats even a one click buton install process, though, please don’t minimized and instult “normies” inteligence by fostering the “installing linux is hard” which at this point in time is one of the easiest if not the easiest step when moving to linux land.

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    1. Good installers are important, but think about how much work you need to do before you even get to the installer:

      1. Know that installing Linux on your existing hardware is a thing you can do
      2. Want to do so
      3. Believe that doing so is within your capacity to achieve
      4. Do a bunch of research and select a distro+desktop environment combination appropriate for your needs and hardware
      5. Download an ISO for that distro and create a bootable install disk with it
      6. Back up your existing user data onto a different disk
      7. Get the install disk to boot on your hardware, which can be quite the challenge with uEFI and secure boot these days

      Most people will never make it this far without significant handholding from a family or neighborhood nerd. If everyone you know is capable of doing these things without much trouble, you are quite privileged indeed to live in such a technically capable community. 🙂

      Like

  6. Hopefully some day some big player will push for this, perhaps by also improving windows app compatibility a little bit like what Proton did for graphics but also for productivity apps.

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  7. I hate to admit this, but you are correct. I have a friend I’ve been trying to get on openSUSE Tumbleweed. His computer won’t detect his keyboard when he’s in the SUSE installation screens. That’s it – project dead right there. Beyond basic troubleshooting (try a different keyboard, etc), he’s not technically literate enough to be switching between legacy BIOS and UEFI, or making sure that he has USB support configured for the option he’s using, etc.

    That, right there, is someeone that could be using Linux, but isn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Given recent Microsoft moves, I guess Linux will soon be coming pre-installed on 100% of PCs. In form of WSL lol. That’s how this problem will be solved 😉

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  9. I see another problem with Linux pre-installed. Why people buy a PC or laptop? Some don’t have any, but many users buy to upgrade. And here people would like to choose a newer and ‘probably’ better hardware, but wait… Kernel is not ready yet. Drivers are crap or not present at all. Just remember how much time it took to prepare an adequate amdgpu driver for those RX XXXXs. Even with Linus himself using AMD rig. I still recall my brother’s frustration about monitor connected to RX card randomly going standby while watching some YouTube video or doing some office work. This state of things is simply unacceptable for an average normie.

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    1. When the OS is preinstalled, the hardware vendor has a financial incentive to work out these kinds of problems ahead of time so that users don’t contact support or return the product in frustration. That might mean something as drastic as shipping with Intel or AMD GPUs rather than NVIDIA. But they could also work with GPU vendors to get driver problems fixed ahead of time, before the release. At least in theory, this is what they’re already doing for their Windows hardware.

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  10. Sorry, but hard disagree here. That Plasma is something used only by uber-nerds like us is *precisely* the point. We are never going to ‘educate’ the vast majority of computer users into aficionados like us, so the only other way to scale Plasma would be to abandon everything that makes Plasma what it is and turn it into just another Windows clone. This is not a problem from the perspective of making money, but I believe that for Plasma, the nerdy passion is at least as important as the bottom line. The more that passion gets diluted in the interest of mass appeal, the less appeal it will hold for people like us and eventually we’re likely just to see another project take over the torch.

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  11. NO WAY! I disagree 100% that it’s hard to install, on the contrary!
    Just get the ISO, put it on a removable media e boot from there. The current installers are very simple to use and everything goes fast. And when the files are copied it’s ended, you don’t need to do anything more, everything is already working 99% of the time. This is different from Windows that still needs drivers post installation and comes with very little software.

    I think what they mean is that there are too many options to chose, and for people unfamiliar they will not even understand what the options mean.

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    1. Just get the ISO, put it on a removable media e boot from there.

      Here’s a challenge for you: Ask your mother or father to do this sometime. Watch silently as they try, and don’t offer any assistance. It might be an eye-opening experience.

      Note: if your mother and father are both engineers or computer science professors, choose someone else. 🙂

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      1. But Nate, they also don’t know how to do this for Windows neither! It’s not a question of knowing how to ready the ISO to install, it’s just a matter of knowing that Linux exist and a desire to use it. If I teach my parents how to ready a Windows ISO to use with a pendrive to install, than they automatically know how to do the same to Linux.
        And funny thing you ask this now, because last week the living room PC that my father uses burned from lightning. I took an old notebook with a broken screen that I remembered we had stored here put the desktop HD on it. I put Neon also on an old forgotten SD card that I found and he is using that without problems. Never used Linux but I sat he there and pointed, “see, just like Windows, just use it” and he is using it without problems.

        No! Isn’t not hard to get Linux to install, it’s a myth!
        If a had told him to install Linux on the HD he would probably have a much easier time with the Linux installer than with the Windows installer, the biggest obstacle is fear of the unknown and unfamiliar, we just need to work to remove this fear from people and ironically all these videos “explaining” Linux and trying to inform people may actually do the opposite with the overwhelming of information.

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        1. But Nate, they also don’t know how to do this for Windows neither!

          Yes, that’s exactly my point. If the only way to get Windows was to install it manually because every PC came with Ubuntu or whatever, Windows would have like 2% market share.

          Why don’t you ask your father to complete the install himself? Don’t help him at all, just watch. Don’t help! You need to see if he can do it on his own. Oh and before you start, reset the BIOS settings that you changed to make the computer boot from the SD card; he needs to figure that out on his own–but that’s no problem, right? Also throw away the SD card and make him get one himself and flash it with the ISO. Since this process is so easy, surely he can do those things! Oh also make him select a distro; tell him he can’t use the one you chose for him. He needs to do his own research and find a suitable distro on this own, but this is piece of cake! And finally definitely don’t mention data backup or warn him that erasing the PC’s hard drive will destroy all the files on it. Then see how easy it is for him to accomplish and how happy he is with the end result. 🙂

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  12. Usually people say that “to install a Linux distro you just need to download the ISO file from the internet, burn it to a USB stick, boot from it and follow the installer”, but the actual hard part is always left out. The user has to figure out which key to press in order to enter the BIOS, navigate the BIOS interface, change the boot order, change some security options and then save the current configuration.
    Most tutorials you find on the internet don’t even teach you how to enter the BIOS, and when they do, they only mention one or two shortcuts. If the tutorial asks you to try to enter the BIOS using for example “F12” or “del”, and on your computer the correct one is “F2”, there goes your whole installation.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I agree with Nate here,

    The trick to break the chicken-and-egg problem of Linux support by hardware manufacturers is preinstalls. This moves the problem from the intractable region (make all hardware combinations work) to the tractable region (make all of the hardware of this system to work).

    If some of these preinstalls get traction as a big hit then gradually other manufacturers will start support Linux more and more and the vicious will begin to crack.

    Liked by 1 person

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