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Design Tech

Do we need an open operating system for designers?

It used to be that Mac OS was a great operating system for graphic designers since it was the first consumer available operating system with a graphical user interface plus it had great postscript printer and font rendering support. That was back in the late 1980’s. Today it feels like Apple doesn’t care that much about professional users anymore. There’s little support for pro grade tablet pen displays, 100% Adobe RGB color gamut or anti-glare displays aren’t included, and overall there isn’t much diversity in choice. You can’t get a 16” MacOS tablet with a Wacom digitizer built into a 100% Adobe RGB color gamut display with programmable hardware command keys in the bezel. You can’t get a Macbook with an awesome OLED screen either. You can get that kind of thing built by someone else, but it has to run Windows and Windows isn’t always a great choice either.

MacOS’s built-in stylus and touch screen support is poor to non-existent, while Windows’s had pretty nice stylus/touch support up until Windows 10’s Fall Creators Update which broke everything (See: These Windows 10 Fall Creators Update features could hurt your creativity | Pocketnow).  With Windows 11, Microsoft did even more to break the efficient workflows of professionals (See: Explaining Windows 11’s bad design | Pocketnow).  Apple breaks creative pro applications on MacOS all the time, too.

Depending on companies that don’t care about us

I think there are too many dependencies on operating system companies who don’t put much weight into the needs of the creative professional community.

Mac OS and Windows are trying to cater to the widest range of consumers as possible and with that goal, they often choose to or accidentally break things that more professional users depend on.  Microsoft and Apple can change things whenever they want and we’re left scrambling to accommodate them by modifying our workflows. I’m sure Adobe spends a lot of time re-doing things in order to stay compatible every time Apple changes architectures (which Apple does a lot).  The creative professional community is a niche market though, so it doesn’t really make sense for Apple or Microsoft to cater to a smaller market.

Imagine a Design OS

Now imagine if there was a “Design OS” that was open-source but accepting of contributions and changes submitted by Adobe, Autodesk, Serif Affinity, Corel, BlackMagic, Maxon, etc…  Something that all of our serious design, 3D animation, video editing, printing, and creative tools could specifically cater to without having to worry about Apple completely breaking Creative Cloud apps or Microsoft updating Windows Ink to make some graphics apps practically unusable. Maybe there’s a consortium of creative professional software and hardware companies contributing resources to an open Design OS that all can share. A niche operating system for a niche market might actually make a lot of sense.

With a “Design OS”, Wacom could make pro-grade desktop/mobile tablet computers that ship with this OS (which they could have partial control over) without having to depend on Microsoft Windows. It’s not possible for Wacom to make a pro-grade tablet computer that runs MacOS because Apple doesn’t allow it. Building a niche Design OS on Linux as a distribution variation might be the only hope for creative independence from the Apple & Microsoft duopoly.

Wacom already does have their drivers built into most Linux distributions, so they’re a bit ahead of the game. Other companies like HP, Asus, Lenovo, and Dell could easily release computers specifically made for creative pros, too.  Even Adobe could build and sell their own “creative pro” computers if they wanted to. That sounds pretty awesome to me, actually!

Science OS

The scientific community has already done something like this for their field. There’s an operating system called Scientific Linux that’s made specifically for scientific computing. It’s being used on the international space station as well as the CERN large hadron collider.

Gaming OS

Steam, the popular PC video game store, has created “Steam OS” which is a Linux based operating system meant to be installed on Steam Machines designed for home entertainment and gaming. It’s another example of a niche operating system designed for a specific community. It’s gaining a lot of popularity these days as well since the release of the powerful Steam Deck portable gaming system which runs Steam OS out of the box as a consumer video gaming product. Steam smartly created this Linux distribution so that they could innovate a bit more and also gain some independence from the duopoly of Apple and Microsoft consumer operating systems. Thanks to the Proton software, Steam OS already supports playing more games than MacOS can run.

Education OS

Endless OS is another example of an operating system designed specifically for a niche field. Endless OS is preloaded with all sorts of educational resources.

Open niche operating systems have huge advantages

The big advantage here is that software developers don’t have to spend a huge number of resources fixing bugs introduced by the operating system vendor or buying new hardware to support the operating system vendor every time Apple or Microsoft want to sell new computers. Plus users don’t have to spend resources learning to deal with the new changes. Thus, developers and users instead can focus on improving the software with better features and capabilities or streamlining their workflows for increased efficiency. In fact, software developers also have the freedom to add capabilities to the operating system when needed, and users can completely modify the desktop environments for their specific use-case scenarios. You can’t do that with Apple or Microsoft operating systems.

I’d say “Designer Linux” or “Design OS” should be based on an existing Linux distribution. Scientific Linux is based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux as their upstream vendor. Many popular Linux distributions such as Ubuntu are based on Debian. HP has started shipping some laptops (such as the Dev One) with Pop!_OS, which is fairly popular as having very good modern hardware support and is already somewhat catered towards designers. Ubuntu Studio is another one that’s already geared towards the creative professional field.  CentOS seems to be the one that many high-end CGI programs like Foundry Nuke, Davinci Resolve, and Maya already support. Asahi Linux is made to run on Apple’s new propietary M1-2 processorsElementary OS might be a good upstream provider/partner since they already have an app store that allows payments. Other Linux distribution leave the software payment/licensing to the software developer just like how Mac OS and Windows used to be before the centralized app stores became a thing. Honestly, as a professional, I’d rather purchase licenses directly from the developers though instead of needing to deal with a middleman.

I’m not sure which one would be best for a Designer OS.

There are lots of upstream Linux distributions to choose from when making something specific for creative professionals, but the really big issue is getting all of the creative software/hardware developers to target and/or contribute to something that we can all invest in.

Myth: Linux is hard to use

I know many MacOS and Windows users fear using Linux due to the idea that it’s very difficult or time consuming to use and manage. I know because I used to be one of them, and yes 20, 10, or 5 years ago, it was very very true. Today however, many distributions are very easy to use and easy to customize to fit your preferences. Switching between MacOS and Windows is like trying to cook a meal in someone else’s kitchen. Switching to Linux is also like using someone else’s kitchen, except you can completely customize the tools, layout, and usability in any way you want to with essentially no limits.

In terms of operating system user interface designs, there are many Linux Desktop environments to choose from. Lots are modeled after Mac OS and Windows designs, too: Top 10 Best Linux Distribution for Windows Users in 2021 – #1 Tech.  Personally, I really like the Xfce Desktop Environment because it is extremely customizable and light on resources. You can make it look like Windows or Mac OS or a combination of the two with the hundreds of themes available. You can put whatever buttons or menus you want to in the 4 hot-spot corners for optimal mouse/trackpad access. (If you’ve ever studied user interface design, the four corners of a screen are the 2nd easiest locations for accessing interactive elements with a mouse or trackpad.)  Some distributions like Zorin OS make theme choosing even easier with an app that lets you switch to a MacOS or Windows style GUI with one click.

Sure there are a lot of choices and options, and that can make things feel more complicated or hard to learn, but if you’re a creative pro… look at how complicated things like Photoshop, Premiere, AfterEffects, InDesign, Illustrator, Maya, Blender, etc. have become. Those programs are FAR more difficult to learn and use than any of the desktop environment options made for Linux. A significant difference as to why you may think Photoshop is easy to use now, is probably because, like me, you’ve been using it since the 1900s and the interface hasn’t changed significantly during that time. That’s another reason having a Linux based desktop environment for a Design OS would be a good thing… it can be set to your preferred design/customization and kept there forever.

Pro Design on Linux is already a thing

There are a lot of great design related programs on Linux already. Scribus opens and works with InDesign IDML files nicely for free. Inkscape is a pretty good open-source vector drawing program with great SVG support. Krita and GIMP are pretty good for raster graphics and digital painting. Blender is getting to be an excellent 3D modeling and animation programs, while the industry darling Maya is also already available on Linux.

For user experience and web design, I love using Icons8 Lunacy which nicely supports Linux on both x86 and ARM platforms. For video editing, there’s already the amazing Blackmagic Davinci Resolve and the open-source Kdenlive or Shotcut. The high end SideFX Houdini, the Arnold renderer, and Foundry’s Nuke is available on Linux. A lot of 3D animation and special effects studios use Linux in their workflows as well.

The problem is that a lot of our favorite design programs like the Adobe Creative Cloud, Corel Painter, ZBrush, Serif Affinity’s suite, Sketch, etc. refuse to support Linux yet. Maybe there’s an easier way to get those programs running reliably on a Design OS Linux flavor kind of like what Steam OS did with Proton translation for Windows based video games.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear more opinions on this idea. Feel free to comment below or contact me privately.

Also see: Adobe, Wacom, Autodesk, etc. should make a Creative Pro Operating System | Pocketnow