posted by Martin Girard on Tue 12th Sep 2006 13:57 UTC
IconYou must remember the period where various electronic devices, from phones to radios, were available in transparent cases. You may have found them utterly cool. Yet the simple fact that you can't find these things on the shelves anymore (except for do-it-yourself PC cases) means the crowd doesn't find them nearly that cool. While you may not see the link yet, this is exactly why the Linux desktop will never be popular.

But before I elaborate on why Linux is similar to transparent case phones, I would like to state my point of view more clearly. Linux is an operating system that was designed and implemented from the ground-up by geeks and nerds—let them be "technology enthusiasts" if you think it sounds better or less offensive. My point is that the brain of these people is wired very differently from the brain of the average Joe. Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant; what matters is that they are bound to have different perceptions and values, causing a rift between them.

In order to make the Linux desktop appealing to the average Joe, technology enthusiasts would have to betray their core values to such extends that it would be the operating system's undoing. In other words, they would have to make the phone's case opaque so that we can no longer see its insides, remove all the extra keys (yes, all the cool ones) and strip it of every prominent feature that makes it superior to but more complicated than the average phone. What geek would want to use—or develop—such a boring phone?

Linux as a desktop (purists, allow me to merge the Linux kernel with the plethora of compatible open-source desktop software in one simple concept) has a transparent casing; you see all of the insides. This is one of the things that makes it appealing to technology enthusiasts because their brains recognize the concept of "technical elegance," analogous to "mathematical elegance," a concept beyond the reach of non-mathematicians. In other words, they see beauty in the insides of hardware and/or software. But the crowd has a different opinion; being technophobists, transparency in design and implementation is inelegant, even repelling. Indeed, when you try to explain your old folks why Linux is technologically superior, you scare them away.

Shocking? Confusing? Allow me to elaborate. First and foremost, technological enthusiasts possess a skill that is essential to the practice of their craft but is far beyond the reach of mere mortals: they are visual-spatial learners. The more you read on the topic, the better grasp you will have of what follows. One consequence of this is that visual complexity—or even visual clutter—does not scare them away. It may even be impossible for them to understand why ordinary folks feel overwhelmed by slightly complex user interfaces. The truth is that most people cannot visually grasp the entire screen at once, let alone an interface of fifty icons or user controls. In order to be attractive to them, the interface needs to be dumbed down to the average automated bank teller's level. Yes, they find the simplicity attractive, not disconcerting or dull.

Another issue that makes the open-source world irreconcilable with the crowd is the issue of choice. Technology enthusiasts like the ability to choose between zillions of options, trying and tweaking at their leisure. In fact, it could be said that many enjoy it. Average users would disagree; to them, more choice constitute a source of headache. Even if the list of options is not overwhelming in the sense described in the previous paragraph, they still hate to have to try and make decisions. To them, the simplicity of a monolithic, predetermined set of options is best. It is a known fact that most users will not download an application from the Internet on their own but will use either what is preinstalled on their system or what their close friends send them. The issue here is clearly choice; they do not like to choose between options for a plethora of reasons, therefore they appreciate when the choice has been made for them. This is why they buy from Dell and HP and use Windows. Their worst nightmare after melting in a lava pit might be to have to compare between distributions, desktops, window managers, file browsers, web browsers, mail clients, instant messaging clients, music players and movie players before they could do anything with their brand new desktop computer—or before they had a mental breakdown.

Then why don't they buy from Apple? For many technological enthusiasts, this would be an obvious choice. But again, that implies comparing multiple options. People will stick to what they know. And if you try to convince them that your option is best, you run the risk of irritating them. Here comes another difference between the two groups: the technology enthusiast enjoys an argument, while most people take arguments personally. They may not understand that the former are trying to help them, but will rather feel attacked and diminished, especially if the gurus insist. I believe this is something easier for geeks to grasp given the flame wars among them are legion, but the difference is that a geek needs to have a point of view of his own before feeling offended, even if it's trivial, whereas John Doe may simply hear "My OS is better than yours therefore you suck" without additional thinking. Not convinced? You may have insufficient experience in trying to make people switch. Or please tell me in which country you live.

There's more. If you ask people why they don't swith to Linux—and get an answer—most often the answer will be games. Another difference between technology enthusiasts and the mob is that the former consider the computer as a tool, while the latter perceive it as an entertainment device. While it does not mean the former cannot be a gamer, that won't stop him from running his favorite OS, but the latter won't see it as being worth the hassle. Get real: most people use their desktop computer for chatting, steal^H^H^H^H^Hlistening to music and watching movies, and playing games. They couldn't care less about OpenOffice or The GIMP. This is why there is a race between computer makers to bring the desktop computer to the living room. Is there anyone left believing buying a computer will help their children get better grades, anyway?

Last, but not least, technology enthusiasts love to learn. It could be said that the myriad of books, articles, man pages, HOWTO documents and readme files on Linux and open-source software represents the world's biggest user manual. And nearly everyone agrees it is underdocumented!!! Geeks spend hundreds of hours tweaking their systems and reading documentation because they love to learn how it works, just like they enjoyed playing with Lego TECHNIC (they would love the MINDSTORMS now) or science fair kits when they were kids. Needless to say the crowd finds these things rather uncool (yes, even the Lego MINDSTORMS). Most people don't like to read the user manual or learn fifty new concepts before getting started. They like when it just works and it's intuitive—at least to them.

So what is the Linux desktop missing? Is it easy installation? An office suite? Interoperability? Drivers? A cute mascot? It's none of the above. Linux will always be unpopular on the desktop because it is in every way comparable to a fully revamped Hot Rod with an engine so large the car needs no hood, so long to assemble it can only be the work of die-hard mechanics and so difficult to drive it takes a pilot, not a driver, and of course some explanations or it won't start, or ram into a wall (makes you wonder if it's even legal to drive it in the streets). People rather buy the average SUV and, if they're a bit eccentric, they watch Pimp My Ride.

Get real: the Linux desktop has been designed and implemented by technology enthusiasts, for technology enthusiasts. If they were to seriously try to make it appealing to the masses, the effort would collapse halfway because they would be dismayed by the result. My take is that things are just fine the way they are, and the Linux desktop for Dummies an utopia.

About the author:
Martin Girard is a C++ software developer and former Linux evangelist trying to quit.

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