Migration: Not for the Faint of Heart

This is my reaction to Tsu Dho Nimh’s “Migrating to Linux not easy for Windows users” featured on Linuxworld.com recently. It’s not a response, I’m not challenging his opinions, which I feel are not only valid, but mostly right, it’s just a reaction.I want Linux to be ‘ready for the desktop’ as much as anyone. If you’ve ever read any of my past articles, you’d know I am a big proponent of user-friendly, desktop-centric Linux. I couldn’t wait to ditch Windows, but I was chained in. I’m a Windows power user, a domain administrator, an MCP, and I’m comfortable with the polish and stability of Windows 2000 and especially Windows XP. While I’d install a new Linux distribution with high hopes every month, the same results ensued: I’d be incredibly impressed with the modifications, find one or two things lacking, and always come back to Windows.

Since I installed Mandrake 9.1, it’s been two weeks, and I haven’t needed to boot back into Windows. In fact, my trusty NTFS partition hasn’t seen a bit of action in weeks, save pulling my WinAmp skins over to XMMS. However, having survived the first crucial week, I’m sold. I’ve made some observations and I’d like to share them with you, and with luck, Mr. Nimh as well.

Migration is not for the faint of heart. Commercial Linux distributions like Mandrake, Red Hat, and SuSE make it appear easy – but it simply is not. This is a fact — and I prove it each time I try to introduce non-tech-weenies to Linux. I know the truth, and it’s this simple: change requires you to change. I’m not trying to sound Confucian, I’m not trying to be profound; I’m trying to make an assertion we usually take for granted, or sometimes, simply forget. When you move to Linux, you won’t be using Windows, and that requires you to learn new skills and suffer for a while until you do. Anyone selling Linux and representing the painlessness of the transition is a used car salesman. Any transition will force you to learn new things and there will be an adjustment period. I don’t mean to sound condescending, but we need to understand this as we go.

First off, a distribution manufacturer probably wants to identify “target switchers.” Switchers aren’t people considering buying a Mac, they’re people who want to leave Windows or in some cases, a Microsoft platform. They usually have some skill, and I’d venture to say, know their way around Windows. I’d even go so far as to say that most of them aren’t running Windows 95. See, I believe something has to prompt you to leave a platform. Price and politics might play a role, but I believe the major prompt is limitation. People who are frustrated with the locks on you as a Windows user. Frustration with software that litters your filesystem with trash that can’t be uninstalled because the Control Panel uninstaller can’t find a certain config file. Folders three deep under the Program Files directory that you don’t recognize. Spyware. People who haven’t upgraded their OS in 8 years aren’t frustrated — on the contrary, I’d argue that they are content. They’ve obviously been happy enough to not feel a need to upgrade in nearly a decade.

When these distribution makers know their target audience, they can make the necessary adjustments in their software. Assuming that the standard Windows user is your target user is foolish, since generally, they’re not. In fact, these people don’t know what an ISO file is, how to burn one, or even how to use FTP to obtain one.

Linux does not have all the same features Windows does. Working with that, Linux hackers have to know that those who really know Windows will almost definitely be discouraged when they are lost in Linux. They’ve forgotten that they learned the commands at some point, and, understandably, it’s frustrating to feel lost when there’s another platform on which you’re comfortable and knowledgeable. Moreover, they will feel limited in what they can do in Linux without being equipped with the knowledge. They don’t know how to use the shell and DOS commands they’ve used for 10 or 12 years are suddenly useless anyway. They are confused by not being a “local administrator” and needing additional rights to accomplish certain semi-regular tasks. They are dumbfounded when ipconfig doesn’t work and they feel like…gasp….a “user.” The real work comes in teaching these people that they don’t need all the same features and that there are often better ways to accomplish similar tasks.

Linux has many features that Windows doesn’t. I don’t know why Windows Explorer doesn’t have the media preview “onMouseOver” that Konqueror does, I think it’s ingenious. But that’s just the simple stuff. In Windows, you can’t rename an mp3 (or ogg) while it’s in use in, say, Winamp. While a media file is in use in XMMS, or Kaboodle, or any of the other media players in Linux, you can rename it, change its location in the filesystem, or even delete it! The filesystem adapts to you, not vice versa. I know as a network administrator that one of our big problems was that MS Outlook, once it touches a .pst file, which is an e-mail archive, locks it for the entire period the machine is running, even after Outlook is closed. Most Linux filesystems don’t complain about files being in use. Permissions, while sometimes confusing and sometimes a repetitive pain on your desktop, are actually a feature, and some say, a real plus. Without the root password, a comprimised Linux account is, for the most part, contained. Damage is isolated. Learning how advanced features work for you specifically will increase your productivity.

The problem is, switching from one OS to another is a cultural change. If you use your computer for a sizeable portion of the day, it’s an enormous mental and procedural migration. Getting comfortable with a new desktop and layout is not easy and it requires a real commitment. Like going to the gym, you can’t expect immediate results. But consistent effort yields better payoffs.

While Tsu Dho Nimh acknowledges that the distributions he tried are now outdated, what he doesn’t realize is the evolution that’s transpired since. NTFS resizing is quickly becoming commonplace in Linux installers. Software installation is really coming along. CD burning, hardware detection, and driver support are getting better by the month. Recent distributions have combatted the transition hiccups by making Linux friendlier without resorting to the man pages. Little steps, like adding a short program description in the K and Gnome menus, have helped significantly. Though we have a ways to go, everyone is contributing to making Linux advance faster than anything else out there. In fact, I believe Linux has come further in the last two years than Windows has in any two year span.

If you’re feeling adventurous, be prepared to put up with random crashes now and again, learning to use the command line, and having trouble installing applications. Be prepared for temporary cluelessness, reading man pages, googling for advice, and relearning applications. Be prepared to ditch most of your games and favorite apps in favor of a world of choice. Also prepare for unlearning the limitations Windows has taught you are standards. You’ve accepted them long ago, so long ago you barely even realize they are limitations anymore.

Migration is not for the faint of heart. Most people acknowledge this. But give credit where credit is due – Linux is the future, and deservedly so. It might not be the final destination, but it has cemented its place on the trail. We might not be ready for you today, but check back in two years. I have a sneaking suspicion your article will read differently.


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