A View of Linux from the Sidelines

The genesis of this article is the editorial “Why Linux Sucks as a Desktop OS” over at vBrad.com. While the author had some valid points about Linux, and I have shared his frustration, his approach was one that lost a large part of the audience. I have a little experience with Linux (I have played with Red Hat, SuSE and Mandrake, and have installed and used Linux in four or five flavors over the years) and have followed Linux as an interested observer.Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of osnews.com

I find the responses to the “Why Linux Sucks as a Desktop OS” informative in understanding how many Linux users view Windows, and how many Windows users view Linux. (for the record, my personal favorite OS of all was BeOS 5 PE; it appealed to in ways that no other OS has, before or since).

My work requires me to Use Windows, which I have used in many forms since the 3.11 days. I now work as a Network Admin and do some end user support, in Windows 2000 and Windows XP. Here are some reflections on Linux, mainly in terms of the “new user” in no particular order.

1. The entire tone of the debate between Windows vs. Linux is so shrill, with people shouting past one another, rather than talking with one another. People act like this is a zero sum game, with success by one side has to be balanced by loss on the other side. Reminds me of the Windows vs. Mac debate. For new users coming to fray, this sort of acrimonious debate is such that it simply turns them off from even considering moving to Linux.

2. Getting help from Linux experts. I used to work as tech/customer support for an ISP, and we had a lot of Grandma and Grandpa types; they had trouble articulating what they were trying to do and needed a lot of help. Some Linux experts are wont to fall back on the RTFM refrain. In some newsgroups I have even seen people attacked for being so stupid for even daring to ask such a basic question. The problem is some of the help on the web, or manuals that are available might as well be written in Aramaic. If people want Linux to expand onto the desktop, there has to be a higher tolerance for stupid or obvious questions. No one started as a computer expert. Everyone who came to this site had to start at page one. It might be useful to remember this, especially when the goal is to get people to try out Linux. (At the same time, there are many Linux users who are very helpful and supportive with new users)

3. The number of distros can be overwhelming for new users. People don’t even know how to start choosing or what separates one distro from another. Even with the user friendly GUI installers, the choices can be overwhelming, and the descriptions of the packages can be confusing. Having a number of distros is great for the Linux community, but can be hard for the new user to deal figure out.

4. Choosing between KDE vs. Gnome. For many beginning users, they are not sure which to choose or why, or even what they do. Many “causal” users will not understand that Linux, by itself, does not have a GUI, and that you need to choose one, such as KDE or Gnome. The separation between the OS and GUI can be confusing for many. It also becomes a question of why should I choose KDE or why should I choose Gnome?

5. For some problems, the solution is to recompile the kernel. This, quite frankly, is beyond the ability (or more precisely, the patience) of many new users. Granted, this does not have to be done often, but the very idea can be daunting for the new user.

6. The Windows Sux! Mantra. This is a turn-off for some people. There are many moral and ethical issues that people have with Microsoft, but virulent, all M$ is evil and all their programs sux does not cut it. Windows XP (and 2000) is complex, involved system that works well for many people. Is it perfect? No, far from it (security is still a major issue), but a lot of people like it. Denigration of the Windows OS in such harsh terms will turn off many people; some will see it as an attack on themselves (i.e. “you like Windows? How can you be so stupid?”) and be turned off of Linux. Telling people that Windows crashes all the time (for some people it never does) or that Windows is just for games just looses you new converts. If the goal is to get more people to Linux, then it should be done by not tearing down Windows, but building up Linux.

7. Out of the box. The Lindows boxes, while sneered at by some in the Linux community, may be the way to go. I had one of my former ISP customers by a Lindows machine, and he was very impressed. It worked out of the box, had Internet, WP, etc, all ready to go. This was someone who had never used a Linux machine, and was productive within an hour of unpacking it. A person like this buying a Windows machine (such as an E-Machine) will find that they have Internet, a “light” suite for WP, and can also be productive soon after unpacking their computer. This is where Linux needs to fight head to head with Windows.

I do not mean to be critical of Linux or the Linux community. What they have achieved in recent years (especially the last four years or so, is phenomenal. There has been deep penetration in the server market, and there is strong growth in the desktop market. However, I think that some changes in how Linux is viewed, and how the novice end user is viewed, will be necessary in order to get a larger share of the desktop market. I believe Linux has a bright future, and will prove to be a worthy competitor to Windows, both on the desktop and on the server. I also think that Windows is not going away anytime soon. In a sense, that is a good thing, as having both Linux and Windows as an option for users will only foster competition and lead to better products.


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