Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The next challenge for Linux

I was in the local branch of "Currys" (UK electrical and electronic goods chain) recently and had a look at the line-up of computers. They had some little netbooks, and taped next to each one was a little note saying something to the effect of "This runs Linux, so it won't run Windows software". It was a local version of a wider story about Linux:

  • People buy netbooks and then discover that Windows isn't part of the bundle, and they don't like it.
  • A teacher found a student handing out Linux CDs and accused him of pirating software.
  • A student accidentally bought a Dell laptop with Ubuntu instead of Windows, and complained that she couldn't submit the Word documents required by her college (they say they are happy to accept documents) and the installation CD for her broadband service wouldn't install so she couldn't get the Internet (Ubuntu connects to the Internet just fine without it). The local TV station picked up the story as a "consumer rights" case and was amazed to find a virtual lynch mob chasing them for being less than enthusiastic about Ubuntu. They quoted an expert saying that Ubuntu "isn't for everyone" and is more suited to tinkerers than people who just want to get stuff done.
Behind all this is what "everyone knows" about computers (everyone who isn't interested in computers for their own sake, that is):
  • There are two sorts of computers: Apple Macs, and PCs.
  • Apple Macs run Apple software. PCs run Windows software.
  • Windows is bundled with PCs. On expensive PCs the bundle might include Office as well.
  • If you want extra software, you buy it at a store, take it home and stick the CD in the drive.
This is how its been for almost 20 years (25 if you count the MSDOS era). An entire generation has grown up knowing that if its a PC, it runs Windows. They know it in the same way they know the sky is blue: its always been blue.

Of course those of us who use Linux know different. But for most people, Linux is something they might have heard about once or twice, but they didn't pay any attention and couldn't tell you anything about it. Outside its current user base and their immediate circle of friends and family, Linux has zero mindshare.

This is not another lament about Joe Sixpack being too stupid to understand Linux. The problem is not that Linux is too complicated, its that Linux and Windows do things differently. Imagine someone who was raised on Linux; how would they react to Windows? Software installation would seem complicated and geeky, the single desktop would feel claustrophobic, and as for the idea of paying for software...

So I think we need to sort out a message to broadcast to the world and then focus on it. I suggest the following:
  • Linux is an alternative to Windows and Apple. It comes in several flavours.
  • Linux isn't easier or harder than Windows, but it is different, and it takes a while to get used to those differences.
  • Linux is bundled with a huge range of downloadable free software, including office, graphics and photographic packages.
So next time you see a story that misrepresents Linux please send a correction with these three points.


Anonymous said...

It's because of people like this that make me hope and pray the "year of the linux desktop" never come. Keep them out of linux and on the Windows sandbox where they belong. I dont want to worry about spyware on my linux boxes

Anonymous said...

I agree. I like how it is now, and to be honest I just jumped to Linux about a month ago. I'm using Ubuntu, and I think it is far better than any Windows I have used.

I don't want spyware, or anything on my OS, because if Linux was mainstream, more attention means more issues. It would be harder, but it would be done.

Anonymous said...

Most people don't want to work on a computer, but rather they want to do something with the computer. Write a letter, organize photos, play music, maybe some more advanced work like drawing or designing or composing. The untold story about Linux is how many applications there are that just come with the basic install. Windows and even Mac have some basic stuff but one very quickly runs out of new things to do.

Ryan Ackley said...

Ha! you think a Linux person thinks installations are complicated on Windows. I'm a developer that has mostly used Windows and I think the same about installing something on Linux. It seems like I always need to edit some config file to get an application to work. Windows, double-click, follow directions. What could be simpler?

David R. MacIver said...

Agreed. Double clicking on the install button to install an application does sound about the simplest thing you can possibly do.

Of course, it describes the process of installing something on linux much more accurately than it does installing it on windows.

Windows approach to installing software:

1. Acquire the software. After purchasing, this will either involve waiting days for a CD to arrive or downloading an installer from their site.

2. Run the install process. Chances are this will be different from the install process for most other applications, but will mostly involve you inserting a CD and getting it to autoplay or double clicking on the installer you downloaded. Sometimes it won't autoplay and you'll have to open the CD.

3. Click through a bunch of next buttons, possibly filling out data as you go but more likely just automatically clicking next.

Simple, huh? On linux:

1. Acquire the software. This involves firing up the package manager program, typing the software's name (or a general description if you don't know the name) into the search box and double clicking on the result.

2. Installing the software. This involves clicking the apply button.

Anonymous said...

To Ryan and Dave,

I think the point being made is that Linux and Windows each have their strong points and weak points, and someone familiar with one may not be familiar with the other. It's actually a really interesting point that I haven't seen before.

If I were to raise my children using Linux, they would know that to install VLC Media Player, they would type "sudo apt-get install vlc" in the terminal, zap! It's in their Applications menu. But put them on a Windows computer, and they have to deal with an EXE file, tell it where to install to, choose installation options, and click a whole bunch of buttons.

That's not to say that either is harder than the other - they're both just different.