11 November 2008

Dikkii's Adventures in Linuxland


Some of you who read this blog occasionally may recall that earlier this year, I decided to wade out into the world of Linux. Specifically, I installed Ubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon) onto my desktop to dual-boot with Windows Vista.

Since then, I:


I’ve since replaced EeeXubuntu with Ubuntu-Eee 8.04 and installed Ubuntu 8.10 (Intrepid Ibex) on my desktop.

I’ll discuss these in future posts.

This is spooky stuff for someone who was, up until that first post, a Linux virgin.

Not only that, but it has also hammered home to me several revealing things about Linux that I was previously unaware of.

The first thing I found out is that Linuxers are a welcoming bunch when it comes to new users.

The second thing is that Linuxers can be a dismissive bunch when it comes to new users. Check out this exchange.

It is this mixture of contempt and friendliness that has me so intrigued about the attraction of this OS to Linux users. And, after some months of use, I really do think that it is more of a threat to the dominance of Windows now than it ever has been: Observe the new bunch of mini-laptops (I refuse to use the term "Netbooks") that are now shipping with a Linux distro as standard.

But to this observer, Linux has a way to go before it gets things right. Here are some criticisms:

A. The Command Line


Linuxers appear to worship this thing.

Which is odd, because the rest of us really fucking hate it. Windows might have a DOS prompt available to be used, but does anyone really know of any “Mums and Dads” using Windows who have actually attempted a DOS command in the last fifteen years?

Does the Mac OS even have a command line?

I hear defendants of this appalling anachronism all the time banging on about how you can do all sorts of awesome shit with it, but they only ever quote examples that have no relevance at all to Mum and Dad users.

Mum and Dad users. I’m going to use that line a lot today.

Mum and Dad users are truly the meat and potatoes that Linux has to conquer before Linux has even a small chance of taking a bite out of the Windows, or even the Mac markets. At least as far as end users are concerned. And while Linux users are forced to use this groaning relic of days gone by for even simple matters, Linux will simply not get any traction in the real world.

The core problem is that Linux has, since its inception, been used by computer nerds everywhere who will tinker away on anything, getting probably more joy out of the tinkering itself, than the actual results.

And yeah, there might be fantastic stuff that the command line does that Windows can’t do, but consider this: Mums and Dads aren’t doing that kind of “awesome shit”.

In fact, it almost looks to me as though there’s a deep-seated sense of denial that the command line is a problem. The command line might as well shine one's arse to a crystal finish while humming the 1812 Overture - your average Windows user would rather run a mile in pouring rain to avoid use of this thing.

Lesson 1: Drop the denial and get over it. For Mums and Dads to even be remotely interested in using Linux, the command line simply has to go the way of the DOS prompt. Anything else is just not good enough.

B. Half-baked update releases


I'm using Ubuntu on my desktop. Ubuntu is probably the best supported Linux distro on the market at the moment, which I'm rather happy with. But I expect that had I installed Fedora, Mandriva, OpenSUSE or any of the other entry-level distros, theirs wouldn't be all that much less.

Ubuntu is easy to use, is excellently documented and easy to install.

But it does have one major problem, which can be covered in one word: Punctuality.

Yes folks, Ubuntu is updated once every six months. Consequently, by hook or by crook, they will get new versions out by the end of April and October every year, even if they have to cut corners to do it.

I had so many problems with drivers not being ready and other niggling issues when I went to upgrade from Ubuntu 8.04 to 8.10 that I trashed the entire Ubuntu partition and re-installed from scratch. I'm glad I did.

Actually, I had less trouble upgrading it on my Eee PC, which was running an unofficial, and cut-down variant of Ubuntu.

But here's the thing: A new OS should be mostly OK out of the box. I still have to run various scripts and configuration changes just to get the screen fonts looking acceptable.

And then there's Open Office - it looks outright wrong. Launchpad tells me that it's a bug that is being sorted and will be eventually backported. It's bad enough that the Ubuntu developers and testers can't see fit to stick Open Office 3.0 in as standard - they're sticking with 2.4.

We're going to have to wait until Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope) to get this version of Open Office.

On the other hand, if this was GNOME, they'd be releasing it as an update - so why should Open Office be different? After all, you can bet your bottom dollar that an office suite is the NUMBER ONE reason why your Mums and Dads have a desktop PC in the first place.

Lesson 2: Mums and Dads do not want to have to run scripts and config changes to fix an officially released version of their operating system. It should be good out of the box. If it isn't, there is nothing wrong with delaying the release of the next version. It's not like anyone's paying for it. Except maybe Canonical, Novell, etc.

C. Linux forums


Linux forums are littered with users of various levels of experience. And newbies.

Newbies ask innocent questions on these forums and rightfully expect at least some kind of constructive answer. What newbies don't expect is "This has been answered before. Don't you know how to use the 'search' function?"

Half the time, newbies don't even know what the keywords are that they're meant to be searching on. And when they do, half the answers to their problems are riddled with jargon from what can sometimes appear to be a smug and cliquey bunch of regular forum users.

Mums and Dads in particular want to know how to do something, or to fix something. The level of assumed knowledge of users in these forums seems to be well past newbie level, so answers only ever seem to half-answer questions and then come out with such pearls of wisdom as, "Compile the rest of the kernel as you choose and install it in your boot manager's menu."

WTF? I know what this means, but I've been stuffing around with Linux for six months now. What the hell does your average Mum or Dad make out of this?

Lesson 3: I had to look up what "backported" means. Mums and Dads aren't quite as patient: If jargon isn't obvious, change the fucking word. Or better yet, actually explain what it is you want them to do. Do not assume they know your jargon: Chances are they don't.

D. Open Office


Open Office is the single application that most Mums and Dads want working when they first install Linux. It should be in tip-top shape upon installation of your new Linux distro.

Lesson 4: Mums and Dads do not want to plough through countless internet searches and fruitless forum reading to find out why Open Office looks amateurish and fuzzy. Known bugs should be either fixed, or listed somewhere easy to find.

Lesson 4A: Do not release a version of a Linux distro without ensuring that Open Office runs properly first. Or that the most recent release has been included. Not sure that I need to resort to "Mums and Dads" here - this is quite frankly astounding.

Anyway, believe it or not, I've found the Linux experience rewarding, and I've learnt a lot.

Then again, I have more patience than some.

2 comments:

Paul said...

A) I'd be interested to know what it is that you're trying to do - as a user - that requires the command line, that the GNOME desktop doesn't provide some sort of graphical tool to do.

There is always going to be some complex function that requires the use of a command line, simply because it is impossible for a GUI designer to cater for every single possible permutation of operations that someone might want to perform. Even professional Windows server admins resort to the command line for many operations, as they either aren't catered for in the GUI, or are just too cumbersome to do any other way.

I tried to give you an example of an operation that, as far as I could tell, wasn't catered for by the GUI. Now, where I went wrong in that example was that I didn't know that someone had already written a method for catering for that very specific situation (ie, converting doc files to pdf). Converting hundreds of files to any other format that someone hasn't written a print driver for, say - and I'm just guessing here - doc to rtf, doc to postscript, doc to docbook, xls to csv, xls to html, xls to ods, or every third gif file to png, becomes incredibly inconvenient if you have to Open -> Save As -> Close every one of those files. I use the command line to automate tedious operations like this all the time. These are hardly operations that can be written off as being those that are only regularly performed by a sysadmin. I'm sure there are millions of mums/dads, secretaries and clerks wasting time doing repetitive tasks simply because they don't know any better way of doing it.

MacOSX does have a command line - in fact, it is exactly the same one that Linux uses: the bash (Bourne-Again SHell).

B) Ubuntu might release every six months, but the only releases that a lay-user should be using are the long-term support (LTS) releases, which come out every two years or so (6.06/Dapper, 8.04/Hardy). The releases between those have been stabilised, but often are trying out new technology or something a little different. The average person shouldn't be using Ubuntu 8.10 unless they have some overriding need to do so, eg, they have very new hardware and need the drivers. I'm not planning on upgrading my Mythtv box to 8.10; it's working fine on 8.04 and I don't really see any features that I want from it.

C) There are idiots on all forums, regardless of the topic. There is something odd about the attitude of forum users that makes them go utterly crazy when there are two separate threads on the same topic. Coming from Usenet, I don't understand this line of thinking at all (but I have noticed it creeping back into Usenet as people who have grown up with forums seep in there).

D) I think I know the bug that you're talking about there; I used to see it in Debian too, because I wasn't using GNOME and it didn't set a particular environment variable that told OpenOffice to use the GNOME-specific icons in its theme, which looked a lot nicer than the default ones that came with it. Yeah, that was annoying.

Dikkii said...

I'd be interested to know what it is that you're trying to do - as a user - that requires the command line, that the GNOME desktop doesn't provide some sort of graphical tool to do.

I need to run my virus checker (Clamtk) from the terminal if I want to download any updates. This is fairly basic. Yet it can be run (albeit with reduced functionality) from the menu.

Downloading and running/installing deb packages, tarballs, sh scripts – I’m not doing anything major. The most involved task I’ve done to date was where I decided to fix the font rendering up on screen.

I seem to need to use it a lot. Yet again, I’m not actually doing anything major with it.

Even professional Windows server admins resort to the command line for many operations… Converting hundreds of files to any other format…

Quite correct, but this is the problem. Mums and Dads aren’t professional Windows users. Nor would they be professional Linux users. Nor would they be doing these kinds of tasks.

The average person shouldn't be using [long-term support versions of Ubuntu] unless they have some overriding need to do so, eg, they have very new hardware and need the drivers.

Point taken, and I hope that you don’t object to my paraphrasing. Having said that, I actually like some of the improvements in 8.10 over 8.04 – for starters, the new shut down screen looks fantastic compared to the old one.

I'm not planning on upgrading my Mythtv box to 8.10; it's working fine on 8.04 and I don't really see any features that I want from it.

Funnily enough, I’m thinking long and hard about sticking a Mythbuntu partition on my desktop and having a bit of fiddle with that. I was going to use 8.10 but now I might just be content with 8.04.

There are idiots on all forums, regardless of the topic.

Point taken. You can tell I don’t frequent technical forums very often.

Coming from Usenet, I don't understand this line of thinking at all (but I have noticed it creeping back into Usenet as people who have grown up with forums seep in there).

Crumbs, Usenet. I haven’t been there in years – I used to read aus.invest, aus.music and soc.culture.australian religiously. Sadly, the spam and cross-posting (and the racists in soc.culture.australian) did my head in and I had to bail.

I remember that you were an avid aus.music user.

Regarding Open Office, the funny thing about this bug is that it looks fine on my Eee PC, and I thought it looked fine when I was running Ubuntu 8.04.