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:
- updated to Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron) with a minimum of fuss;
- bought an Eee PC running Xandros;
- installed EeeXubuntu (7.10) on to the Eee PC;
- upgraded it to version 8.04; and
- upgraded it to version 8.10.
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.