Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Column: What's his beef with Linux?

“What’s his beef with Linux?” I can imagine some people wonder if I have something against Linux. The first two contributions to Digiplace.nl were quite critical in tone. Well, to clarify one thing: I have nothing against Linux. On the contrary, I would take any opportunity to promote Linux among Windows users. On April 1st one of my online buddies deleted Windows from his harddrive, after receiving a step by step guidance through all the problems he encountered with Ubuntu. After a demonstration, a church pastor recently started promoting the use of Ubuntu Linux among church members in order to reduce the use of illegal software. And in a few weeks time I will explain the joys of software installation via synaptic and apt-get to a group of novice users. That is how I contribute to the spread of Linux.

But, I am not blind and deaf during my promotional activities. At each event I hear real life problems and frustrations. I know there are solutions to most, if not all of them. The solutions start with the phrase: “you have to do a Google search for..”, after which the majority of users is bombarded with a variety of possible solutions. Why? You have to know how to phrase the real problem, know what really is wrong.

Thanks to Microsoft and years of IT-education most users are unable to do that. “It just doesn’t work anymore”. When was the last time you contacted an IT helpdesk? I won’t do that anymore. I’d like to get my assistance on my level of expertise and refuse to talk to a well-meaning assistant that first has to ask whether I plugged in the computer properly. Unfortunately, such questions are necessary for many other users and it helps the helpdesk to isolate the real problem step by step.

There are various methods to promote Linux. The first method -the least effective as far as I am concerned- is the RTFM approach. Let the users find their own solutions. An alternative approach is used by the likes of Ubuntu, Linspire and Xandros. They want to make W2L migration as easy as possible and simplify all management tools. Add closed source drivers and proprietary codecs in the mix and we have a first Linux experience that is not the cause of post-traumatic stress. Granted, this approach is more effective than the RTFM approach, but it is still not enough. Why not? Murphy’s Law, of course! Something will go wrong and what do you do then? Besides, even these distributions require rudimentary skills with the commandline interface. And most W2L migrators haven’t seen a commandline since Windows95.

If Linux needs to gain ground on the desktop, we don’t need to wait for the operating systems and applications require a future level of maturity. The maturity is there. I would argue that it is no problem to migrate most home and business users right now. It might require the support of Wine, Cedega, Crossover, VirtualBox, VMware en/of Xen, but it is possible. Adding Click-and-Run to Ubuntu might look like a good idea, but it doesn’t solve the real problem: bad IT education.

And this is where we -you and me- come in, to add effort where our mouth is. Sending around free CD’s with Linux is good. Writing helpful How-to’s is very useful. Offering tips and tricks in IRC and in forums, please continue with that. But we are talking proper education here, helping people to understand the operating system, teaching them problem-solving skills. No install fests,but educational programs about the how and why of Linux.

And we have to learn to listen in order to send back the problems and obstacles to the developers and distro builders. To help them build real solutions. Until those solutions have materialized I consider it my obligation to point out the shortcomings. Not out of spite, but out of love for Linux and it’s scores of developers. Both of which deserve a better place on the computer desktop.

This column is part of a series that appears on Digiplace.nl, a Dutch weblog run by Jos Herni.

Tags: Linux, Ubuntu, Education

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