[CS-FSLUG] We have met the enemy... [was: Is desktop Linux too fragmented to succeed?]

Greg Slade camsoc at vfemail.net
Tue May 5 12:03:58 CDT 2009

I have to admit that, for a long time, I was too intimidated to try 
Linux. Fragmentation, as has been suggested in this thread, held me back 
for a long time. I kept asking Linux users which one I should go with, 
and got either no answer, or wildly contradicting answers.

Sometimes, I'd get wildly contradicting answers from people who were 
members of what I now call the "distro of the month club": they would 
gush about the latest distro they had installed, and how every other 
distro was rubbish in comparison, but then the next month they'd be 
gushing over some other distro, and talking about how every other distro 
-- including the one they had been gushing over the previous month -- 
was rubbish in comparison. It took me way too long to figure out that 
their real hobby wasn't computing, but installing distros. They're kind 
of like the people described in Jerome K. Jerome's book *The Men on the 
Bummel*, who's hobby isn't riding bikes, but fiddling with them. That's 
fine. Everybody needs a hobby. But it took me too long to learn that 
somebody who's hobby is fiddling is not a useful source of information 
about actually getting something done.

In any case, I have eventually learned the correct answer to the 
question of "which Linux distro should I install?" It's simple, obvious 
(in retrospect), and if Linux users would say it consistently to those 
who are willing to explore alternatives to Windows, Linux uptake would 
be a lot faster.[1]

Probably the biggest factor which scares off potential users is the 
persistent idea that Linux is hard to install. If I believe all the 
chatter that I see on the web, successfully installing Linux is about as 
easy as performing open heart surgery wearing mittens. IRQ conflicts and 
Extension conflicts are as nothing compared to the difficulties of 
installing Linux, apparently. It wasn't until I finally bit the bullet 
and tried it that I learned the answer to that.[2]

Another thing which holds back potential converts is software. Or 
rather, the question of whether the kind of software the user needs will 
be available, and where to find it.

There's a pretty big FUD factor in the whole software question. I've 
lost count of how many Windows users have told me that Linux (or Macs, 
or anything other than Windows) is useless because "software X won't run 
on it." Now, oddly enough, 90% of the time, the software package they 
cite as "essential" is something I don't use, never have used, and may 
never use, so I've just never bought that kind of argument to begin with.

(In my case, the software concerned is frequently an accounting package. 
I'm not an accountant. I've never used accounting software, and I've 
never felt the urge to. YMMV, of course, but it's just never been a felt 
need on my part. So even if it were true that there is no accounting 
software for Linux [or whatever] -- which it isn't -- I wouldn't care 

But even if I were tempted to buy into that notion, one thing would give 
me pause: some years ago, I visited North Sails, and spotted a TI 99/4a 
on a desk. Having something of a soft spot for technological orphans, I 
was intrigued, and asked the guy I was talking to what he used it for. 
He said he used it to design sails, and then went on to complain that 
everybody who saw it told him that he should "upgrade" to a Windows 
machine, because it would help him work so much faster. Except that 
there was no sail design software for Windows, and there was for the TI. 
  In other words, the platform which everybody tells us is the platform 
which has all the software we need *didn't* have the software he needed.

The real key isn't how much software is available in absolute terms. The 
real is whether software that will help you get things done is available 
in the platform you use now, or are contemplating. If so, then it 
doesn't matter how much software is available to the other guys. (How 
many word processors can you use at the same time?) If not, then it 
doesn't matter how much is available on your platform. It's all about 
whether you can get the job done.

Related to that is the question of where to find the software. I've been 
tracking church-related software, both for mainstream operating systems 
and for "orphans", for some years. I know how hard it is to track down 
specific applications for specific platforms, and didn't relish having 
to do the same in Linux. To make things worse, the few times I ventured 
into the Linux downloads section of the web sites for cross-platform 
software (like Thunderbird), I would find, not one download file, but 
three (sometimes more), each for different families of Linux. Getting 
software installed once I did install Linux was beginning to look like a 
nightmare. It was only after I installed Xubuntu (stop rolling your 
eyes, Karl) that I discovered the answer to that, too.[3]

So, if fragmentation isn't the problem (and it shouldn't be), and 
installation isn't the problem (and it shouldn't be, either), and 
finding software isn't the problem (and, once more, it shouldn't be), 
then what is the problem? Why aren't people switching to Linux in droves?

The problem, I am reluctantly beginning to conclude, is Linux users. 
What it boils down to is that too many Linux users are, to be blunt, 
really nasty to clueless newbies. As evidence, let me quote a paragraph 
from a piece by Keir Thomas called "Top 7 Reasons People Quit Linux" in 
PC World 

In reason 5, Thomas answers the complaint "I posted a message on a 
forum, but Linux people were mean to me" by saying, in part:

      But in most examples of this complaint, the individual concerned
      brought wrath on themselves in one of several ways:

      .... By not doing basic homework before asking for help, such as
      searching the forum for a particular issue that may be extremely
      common. There's only so many times community members can answer the
      same query before getting annoyed

I'm a helpdesk technician. I spend my days providing answers to people 
who are clueless. And one of the cardinal rules that I have learned is 
that it's not fair to criticise people for failing to read material that 
they didn't even know about. (Now, if you tell people where to find what 
they need to know -- and I mean in a useful way, such as a URL pointing 
straight to the answer they're looking for, not a snarled "RTFM" -- and 
they still don't "get it", then criticism might be justifiable. But 
there is a profound difference between ignorance and stupidity.)

I can understand where this attitude stems from. There is a 
deeply-rooted, almost axiomatic, principle in the culture of the 
Internet which boils down to "thou shalt not waste shared resources." 
That's the reason that spammers and file downloading parasites are so 
hated: they're violating that commandment by using shared resources to 
their own benefit, leaving less available for the rest of the community, 
and providing no benefit to anybody else in return. If you regard the 
knowledge, time, and patience of people who understand Linux as a shared 
resource, then it's easy to make the jump to regarding people who don't 
even know enough to know where to start looking for answers. Thus, 
"clueless newbies" join the ranks of the demonised on the Internet, and 
criticising them is fair game.

But I would like to suggest that the way to deal with the knowledge 
needed to run Linux is the same as the way to deal with the code that 
makes up Linux. If "information wants to be free", then why doesn't the 
information about how to make use of free information also want to be 
free? Instead of sniping at the "clueless newbies", the Linux community 
should be working on ways to make them less clueless, and the sooner the 
better. Instead of snarling at a newbie to read the docs, ask yourself, 
"Where are the docs?" What URL can you point a newbie to, where they can 
learn what they need to know without taking up any more of your time? If 
there's a documentation site for your favourite distro or application 
(and if there isn't, then why not?) does it actually tell clueless 
newbies what they need to know, or does it presuppose knowledge that 
they can't reasonably be expected to possess? (If it does presuppose 
knowledge, does it give any pointers to where clueless newbies can *get* 
that knowledge?)

So here is my radical suggestion for bringing about the explosive growth 
in the use of Linux. It consists of three simple steps:

1. Stop insulting clueless newbies for being clueless, and instead tell
    them where they can go to get the information they need.

2. Contribute your knowledge to the community by helping to fix the
    documentation for some app or distro so that it makes sense to
    somebody who doesn't already know how things work.

3. Stop fussing over differences in distros, or apps, or filesystems, or
    windows managers, or whatever. It all works. Freedom of choice is a
    good thing. Instead of bad-mouthing the competition, spend the time
    and energy you've been wasting up to now in bickering and backbiting,
    and put it towards making your preference more accessible to newbies
    in steps 1 and 2. In the end, the choices which will become dominant
    will not be the ones which are technically superior, but the ones
    which end up being understood by the most clueless newbies. In the
    end, it will not be "survival of the fittest", but "survival of the

The subject line comes from a line in the Pogo comic strip: "We have met 
the enemy, and they is us."


[1] The answer, of course, is, "It doesn't matter. If you have your 
hands on a Linux CD, go ahead, install it, and start learning how to use 
Linux. It's not as hard as you think, there are no 'wrong' distros, and 
if you decide, at some point, that you would like another distro better, 
you can change at any time. It's no like you have to cough up a couple 
of hundred dollars for it, you know."

[2] The answer, as I discovered when I finally tried it for myself, is 
that Linux is actually easier to install than Windows, and just about as 
easy as installing OS X: once you have an install CD, stick it in, boot 
from the CD, answer remarkably few questions, and walk away. Ba-da-boom. 
The days when you had to be a technical genius to install Linux are 
over. Why is this being kept a secret? The only reason I can think of is 
that Linux geeks want to hang on to the mystique that comes with being a 
Linux user. "Wow! You figured out how to install Linux? You must be a 
genius!" But you can't have it both ways: if you want Linux to be more 
popular, you have to admit that you don't have to be an übergeek to run 
it. If you want to hang on to your übergeek reputation, then you have to 
face up to the fact that you're scaring people away from your operating 
system of choice.

[3] The answer, as you well know, but nobody bothered to tell me, is 
that there's an application in my distro which lists all of the 
available apps for my distro. I pull up the list, tick the application I 
want, and it installs it -- and anything else it needs to run -- for me. 
Even the Mac can't come remotely close to that for simplicity. Why have 
you guys not been crowing about this?

[4] The whole article is quite instructive, not for technical reasons 
(although it's not actually inaccurate), but for tone. Imagine yourself 
as a Windows user who has tried to make a go of Linux, can't get the 
help you need, and given up, and ask yourself whether that whiny, "It's 
all your fault" kind of attitude is likely to convince you to give Linux 
one more shot.

Greg Slade
"The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor
between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right
through every human heart -- and through all human hearts."
                                           - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

More information about the Christiansource mailing list