Aditya Nag
01 March, 2005

This article was first published on

Over the past few articles, we have been extolling the virtues of Linux, and how and why you should use it. This article is slightly different. I am sure that many Windows users who read the previous articles scoffed at various points. Well, in this article, I am going to wear my Windows hat, and try to look at Linux from the point of view of a Windows evangelist.

Why do this article? Well, in the interest of being fair. Yes, it is easy to dismiss Windows users as lusers, and whiners, and people who can’t be bothered to learn about their machines, but life is not that simple, is it?

A few things before I start. This article may seem stupid and dumb at times, and many a seasoned Linux user is going to throw up his hands at the very thought of someone writing such utter balderdash. For all such readers, I’d like to assure them that such thoughts DO cross people’s minds. Every incident I have related actually happened to people I know. Ordinary people, smart people in their fields, which happen to be non-computer related fields. So before you start emailing me about how puerile this article is, sit back and think for a second. Have you never faced these questions? If that is true, then you are a lucky person.

So let’s see what it is that makes Linux so difficult to use for people who don’t like Linux.

1. Which one is Linux? The single most confusing thing about Linux is this. What is Linux? Yes, I know that it’s a kernel coupled with other utilities, but what in tarnation is a kernel? I can understand it if you tell me that Windows 95 is different from Windows 98, but what do you mean by saying that Fedora Core 3 is similar to Debian testing, but is better than Core 2. And of course, Mandrake 10.1 is better than 10.0, but Suse is only on 9.2. All this gets very confusing after a while. A friend of mine asked me if he could contribute by donating some money to Linux. When I told him that there is no Linux in the sense there is a Microsoft or IBM, he looked blankly at me. “So, who makes Linux?”. Indeed. For someone who is used to one company and a few OS’s, all this talk of Distros is rather confusing. A little marketing could help here. More on marketing later..At least it’s a little better these days, with some big names coming up. I have heard of Red Hat, and Novell. At least with these two if I want to donate some money to them, I know their mailing address.

2. Installation Woes: Surprisingly, I find that installing the Linux that I want is not that extremely difficult. In fact, with a little reading, and some trial and error, installation goes off well enough. Friends who have tried some of the easier installing distros, like Xandros, agree with me on this. Except for the disk partitioning part,which still scares many people, Linux installs are easier than ever.

3. Post Install blues.: So my shiny new Linux boots up, and starts blinking.. and then gives me some error saying X could not start, and shows me a login prompt. Well, alright, I remember login prompts from the days of dial-up connections, and shell access. I login, but now what? What do I do? How can I fix it? This is my only machine, so I can’t look up the Internet on it. I wish that these downloadable distros came with a printable manual so I could at least have a clue about what it is I should do. Or else, I get some absurdly low resolution like 640×480 on my nice big 17″ monitor. I try right-clicking and going to properties, but there is no guarantee than this will work. I have an Nvidia graphics card, and in every free distro I have tried, despite downloading and installing the drivers, which in itself is a mammoth task, ( telinit 3, anyone? for a newbie??), I have had to edit the X config file by hand. Why is this necessary? Why can’t the installer do this?

4. Laptop Support: Ah, another perennial favorite. Some laptops will work, some will not, some will seem to work, but actually will not, and so on. Suspend, hibernate and power management, which are extremely important for a laptop may or may not work. In case it does, count yourself amongst the lucky few. If it doesn’t, well, too bad. Start the Googleing. And if you can find some instructions, good luck trying to implement them. Most people I know who have tried this, have thrown up their hands and gone back to shutting down and starting up the entire OS every time. How 90’s. This is the one area in which Linux really needs to get it’s act together. If in 2005 it’s still not possible to install a Big Name distro onto a laptop and not have problems, then a large proportion of potential Linux users will not make the switch.

5. Games Games Games: Yes, I know this seems silly. But it is a fact that non-computer users are fascinated by computer games, and some may even want to learn about computers merely for this reason. My uncle, an avid golfer saw me playing Links LS some years ago, and sat down and figured out the game. He was having fun by the end of the evening, and he had never played any game before this. My mother used to like playing Need for Speed 2. While games like these are available for Linux, installing them and setting them still remains out of the reach of most users, especially new users.

6. Unfriendly Gurus: If there is one thing that people hate, it’s being condescended to. Unfortunately, this was a common occurrence on many Linux message boards and help resources. People saying things like READ THE @#$ING MANUAL, YOU MORON. While the idea is correct, the form of expression is not well thought out. If, on the other hand, someone had politely pointed out that the solution can be found in such and such a place, the new users might actually have looked. A response like this will only lead the user right back to Windows. Think of it like this. If you go to a lawyer with a problem, and he smirks at you and tells you to go read Marbury v Madison, would you go back to him? Not a chance in hell. The lawyer analogy may not be entirely accurate since he is getting paid, but this does not mean that only paid service is polite service. The times, however, they are changing. In the past few months, the tone and tenor of very many message boards have become much softer. This is in no small part due to the barrage of new users who have entered en mass. While the Linux gurus may moan and groan about the commercialization of their ideals, the fact remains that Joe Six-pack couldn’t care less about the ideals of the FSF. And he should not be expected to, not at first. Later on, when he has appreciated the virtues of Linux, he may feel like learning about the principles the community is built upon. Don’t patronize him and scare him away in the beginning, and he may well turn out to be an ardent Linux evangelist.

7. Marketing: The Beast from Redmond is currently pursuing a marketing campaign called “Get the Facts”. Anyone with any experience of Linux will know that these Facts may not be facts in the universal sense of the term, but does the average user know this? Is there a sustained marketing campaign that will let people know about the benefits of F/OSS software? Half-hearted, abortive, localized efforts are not enough. A shining example of good marketing is the Spread Firefox campaign. More of these are required. Some judicious marketing, it would help people who are unaware of the true facts move to Linux. This is something that Redmond excels at, and the Linux community has to learn to beat them at their own game.

8. Documentation: Yes, the man pages are an excellent resource. And yes, Konqueror provides a nifty man:/ interface to these great docs. So why then don’t distros highlight this fact some more? Why doesn’t the first run wizard tell you that this is what you should do first, before hitting the net? At the same time, there is some brilliant documentation available. Case in point, the Smoothwall documentation. If all open-source projects had documentation of this caliber, Linux would be better off. Better documentation, and a better awareness of the existing documentation and ways to access it is required.

There are other points which can be added, but these cover the basic problems. We hope that this article is received in the spirit in which it was written. Any comments would be welcome.