The #1 item on my Top 10 List of Linux FUD Patterns concerns its learning curve. This pattern is probably the most prevalent and primarily appeals to fear by attempting to convince you that Linux is too hard for the average person to use or that it is simply not user friendly. There are many variations of this pattern, from the straight-forward “Linux is for geeks” assault to more mature, logical arguments, such as “if Linux can do everything the fill-in-the-blank OS can do, why bother with the hassle of switching?”.
To be honest, as with every convincing piece of FUD, I think this line of reason has…or should I say, had…a glimmer of truth behind it. Back in the day, when I was casually messing around with Linux as a hobby, I spent many hours on “administrative” tasks, such as installing Slackware from 30+ floppy disks on old retired hardware and trying to configure the RedHat-bundled Metro-X server for specific video cards and monitors. Looking back, these tasks were difficult enough for a seasoned PC tech like myself, let alone for the general public. But today, it’s a different story, especially since Ubuntu makes it so easy.Nonetheless, web news headlines asking “Is Linux Ready for Prime Time?” still appear frequently. What makes Linux so difficult anyway? A quick look through screenshots and how-tos for modern Linux distributions tells quite a different story, does it not? I believe its close association with Unix is the primary reason.
Unix in general has a “bad” reputation for being a command-line-driven OS. It was written in the late 1960s and the graphical ‘X’ windowing system was not introduced until the mid 1980s. In contrast, Linux was first released by Linus Torvalds about 1991 and the development of the XFree86 windowing system for PCs began about a year later. Therefore, one could argue that Linux had a graphical user interface “from the start”. Moreover, Ubuntu and others have done a great job in reducing the user’s exposure to the system console altogether. The need to log into the system on a character-based screen and manually run ‘startx‘ is no more. Of course, you may forgo an X session and boot directly into a prompt if you wish, but that is not the default.
First impressions count too. Despite the availability of X, my first serious exposure to Unix was in university in the mid 1990s and took place, not on something as fancy as a Sun SPARCstation, but on an amber-on-black dumb terminal in the school’s computer lab. To me, Unix came to mean a terminal screen, often accessed via telnet over a dial-up connection with the host computer. It was not until several years later that I discovered X.
Case sensitivity is another classic example. Unix and its kin are case sensitive in practically every respect, and most visibly when saving and opening files. This can be a most obnoxious feature when working from the command line, especially for the occasional user; however, the impact is minimal in today’s point-and-click Linux world. I have heard the concern expressed more than once that having two or more different files in the same directory, each with the same name, differing only in case, would be too confusing. My usual response is in the form of a question: why would a person have so many files named essentially the same thing to begin with? Just because it can be done, doesn’t mean that it should be done.
Other differences exist, such as installation methods for both the OS and software applications, but I think I’ve made my point: Linux is very much like Unix, but it is not the same OS. Linux was made for the x86 PC platform, though other platforms are supported as well. It was written with the end-user in mind, knowing that the everyday user will demand a slick windowing environment, web browsers with plug-in support, and the like. Contributors to Linux and its applications are everyday users too, you know.
How can these negative perceptions be overcome? The concept that Linux is very similar – but not the same as – Unix is too academic, too logical and would take far too long to adequately communicate to the masses. It just doesn’t make for good marketing.
Nothing, however, beats seeing it in action! Remember what I said about first impressions? Live CDs are very useful weapons against FUD. They allow potential users to test drive the OS, to try before “buying”. This helps prove to some that Linux has come a long way in terms of automatic hardware detection and other features that make it user friendly. It’s also much easier than going to the extent of configuring a dual-boot system. The downside is, they can be a bit slow under certain conditions. If a friend has a Linux system already installed, it may be better to try that out instead.
It is also fortunate that the academic community has shown an interest in Linux. Of course, this stems partially from the never-ending need for schools to save money, but there are also purely-educational reasons for using Linux as well. For example, Linux provides an open platform for programming classes and many math- and science-based applications have been developed. Early exposure to Linux means that kids will “grow up” with it and its “peculiarities”.
Hopefully, this treatise will help you keep an open mind the next time you read an article on how Linux could dominate the market “if only it were easier to use”, or help you form an appropriate response when someone expresses the same sort of sentiment in conversation. Always seek out the reasons used to support these opinions and remember that experience should provide more convincing evidence than the rhetoric of FUD.
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