Top 10 Linux FUD Patterns, Part 2

Linux FUD Pattern #1: Linux has a steep learning curve

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.

The X logo.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.

Cheers!
-Brandon

<< Go To Part 1 Go To Part 3 >>

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

5 responses to “Top 10 Linux FUD Patterns, Part 2”

  1. David Legg says :

    Good stuff. However, as well as tackling the FUD, it is necessary to provide good positive reasons for using Linux. Many of these are rather techie, but there are easily understandable social reasons for using Linux. For example, a comparison with Fair Trade products can be drawn. People who hate the fact that supermarkets and coffee sellers are propping very unfair trading practices and adding to the misery of many of the world’s poorer people decide to buy Fair Trade coffee etc. It actually costs them more, but they feel motivated to do it. In the case of Linux, many people hate the fact that an even greater number of people have been ill-treated by certain software vendors, that many businesses have been put out of business, that certain vendors claim to give large amounts of money to the developing world having previously extracted vast amounts of licensing money from it. So they decide to use open source software because it makes them feel better, it helps the developing world to get free computers, it stops people from being abused by certain large software vendors. Then the surprise: It costs them less (usually nothing), it saves them money on new hardware, and it saves them vast amounts of time. So Linux is like Fair Trade coffee, but cheaper and it helps much larger numbers of people.

  2. brinkleybw says :

    David, excellent comment, and you are absolutely correct! I like the analogy to Fair Trade. I suppose a similar one exists with buying organic fruits – while more expensive, they are better for you than the run-of-the-mill stock. As for the cost, there are hidden costs, as will be discussed in the topic of TOC.

    Also, I’m trying very very hard to stay on topic, which is how to detect, analyze, filter and…well…safely ignore FUD. This is hard to do, as there are so many good reasons for using Linux and I find that if I don’t exclude them, you will be reading the book, not the blog. I do have a future post planned that does discuss the social aspects of Open Source, and I may find your comments here of great value. Please stay tuned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: