Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Why People Don't Flock to Linux

The Linux philosophy is 'Laugh in the face of danger'. Oops. Wrong One. 'Do it yourself'. Yes, that's it. ~Linus Torvalds

PC World had an article listing the seven reasons people quit using Linux. Since the piece is written by a Linux expert, it is intended to debunk these reasons, marking yet another attempt by a Linux person to tell the rest of the world why they're all stupid for not using Linux.

Well, that's a little harsh, but not by much.

To set the record straight, I have been a fan of Linux. I've run Red Hat, Mandrake (now Mandriva), Debian, Suse, and Ubuntu (both Gnome and KDE versions). I've set up Linux servers for e-mail and proxy services. I like Linux. I just don't use it much, for reasons that will become clear as we go along.

Let's take a look at those reasons and see if they're legitimate.

1. Linux doesn't run a program the user needs. Frankly, we could stop right here. This is the single biggest roadblock to large-scale enterprise deployments of Linux. Even the author admits that there's not much of answer to this one. In fact, he doesn't even suggest using WINE or other Windows emulators, probably because, a)they don't work all that well, and b) you've got to have a legal copy of Windows for the emulator to work.

Okay, there's lots of pirated copies of Windows out there, but we're talking legally running software here. So if you're wondering why Linux comprises 1% of all operating systems in use, you don't need to go much farther. But we will carry on.

2. After installing Linux, some piece of hardware doesn't work. Well, says the author, the same thing happens with Windows, which it does when new versions come out. However, when you've got a two or three year old video card in your system, Windows will have a driver. If it doesn't, a quick trip to a search engine will locate one that you can install in one step. If you're missing a Linux driver, you've got to hope someone has written a driver that will work with your Linux distro. If you can find one, then you may have the fun of compiling it, not a task the average user is going to familiar with. Granted there's been some improvement on this score in the Linux community, but there are still plenty of gaps.

After installing SUSE 10.0 some months back, I found that my PC Card wireless modem didn't work. After a significant amount of time searching, I found a rather lengthy procedure for installing a driver and then tweaking configuration files to make the thing actually connect, at half its normal speed. So I could run SUSE as long as I didn't want Intenet connectivity.

Oh wait, the card worked in my Windows machine, so I set up Internet Connection Sharing. I then spent a couple of hours tweaking the wireless adapter, which also didn't work so well with SUSE, to connect to the ICS network.

I got it working but had a tough time imagining the average user doing any of that.

3. Linux can require the use of the command line. Okay, I sympathise with the author here. It's ludicrous that people are so thoroughly intimidated by typing a simple command in a DOS box, if we're talking Windows, or a terminal session. But, friends of Linus, that's the way it is, and distros like Ubuntu virtually advertise themselves as easy-to-use windowing environments, not windowing environments that require knowing a lot of command-line syntax.

You want to spread to the masses, you've got to live with their frailties.

4. Something strange happened that doesn't happen in Windows. I'm with the author here, because things are going to break in any OS, and they'll break differently in Linux than in Windows. In fact, things break differently in Vista than they do in Windows XP. Actually, I've never heard this reason for quitting Linux before, but this guy writes user guides, so he's probably heard weirder ones than this.

5. I tried to get help online and got kicked in the teeth. Tough rocks, says the author. Well, the snobbishness of experienced Linux types has been legendary. Back in the days of the Usenet, Linux newsgroups were places newbies went to die. Or at least suffer a lot of humiliation. If they got any advice at all, it usually was either couched in technical language beyond the user's skill level. Or else the advice was, "Read the man page, moron."

Ironically, these same newsgroups would contain endless threads complaining about how Linux wasn't spreading like wildfire to the desktop. No one could understand why, but it had to have something to do with Microsoft's dastardly strategems.

6. Some people just don't like it. This is another reason that the author pretty much says, well, if you don't, you don't. Personal likes are always going to enter into a user's decisions.

Hey, I don't like Vista, and I'm not all that crazy about XP, but I use it because that's what I need to run the apps my organization uses (see 1, above), and I want to be able to get drivers for my hardware (see 2). XP also works with little mucking about as long as one employs good security practices and keeps the junk software off the PC.

The trouble for Linux is that, if the user doesn't like it, he falls back to Windows. If the user doesn't like the latest version of Windows, though, he falls back to his current version until Microsoft comes up with something he can stomach.

7. Sometimes installations of Linux just go totally bonkers. Yes, this can happen with Windows, and it has. But, having installed all those previously mentioned distros, plus three flavors of BSD, I can state based on experience that weird ju-ju pops up more with Linux than with Windows. Ubuntu and SUSE have become pretty painless, but even those can act strangely at times, usually because of hardware issues.

I have had endless discussions over the last 10 years with colleagues about what it would take to move an organization to Linux. The same roadblocks always come up. We have software that is dependent on .NET or Windows SQL server. It would cost tons to migrate them to Java and a Linux-based SQL. We'd have to hire a squad of internal programmers to do what we could buy off-the-shelf in a Windows environment. We'd have a massive retraining program for users. We'd have compaibiltiy problems with other organizations sending users Microsoft Powerpoint presentations, Word documents that wouldn't format properly in OpenOffice, spreadsheets with VB macros that wouldn't work, and on and on.

I'm not saying that Linux will never get into the enterprise. There are places where it has, but these are few and far between. Linux has had far greater penetration in the server end, particularly in the realm of web and ftp servers. Linux is also popular with the appliances used to provide proxy services, search services, and e-mail scanning. That smaller footprint and truly modular design makes Linux a really good server OS.

But, if Linux is going to win the hearts and minds of the ordinary user, they're going to have to deal with the problems above, especially issues with drivers and installation issues. Like or not, sons of Torvalds, you're going to have to win over home users. And you're only going to do that by
making it as easy as Windows to use and install if you're going to cut into Microsoft's dominance.

Oh, and it wouldn't hurt to be nicer when responding to newbie questions.

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