Update: I wrote a followup to Adrian’s new article here.
Adrian Kingsley-Hughes over at ZDNet talks about the five things that the Linux community does not understand about the average computer user. While I agree with some of his points, I think his opinion is somewhat misdirected. I’ll take up his points one-by-one. Before I do that, however, I’d like to point out that I am an avid user of Linux — I have been using Linux for over ten years and I make my living programming on the Linux platform. This sets me apart from the average computer user, but I know a lot of people who are non-geeks, so I do have some idea about what the average user needs.
1 – On the whole, users aren’t all that dissatisfied with Windows
I agree with Mr. Hughes on this point. The Linux community makes a big deal about how Windows is infested with viruses and spyware, but the fact remains that 90% of computer users still manage to get their work done. With a little bit of education and the right software it is not hard to stay away from viruses and spyware. It is human nature to exaggerate the other side of the story to emphasize your own point and I believe that the Linux community is guilty of that. It is true that Linux isn’t affected by viruses and spyware, but the Linux community could emphasize other good things about Linux without trying to hard to beat down on Windows.
2 – Too many distros
This is a common refrain used against Linux and it is a gross misrepresentation. Sure, there are a lot of distros, but there is no need for the average user to be concerned about it. Most modern distros, such as Ubuntu, Fedora, SuSE and Linspire are quite similar to each other. If an average user is given any distro to start out with, they should have no trouble getting used to it. The problem of choice is only an issue if you have to install a distro on your own. Mr. Hughes compares the issue of multiple distros with the choice between different flavours of Windows Vista. If anything, making the choice for a Linux distro is easier than choosing a Vista flavour because you don’t miss out on any functionality and you don’t have to consider the price difference at all because all distros are free. Once pre-installed Linux becomes more common, this is not something that an average user will even have to worry about.
3 – People want certainty that hardware and software will work
Mr. Hughes correctly points out that there is very little hardware that is certified to work with Linux. However, Linux hardware support has been constantly improving and now most hardware works with Linux right out of the box. Plug in your digital camera and the photo management software opens up and lets you copy the photos. Plug in your iPod and the music jukebox comes up. Printers auto-configure themselves and webcams work right out of the box. Dell has stated that all hardware that they put into computers that come with Linux is certified to work. Other Linux hardware vendors such as Penguin Computing and System 76 also certify 100% hardware compatibility.
As far as software is concerned, there is a huge repository of open-source software available for all applications. There are some specialised areas that don’t Linux equivalent, but there is more than for the average user. What’s more is that all software is available for free and is easily installable from one source. You don’t have to go hunting for what you need — just browse through or search your package manager. If availability of software were an issue, you wouldn’t see Mac OS gaining market share. People are willing to find substitutes and most people will find what they need.
4 – As far as most people are concerned, the command line has gone the way of the dinosaur
This is a ridiculous claim that Mr. Hughes makes. Linux has a fully functional GUI and you don’t even have to resort to using using the command line. Not even the most hard-core Linux users claim that command line is the way to go for the average user. Command line has always been and will always be for the power user. I don’t see people extolling the virtues of the command line as a selling point for Linux.
5 – Linux is still too geeky
Put a Windows user in front of a Gnome or KDE environment and I’m willing to bet that they will be able to find their way around. It may take a little while, but eventually they’ll figure out what applications are available and what they need. The Gnome community has done extensive usability studies to simplify the interface for the average user. As an example, the menus refer to applications by their purpose and not just by their clever names (Liferea, anyone?). Mr. Hughes brings up the example of Ubuntu updates. I don’t see what is so complicated about the Ubuntu update manager. You are prompted that there updates available, you get a list of updates, you click “OK” and you install them. You don’t have to know what was updated if you don’t want to. It’s the same way with Windows and Mac OS X. As an added bonus, all software is updated through one simple update manager — every piece of software doesn’t have to have it’s own different way of updating itself.
So what will it take for Linux to be adopted? Here’s my theory: there is nothing that can be done to magically have Linux on every computer. Linux adoption will come at a gradual pace. As far as technology is concerned, Linux is already there (other than a few hairy issues such as graphics cards and wireless). What Linux needs is some serious marketing muscle from a big corporation. We have seen how Apple managed to improve its reach through intelligent marketing. Dell’s move is a small step in this direction. Canonical is working hard on the coolness factor. There is no magic pill, things will go slowly. We just have to live with it.
dcparris of lxer.com has written an excellent rebuttal to Adrian’s post. He reinforces some of the things that I said with a more colourful attitude.