(For the purpose of this article, "Linux" will be used to refer to distributions of an operating system based on the Linux kernel. So far as I know, all of these include GNU software. Some distributions, such as Debian, choose to refer to the system as GNU/Linux, while others, such as SUSE, Mandrake, Mepis, Slackware, Knoppix, and Red Hat choose to use the more popularly known term Linux. Choice is a good thing and no confusion is intended).
Every time someone suggests Linux for use on a personal, home computer, the same old "Joe Average" and "Joe Sixpack" and "your mother" are trotted out to chase the curious back into their cage. In case you haven't encountered them before, "Joe Average" and "Joe Sixpack" are mythical creatures supposedly representing average personal computer users. "Your mother" is assumed to be some slightly doddering mouse-clicker, instead of possibly one of the people who created, or is creating, the world of information technology. (Please do not take offense, ladies. Assume those who use the "your mother" argument are ignorant of the pioneering of computing). Naturally, so the old argument goes, "Joe Average" and "Joe Sixpack" will never comprehend compiling a kernel, and you'd never want to leave "your mother" suffering through 'more README; less INSTALL'. The resulting conclusion you are expected to take for granted is that Linux is therefore "not ready for the desktop". Sure, and because cows have longer legs than rabbits, rabbits can't outrun cows.
It might be enlightening to consider these mythical people as if real, and see whether Linux or Microsoft Windows suits their needs best. Things to consider: What they know, what they need, does Linux fit those needs without undue burden outside what they know, does MS Windows fit those needs without undue burden outside what they know.
Your mother supposedly just wants to click things to "surf the web", email, print some pictures, do a little typing (letters or work), and listen to some music. (She supposedly would suffer severe emotional trauma if "Kernel Panic!" appeared on her monitor, or instructions such as "config --with-foo=/bar/lib"). The near-twin Joes have about the same goals, with the possible addition of attaching various new techno-toys to their PC, like a scanner and digital camera. None of these three are interested in partitions, filesystems, iptables, sendmail configuration or kernel compiles. Once upon a time, using Linux required you learn about these things. Now, Linux doesn't require you learn such details before you use the system; it just won't stand in your way if you want to learn them. It is equally important to remember that our three sample computer users are not interested in downloading "Updates", subscribing to anti-virus software, nor learning how to set up a firewall. Joe Sixpack is supposedly the guy who surfs the porn sites after watching some wrestling, so he really needs some protection, whether he knows it or not.
There are distributions of Linux competing to gain the favor of users who are interested in ease of use. Linux didn't stagnate in 1999, even though some FUDsters (Steve Ballmer) want you to believe it did. In 2000, my then-13 year old daughter became comfortable using Linux. She complained that she didn't feel really initiated, though, since I had installed her system for her. So, I handed her the Debian 2.1 CDs and gave her access to an old computer. (I know some of you "old penguins" who endured the installation of the "Slink" version of Debian are considering reporting me for child abuse about now, but please don't dial that phone yet). The instructions were:
A weekend, an afternoon, and several retries later, she declared with much relief that the job was done. I then handed her a CD of Mandrake 7.0-2 and told her to try again. About 45 minutes later, she asked, "Why didn't you give me this to begin with?" My answer, "You wanted to be initiated." Shortly after her initiation, I encountered a 16 year old boy in a chat room who was railing against Linux for being so difficult. He was attempting to install an old version of Slackware, which at that time was nearly as tedious a chore as the old Debian. I pricked his pride with the tale about my daughter. He vowed to succeed, "No 13 y.o. girl is gonna beat me!" He became hooked on freedom, went on to join the Army and (reluctantly) helped maintain some MS Windows computers there. (Alas, not all is happy for this young man. He recently looked me up to tell me, "I'm the only 19 year old retired Army vet you know." A freak medical condition affecting his upper body caused him to be discharged. The U.S. Army is continuing medical treatment).
These two represent the kids that teachers and other adults turn to when their MS Windows desktops mysteriously self-destruct. When they fix MS Windows, it's a temporary cure based on a cabal-like spread of information about which mysterious, magic mouse movements it needs. When they fix Linux, it's usually based on information about the underlying processes, gleaned from HOWTOs and other documentation. Note that in the case of MS Windows, problems and cures are almost always mysteries. Fixes may break other things and the cure is ultimately in the hands of MS. In the course of fixing Joe's problem, the whiz kid Joe calls on is most likely going to use the tools and documentation already on Joe's computer. Joe is not brainless. Joe will probably pick up some self-help procedures that he can use to track down and fix other problems he encounters, without calling on the whiz kids. Some whiz kids become programmers. Some Joes become whiz kids. When everyone is free to dig through the system for information, right down to the very source code if they please, the number of people able to improve it increases. That snowball effect, over time, lowers that initial entry barrier for even more people to begin using Linux.
The Register, in December, 2001, proclaimed "Mandrake 8.1 easier than Win-XP". If you make use of Google, the world's largest installation of Linux, you can find tales of Linux use getting progressively easier and by people progressively less enchanted with learning how computers work. A couple of examples come from a USAToday report about Schwaebisch Hall, Germany switching to Linux:
One hurdle for Schwaebisch Hall: Linux's reputation as difficult to use on desktops.
Mayor Pelgrim, a self-described non-techie, led the way by having his computer changed over first.
"From what I can see, Linux is something good and no big change from Windows," said librarian Elisabeth Guechida, who keeps the library's PCs running though not a computer specialist. "There's a mouse, a keyboard and icons. I personally find it interesting to learn new things."
Things don't sit still when there is healthy competition. Linux distributors are not creating deliberately incompatible versions, and most of the software they distribute is available freely, so they must compete based on the value they add. They put in an enormous amount of work gathering software, contributing patches, testing, packaging, sponsoring development, assisting users, and, of course, marketing their wares. They don't do this to keep users away. They can't afford to stand still with so many others working to get better. Taking care of users is their biggest product.
Contrast this with Microsoft Windows, where taking care of the user means a completely different thing. Users get features and upgrades they did not request, while things they really need are ignored. "Joe Average User Is In Trouble", by Scott Granneman of SecurityFocus, was not written about Linux users. The competition provided by Linux has improved MS Windows, but there seems to be a lot more effort by Microsoft to try to suppress than to actually compete. Microsoft has been much more intent on preventing users from choosing than they are about making users happier. As I posted (anonymously) in a comment on NewsForge in 2002:
We who use Linux sometimes forget what it is like to face a computer for the first time. Linux gives the newbie the freedom to explore and tinker without the fear of destroying the system with an inadvertent click.
I just spent a day rescuing a "newbie" from MS Windows. Someone had loaned her an old computer with MS Windows. Neither she nor her husband knew beans about a computer, except how to hit the power button. They worked out the mouse (remember watching newbies twist and steer the mouse?). Somewhere in Windows, they clicked the wrong thing and the next time they turned it on, it asked for a boot disk. No such creature was included with the loaned computer, so they hired a lady "down the road" to "repair" the system. (My suspicion is that they may have dragged the System "folder" and dropped it inside some other, or some of those "hidden", "system" files were left available). Regardless of how it happened, the experience left them afraid to explore anything beyond solitaire.
My rescue kit was an old P-133 with 32 Mb of RAM, a built-in 1Mb Cirrus Logic video card and Debian 3.0 and a 15" monitor.
The thing that garnered the most gratitude and relieved look from the couple was the fact that they could explore without fear. They were quite comfortable with being warned that deleting their own files meant those files were gone for good. It was the freedom from worry about damaging the system itself, as regular users, that they appreciated.
If someone gave you a new toy, but told you if you twist the wrong knob, or push the buttons in the wrong sequence, it would completely fall apart, you might be reluctant to play with that toy. Newbies should be allowed to play with the pretty knobs and buttons without fear of breaking their new toy.
Linux on the personal computer has moved from being suitable only for true hackers, to including moderately skilled programmers, then professional administrators and amateur computer "nuts", to including so-called "power users" and then average computer users. It is helpful to remember that the hacker who created the first Linux kernel and put it together with the GNU tools did so because he wanted a better operating system for his personal computer. The hacker who began GNU did so to increase personal freedom, for himself and others. The underlying motivation is a strong one. It's called enlightened self-interest or scratching your own itch. As people in each of the computer-specific skill levels listed began using Linux and scratching their own itches, they naturally improved the usability of the system. This in turn enables those of less computer-specific skills to use and adapt the system. Linux and Open Source do not thrive on elitism; they thrive on sharing and enabling and empowering. Its natural evolution is inclusive.
Contrast this with Microsoft Windows, wherein everything is locked away from the curious eyes of users. You may not examine the source to find out how things work. You are prevented by law [pdf] and by design. This leaves Joe under-informed. Granted, Joe Average is not likely to be interested in the source code of MS Windows. However, the number of people with access to that code who might make sense of it for Joe's benefit are extremely limited. This creates an artificially maintained mystery surrounding computers and an artificially maintained hierarchy of experts. Joe is subtly trained to accept the proclamations from on high. Joe is not encouraged to stress his software, report its failures and assist in its improvement. Joe is made to believe that if the magical, mysterious software fails to perform as expected, then Joe is using it wrongly or is just dumb.
If Joe is dumb and the computer is smart, why does Joe have to learn the computer's mouse and keypress language to get it to do anything? That video professor you see on tv could not be in business if MS Windows were as easy and intuitive for new computer users as those who claim Linux is not ready would have you believe. I'm not knocking that business; it must be filling a need or it would not have lasted so long. It is illustrative of the fact that people are not born with the knowledge of how to operate a general purpose computer, regardless of what software runs on that computer. (While researching, I ran across a website selling training courses to prepare people for Microsoft Certifications. A letter from a student was presented wherein the student thanked the instructors for the training received. The student was happy to be able to set up a home network of 5 computers after the training and passing 2 Microsoft "professional" exams. He or she could have saved a few hundred dollars and just read the "Home Network Mini-HOWTO". It's a bit out of date, but that's because the information is still helpful even though newer Linux distributions make it easier, and networking has been around a very long time. Then again, you can't very well claim "professional" status just for reading a Mini-HOWTO.)
Linux has grown by encouraging its users to speak up, contribute, help out. People like to adapt what they have to suit themselves. They also like to share their creations, adaptations and discoveries. Linux encourages this. Whether what you have to share is a patch for the kernel, a cool new theme for your desktop, assistance, or a bug report, your participation is significant.
The freedom explicit in GNU and Linux means that the system evolves at an ever-increasing rate. Since it allows anyone to use it, develop it and develop with it, as well as providing free tools to accomplish those tasks, it continually expands the number of people who can add to it and take it forward. A result of this is that the system itself, including all the GNU tools and piles of software, rapidly improves in ease of use. It's only natural. People try to make their tools suit themselves and easier to use. This in turn lowers the new user entry requirements and increases the power available to those new users. It includes more and more people rather than excluding.
I am very grateful that so many people offered their hard work freely to the world, for whatever reasons, so that people like me can use this software without the burden of first trying to learn as much about programming as the authors. I consider the immense collection of such software to be as great a gift to the people of the world, by the people of the world, as the printing press itself.
There was a time when books were, and literacy itself was, the exclusive province of the rich. Consider how much the world changed due to the printing press allowing books to be within the reach of those who were not rich. Free public education, everywhere it took place, caused another explosive growth in the knowledge bank of the world. Global communication disseminated that knowledge. Digital global communication, computers and software are spreading that knowledge to more people more rapidly than ever before possible in the history of the world. They also facilitate the expansion of that knowledge bank as never before. With so much at stake and so much to gain for so many, free and open software is a powerful enabling force, while closed source software is a barrier to all.
It is time for the dark ages of computing to end. Free, open source software has begun a renaissance that I believe will surpass the Renaissance of history. Instead of each programmer being required to re-invent each software solution over and over because of closed source, open source means that each programmer can build upon the previous work. Having the fundamental software tools of computing available for free puts them in the hands of anyone capable of using them without the burden of also being rich. Who can tell what talent or even genius is frustrated and denied to the world because of the barrier imposed by the price of closed software?
That barrier is being dismantled by free, open source software. The outer wall was breached long ago. Now the breach is wide enough for many to pass through and the dismantling subsequently is accelerating. As more are able to assist, this free software spreads wider and enables more advanced operations. It is inevitable that closed, commercial software will eventually be relegated to niches. Closed commercial software excludes, if by no other means than the price. Those who unleash free and open software on the world are inviting everyone to come along.
It is time for people to stop comparing Linux of 1999 (the year Red Hat 6.0 was released) to Microsoft Windows of tomorrow. Linux is not the exclusive realm of geeks and nerds. Microsoft Windows is not kind to new (or existing) computer users. Linux doesn't require a degree in Computer Science or the ability to read C code. Microsoft Windows won't let you choose to remove certain of its parts, but will happily allow some stranger from parts unknown to run programs from email on your computer. Linux runs gadgets and appliances without ever intruding on the user to announce itself; it just works. Microsoft Windows still provides a "user experience" that a great many users wish they had not experienced. Linux is suitable for almost anyone, now. Microsoft Windows is suitable for niche tasks, now.
As Joe Barr put it:
"I need a desktop where new apps are comfortable from day one. And it just so happened I had a complimentary copy of Mandrake Discovery 9.2 sitting unopened nearby. I chose Mandrake.
"In the copy I received, all the accompanying manuals were in French, and the box itself was as well. The installation default was US English, however, so that didn't slow me down. I suppose it's a sign of how far Linux installation has come in general that I didn't even notice the manuals weren't in English until after the install was complete."
Oh, and by the way, you shouldn't have to accept MS Windows pre-loaded on a new computer.
The old FUD *is dying*. May it rest in peace. Give today's Linux a test drive. Even Microsoft is trying it.
Instead of hiding information, or deliberately misinforming, in order to control the next generation, let's educate.
[This document produced using mc, Amaya, and Mozilla, which proves they will let anybody use their creations.]
1 kernel. http://www.kernel.org
2 GNU http://www.gnu.org
3 Debian, http://www.debian.org
4 GNU/Linux, http://www.gnu.org/gnu/linux-and-gnu.html
5 SUSE, http://www.suse.com
6 Mandrake, http://www.mandrakelinux.com
7 Mepis, http://www.mepis.org
8 Slackware, http://www.slackware.com
9 Knoppix, http://www.knoppix.net
10 Red Hat http://www.redhat.com
11 cage. http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20031121013756776
12 ladies. http://www.iwt.org/home.html
13 pioneering http://www.cs.yale.edu/homes/tap/Files/hopper-story.html
14 click things http://www.mandrakelinux.com/en/features.php3
15 same goals, http://www.mepis.org/
16 Once upon a time, http://hcs.harvard.edu/~hcr/94apr/apr14lnx.html
17 "Updates", http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,112747,00.asp
18 needs some protection, http://www.spywareinfo.com/newsletter/archives/0903/9.php
19 knows it or not. http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/55/35393.html
20 FUD http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/F/FUD.html
21 (Steve Ballmer) http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20031022014413296
22 Debian 2.1 http://www.debian.org/releases/
23 cabal-like http://unattended.msfn.org/2003/registrytweaks.htm
24 HOWTOs http://www.tldp.org/HOWTO/HOWTO-INDEX/
25 documentation. http://dsl.org/cookbook/cookbook_toc.html
26 Fixes may break other things http://www.seemslikegod.org/SoftEdges/softedges_patches.htm
27 "Mandrake 8.1 easier than Win-XP". http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/4/23436.html
28 Google, http://www.google.com
29 world's largest installation of Linux, http://www.wired.com/news/mac/0,2125,60999,00.html
30 USAToday report http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2003-03-24-linuxburg_x.htm
31 deliberately incompatible versions, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Microsoft_Windows
32 most of the software they distribute is available freely, http://www.linuxiso.org/
33 software, http://freshmeat.net/browse/18/?topic_id=18
34 so many others working http://distrowatch.com/
35 "Joe Average User Is In Trouble", http://www.securityfocus.com/columnists/193
36 suppress http://www.linuxworld.com/story/32679.htm
37 has been much more intent on preventing users from choosing http://www.internetwk.com/news/news0303-8.htm
38 comment on NewsForge in 2002: http://www.newsforge.com/comments.pl?sid=27052&cid=29581
39 Linux on the personal computer has moved http://www.jediknight.com/~smpoole/advocacy.html
40 hackers, http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/H/hacker.html
41 average computer users. http://www.suse.com/us/private/products/suse_linux/i386/installation.html
42 the hacker who created the first Linux kernel http://www.li.org/linuxhistory.php
43 The hacker who began GNU http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/opensources/book/stallman.html
44 You are prevented by law [pdf] http://www.cyber.com.au/cyber/about/comparing_the_gpl_to_eula.pdf
45 hierarchy of experts. http://www.mcpmag.com/certbasics/
46 proclamations http://newsvac.newsforge.com/newsvac/03/02/28/1631236.shtml?tid=9
47 mysterious http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,4149,1118788,00.asp
48 fails to perform http://www.csoonline.com/read/080103/patch.html
49 Joe is using it wrongly or is just dumb. http://www.cantrip.org/nobugs.html
50 "Home Network Mini-HOWTO". http://www.tldp.org/HOWTO/mini/Home-Network-mini-HOWTO.html
51 patch for the kernel, http://lwn.net/2000/1123/a/Linus-HOWTO.php3
52 a cool new theme http://themes.freshmeat.net
53 assistance, http://www.desktoplinux.com/articles/AT8221013471.html
54 bug report, http://www.debian.org/contact
55 significant. http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/ar01s03.html
56 knowledge http://www.gutenberg.net/index.shtml
57 comparing http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20031022014413296
58 1999 http://www.redhat.com/mktg/rh10year/
59 Microsoft Windows http://www.baselinemag.com/article2/0,3959,833424,00.asp?kc=BAZD103019T1K0100547
60 tomorrow. http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~rja14/tcpa-faq.html
61 geeks http://www.cnn.com/TECH/computing/9903/16/super.idg/
62 Microsoft Windows is not kind http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/pulpit20031120.html
63 Linux doesn't require a degree in Computer Science http://www.linuxjournal.com/article.php?sid=6349
64 the ability to read C code. http://www.theinquirer.net/?article=6080
65 Windows won't let you choose http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,12379,00.html
66 allow some stranger from parts unknown to run programs http://www.trustworthycomputing.com
67 Linux runs gadgets http://linuxdevices.com
68 appliances http://www.linuxinsider.com/perl/story/32726.html
69 "user experience" http://www.wired.com/news/infostructure/0,1377,57467,00.html
70 wish they had not experienced. http://www.aaxnet.com/editor/edit033.html
71 almost anyone, http://www.governmentsecurity.org/archives/fulldisclosure/1664.html
72 Windows http://www.cknow.com/vtutor/vtnumber.htm
73 niche http://www.globalshareware.com/Games/Arcade/Arcade-36.htm
74 Joe Barr put it: http://www.newsforge.com/os/03/12/01/1230221.shtml
75 you shouldn't have to accept MS Windows pre-loaded on a new computer. http://www.linuxjournal.com/article.php?sid=6538
76 *is dying*. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slashdot_trolling_phenomena#*BSD_is_dying
77 Give today's Linux a test drive. http://www.detnews.com/2004/techcolumns/0401/21/techcol-41432.htm
78 Microsoft is trying it. http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/business/135375_linux18.html
79 deliberately misinforming, http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=2003101201033172
80 next generation, http://www.siliconvalley.com/mld/siliconvalley/business/columnists/gmsv/5041898.htm
81 educate. http://edge-op.org/grouch/schools.html
82 mc, http://www.ibiblio.org/mc/
83 Amaya, http://www.w3.org/Amaya/
84 Mozilla, http://mozilla.org