Monday, March 4, 2013

It's a lot harder than it sounds.....

By +Ken Starks

Being a Linux Advocate that is.  It's harder than it sounds.

I'll eventually get around to making my point, so hang on.

Back in 2004 - 2006, I was heavily involved in a particular Linux distro.  While I was less a technical advisor than a social one, I still had an important part to play.  My unofficial task was to bring more new users to Linux, and specifically to this distro.

I also spent an inordinate amount of time in the various forums, helping out when I could or pointing people to the resources that could help in the event I could not.

I don't know when it finally struck a nerve...Heaven knows I had seen it enough over the past couple of years, but on this occasion, it rang sour enough for me to respond to it.

"If I don't get some help for this problem, I'm just going to go back to Windows."

And every time I would see such a tossed-gauntlet, there would be a stream of apologetic forum members, chiming in their advise for the particular problem at hand, hoping someone would solve it so there was one less Windows user in the world.

One that last day...on the day that this type of posting produced a personal pain-point, I responded with an answer of my own:

"I have a copy of the Haxord WyndoZ DiSk if you like.  Let me know if you want the link to download it.".

I would then offer the link to astalavista dot box dot sk, in hope that they were running windows when they clicked it.  There are so many java exploits on that page, I have given them all names.

To which was replied...?

Crickets chirping.... deafening silence.

I even received a "warning" from the forum moderator, that my responses should be more "helpful".

You know what?  Screw helpful.

I'll bend over backwards to help anyone who wants it, but I will not tolerate some snot-nosed kid attempting to use our own collective insecurities against us.

So no...maybe my talents can be better harvested outside of user forums.  The older I get, the less I  am willing to suffer fools.

But we, while not reaching that level of arrogance, have made mistakes of our own.  All of them innocent enough...sure, but mistakes none the less.  And if our goal is to bring new users to the Linux Desktop, then there are a couple of practices we need to stop.  Here's one of them:

Handing out Live Linux CD's without a means of support.

The Live CD - Beware.

I did this for years...flippantly handing someone a Live Linux CD and walking away, thinking I had contributed my share to saving the world.

Uh, no I didn't.  On a chance encounter with someone to which I had given a Live CD, I got this feedback:

"I put the disk in, I clicked on every icon in the box and it didn't do anything.  I guess the disk was bad."

Despite the fact that I had given the person explicit instructions on how to boot to a live CD environment, he still placed the CD into the CD ROM drawer while in Windows and awaited for auto run to produce the expected icons in the file manager.

I told him to try it again and if it gave him trouble, he could call me and I would walk him through it.

To my surprise, he did call.

"OK, I did what you said but nothing happened, it just went into Windows like it normally does."

I mentally gave myself a Gibbs-to-Dinozzo slap to the back of the head and corrected myself.

"Oh wait...I know what I missed.  Reboot the computer and when you see the first black screen with white writing on it, push the F12 button a few times and it will give you the option of which device in which to boot."

"The what key?"

"The F12 key.  It's on the very top row of keys on your keyboard, right next to the print screen key."

"Ok, I'm pressing it but nothing is happening."

"Did you reboot the computer and press it while the white letters are appearing?"

"Uh, no.  Do I have to do that?  Never mind...this is just way too much trouble."

With that he hung up the phone and I set a new rule for myself.  From here on in, I would start "qualifying" people as candidates for Linux use.

*  If they described their browser as FoxFire, they were not a candidate.

*  If they could not distinguish between memory and hard drive space, they were not a candidate.

*  If they did not know how to shrink or close a browser and open it again, they were not a candidate.

*  If the difference between left and right mouse clicks mystified them, they were not a candidate.

*  If they actually wanted all 11 toolbars on their Explorer browser....

Well, you get the idea.

The plain truth of the matter is's not everyone that can run Linux.  If you give the disk to someone that doesn't know the difference between an operating system vs a browser, you are going to single-handedly increase the stock price of antacids by 50%.

As elitist as it sounds, most everyday computer users are not computer users at all...they are task-set mouse clickers.  They can do two or three things on their computers...probably taught to them by their kids or learned at work, but outside of that, the box at their feet is filled with Voodoo and Majik.

So, these days, I am much more careful about who I introduce to Linux.  To my experience?  Kids are the easiest.  They pick it up in a matter of 30 minutes and they just want you to go away and leave them the hell alone.  But adults?

Chances are, if you run across someone who is serious about their computer, they have already discovered or at least heard about Linux.

Those are the people we should target.  My liver cannot take much more abuse...self-imposed abuse from people who want me to help them install FoxFire.

-- Ken Starks

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  1. Absolutely outstanding article. My favorite line, and one that I agree with completely, is: "Kids are the easiest. They pick it up in a matter of 30 minutes and they just want you to go away and leave them the hell alone".

    If the rest of the Linux community could get behind this idea we would all have a much easier time gaining a user-base.

  2. I do believe you hit the nail on the head. I, too, am rapidly getting tired of fools who can't appreciate what an incredible OS Linux is and the justifiable reasons why I use and advocate it. Also I always (hope I...) make it clear that when I advocate Linux, that comes with any reasonable support required when it comes to the trying it out stage. Just ask me and I will help! I think a lot of other Linux advocates would be just the same.

  3. I live in an area where there are a lot of seniors. I do tech support for the neighborhood for free (and many others in the area offer other services). When they have problem with their computers I will suggest Linux if I think it is a good fit for their needs. And for their needs, mostly web surfing and email, it is. So now a good percentage of my block is running Linux. For the most part I am the one who installed it, but some of the seniors who watched me do so did it for others. So my neighborhood now has about as many Linux users as Windows users (and also quite a few Mac users).

    Most of these people have no idea what the difference is between hard drive space and memory. Most do not know a browser from an OS. Most of these people use their computers as tools and know almost nothing of the tool itself. And yet Linux works well for them. Some do move away from it as they get new computers - but it gives them an option and they tell others about it.

    The fact some move away from it or opt for something else is fine in my book - I am a strong believer that people should exercise choice and freedom and use what they think will work best for them. Letting them know about alternatives to Windows allows them to make better informed choices. This is really what I want to see - not for any one OS or distro to take over, but for people to be able to make choice based on greater information. Especially when you are talking about largely low income seniors using older computers, though, Linux is an excellent choice and one they should know about. So in my neighborhood they do. :)

    I also work at schools and hand out LiveCDs... but I also make myself available to help when needed. I even have printed up instructions on how to boot from the media, but given how not all computers handle this the same way it still means the user has to look and read. Gasp! :)

  4. Ken Starks wrote, "it's not everyone that can run Linux. If you give the disk to someone that doesn't know the difference between an operating system vs a browser, you are going to single-handedly increase the stock price of antacids by 50%."

    I have yet to meet someone who cannot run GNU/Linux. I have seen some very peculiar people but even those who are challenged mightily with that other OS can indeed run GNU/Linux, perhaps with no more skill, but they can run it. Installing is a whole different matter. Running a live CD of GNU/Linux has some similarities to installation, like choosing a boot medium. There might be a larger subset of humanity that can run a live CD than can do an installation of GNU/Linux but that's why geeks like us exist. It's division of labour. When a geek has 47 ways of installing GNU/Linux and can combine them as needed, the novice will not have a clue about anything. I remember my first time. I didn't know the difference between copying a file to a CD and burning a CD from an image... So that first installation took hours to get off the ground but now I am a GNU/Linux geek and can do it in minutes several ways. I even have a TFTP server on my LAN just waiting for the call to load the Debian installer over the network.

    So, keep on distributing the live CDs but invite yourself over for dinner at the same time. If the live CD pleases the consumers in the home, you could likely set the installation to run over dinner and you could be there to iron out any quirks or push "enter" as necessary.

    I have given up on live CDs, personally. I have retired and so have less access to humans and these days many PCs have no CD drive. USB works on many and most can boot PXE. One option that is appealing with the prevalence of mobile PCs is to bring your LAN and TFTP server to the home or to have the mobile PC come to your place. Then there is the virtual machine which a user of that other OS can install just like normal applications. The mind boggles at the possibilities.

    Don't discriminate against the high-maintenance user. I have a 3 year old grandchild who does quite well. She uses an Android smartphone, a notebook and a netbook as well as our VCR... Believe me, a toddler is in the high-maintenance class, but they are still worthwhile investments.

  5. Next time someone who uses Window$ OS argue about Gnu/Linux vs Proprietary OS (also Facebook vs Google +) I can ask some introductory question like basic stuffs you mentioned above, if they are willing to do so I can argue with them, unless waste of time!

  6. I sympathize with you. I really do. I've had the same type of experience trying to introduce some people to VoIP. People who could save a ton of money and not have to worry about getting charged for each long distance call they make, but they won't even consider using anything other than the traditional phone company.

    BUT… I will also say that even though I have years of experience with Linux, things are never as easy as they were with Windows. Sure, you learn how to do all the common tasks pretty easily, but when you can't quite figure out how to do something and you don't have a Linux guru around (or you have totally exhausted their patience with your 999 previous dumb questions) then you wind up turning to the online support forums and that is where the difference between Windows and Linux users becomes painfully apparent.

    GENERALLY speaking, in Windows forums there is no such thing as a dumb question. You can ask how to do something that's been explained a thousand times before and yet it's likely someone will give you the answer, or at least the short version thereof. However, in many Linux forums, it is the exact opposite. Someone will take a paragraph bawling you out for asking a question when they could have given you the answer in one sentence. You will be chastised for having not read the fine manual, even if you didn't know one existed. You will be told you should have effing Googled it, even if you did and got nowhere because you had no idea what search terms to use, or more rarely, because every search result is someone else asking the same question you're asking. You will be referred to 150 page long discussion thread and told that the answer is in there, if you will just read it from the start (seriously, this has happend to me, and the answer was nowhere near the start).

    And now Canonical has gone and screwed up Ubuntu Linux, and meanwhile all my Windows-using friends are telling me how great the newer versions of Windows are (some like Windows 7 and some Windows 8 - I think I'd really hate Windows 8. but maybe that's just me). As long as I have stuck with it (close to a decade now) I still have increasing difficulty coming up with any good reason, other than the price, why I still stick with it. I probably will, but next time I reinstall it will definitely NOT be Ubuntu - right now Linux Mint looks good, but we'll see when the time comes.

    I just wish that it wasn't so difficult to find out how to do things. For example, the other day I was trying to find out if there was some relatively easy way, or at least something with easy to understand instructions, that would let me proxy ALL of the Internet traffic on a particular Ubuntu box through a SOCKS 5 proxy (not just browser traffic, but also traffic from all the the software on the system). Might as well have been searching for the holy grail. tsocks didn't cut it; it worked for Firefox but little else, and Firefox already has SOCKS proxy capability built in. I don't know but I'll bet that in Windows I could have found a way to do this in 15 minutes or less, and it would have been pretty much an install, fill in a few textboxes and go solution. But one thing I did not do was ask for any help in an online forum, because I'm sick of being bawled out, and I wouldn't even know what form to ask such a question in.

  7. What is easy and what is hard? Because I disagree that things are easier in Windows. Every time I have to attempt something on my wife's computer I want to start punching the monitor repeatedly. Try burning an iso to USB from Windows. Try ripping your newest DVD. Try getting Firefox or Chrome (or Chromium) to perform well. The fact is, what is easy and what is hard is highly subjective to personal knowledge. Linux has countless tools to do countless activities. There in lies the issue. It's figuring out exactly what you want to do.

    Windows was written with the extraction of wealth from the user in mind. Gnu/Linux was written by ‘geeks' to control your computer however you want to. It is philosophically summer and winter. If Arch, Gentoo, or Slackware Linux were used in schools to teach computers to children, with in a few years Windows would be crippled because everything in windows is so hard and everything in Linux is so easy (I specifically called out those distros because they would teach users the Linux way of doing things. Ubuntu.. Does not.

    Same goes with BSD though. If it became the school room standard then Linux would be unscathed and Windows would be hurt still.

  8. Ah, it's the users' fault again. One of the many prototypical excuses Linux advocates like to make. That way their precious OS is exempted from fault. Chuckle.

    But what really takes cake in this think piece is the "booting from CD" story. It couldn't be farther from the truth. Age-old computers have the BIOS already set up in such a way that it is attempted to boot from CD-ROM first. It wouldn't make sense otherwise. Why? Because of OEMs' use of recovery media for Windows.