Linux

What IS Linux (and what it should be)?

16 Mag/10

I do a lot of writing about Linux – for Ghacks and for other sites. One of the issues I come across often is how Linux is perceived and what it needs to do to continue to grow. It’s a very complex issue based on a lot of pre-determined opinions and deeply embedded history. Often I reach out and try to bring to light issues that can serve to push Linux into new territory and light. It’s not often that I do so on this site, but sometimes I find it necessary to pull out my soap box and attempt to bring a little enlightenment to the masses.

In this article I thought it would be a good idea to discuss what Linux is and what is should be. This, of course, is based on many years of use and equally as many years as a member of the media, covering Linux and the open source community.

The societal history of Linux

Let’s face it…Linux has always been faced with a steep, uphill battle against a competition that has been deeply rooted and accepted in the court of public opinion. No matter how buggy and how prone to viruses and attacks the Windows operating system is, the public (en masse) uses Windows in one for or another. It’s familiar. It works. It’s everywhere. Linux, on the other hand, began by one person as a DIY (Do It Yourself) University project and blossomed into a communal phenomenon. But, for the most part, that DIY stigma never left the project. To this day I still hear people disclaim “Don’t you have to write your own drivers for that?” Maybe ten (or even 5)  years ago that was the case. But now not so much. Now, Linux just works. But the stigma is still there. Linux is still seen as best used in server rooms, rendering farms, clusters, and (now) clouds.

But there is a bigger issue at hand for Linux – than just the stigma of its past. With regards to society at large, on a grand-scheme scale, most people don’t even know what Linux is. So to the masses Linux would be completely foreign. And those are the people the Linux distributions should be focusing on.

There is an old saying “You’re preaching to the choir”. That saying goes a long way with regards to Linux and speaking to IT admins and tech-friendly audiences. It’s only when speaking to neophytes and the general public that the idea of Linux becomes unknown territory.

What Linux should be

Linux has reached a very important point in its history. Never before has this operating system been so user-friendly and ready for prime time. But it’s at this point that it has a built-in hurdle that constantly is tripping it up. That hurdle? Inability to market and focus on the new user. Although it would seem distributions like Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS, and Linux Mint are geared perfectly for the new user, they seem to falter when it comes to helping out new users. Let me give you a couple of examples.

The first example is the dreaded mailing list. Yes, I belong to many a mailing list. I read them frequently, post some times, and always find something new. But when a new user comes into the fold the first thing they read is an assault on their noob-ness and their inability to RTFM or bottom post. Suffice it to say, the mailing lists are NOT new-user friendly.

Another example is the welcome screen – or lack thereof. You know when you first install Windows you get that Welcome screen that gives you links to documents on what to do or where to go? Most people just uncheck the box that sets the Open at start option so they never have to see this again. That window is pretty crucial to new users. Linux needs this. I have sent out a call to Ubuntu to create something just like that. Even though it is a bother to many users, it is a necessity to others. And think about it – having that simple greeting with useful information would go very far in bringing new users into the fold.

Recently I read (and wrote about) the news that Songbird is no longer supported in Linux. This was a sad bit of news because Songbird was the closest thing to iTunes that Linux had. Why does that matter? Because to many users iTunes is synonymous to music player. For many users, having an iTunes clone is a critical piece of a very large puzzle. Familiarity breeds new users, and in the case of Linux that is the single biggest obstacle to adoption. Familiarity.

I’ve written a lot of praise lately on where GNOME is taking the desktop (see my article A sneak peak at GNOME 3) and as much as I like what the GNOME developers are doing, I wonder if it is the right move. Yes I already use GNOME shell. I like it. I think it is where the PC desktop should be heading. But most users are so familiar with that task bar/start button/notification area that change will not be welcome. Fortunately for those users there is KDE. Unfortunately for Linux, most new users wouldn’t know KDE if it slapped them in /dev/null.

Because of this, that welcome screen is going to be crucial. When a user first install (or boots up) a Linux machine, they should be greeted by a welcome window that allows them to do things like:

  • Choose the look/feel of their desktop.
  • Set their username/login info.
  • Set up their email account (make this optional of course).
  • Point them to documentation.

What about you?

You are a integral component in the success of the Linux operating system. You – the community. Unlike most other operating systems, you have a say. You could contact the developers of a Linux distribution and say I have an idea! and that idea could actually find its way into the next release.

So here’s your chance to chime in. What do you think Linux needs to do to bring in more new users? What would you say to a team of developers of a distribution?


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