Is Linux ready for “the masses”? Nope.

There’s an interesting, albeit very (very) long article written by Rip Linton entitled Linux Not Ready for the Masses? Bull that, rather inadvertently, does a great job of demonstrating one of the main reasons that Linux is not, in fact, ready for the masses: Rip makes an impassioned intellectual argument for the positive value of change but in this instance completely misses that perception is more important than reality.
His arguments are based primarily on his own experience in the computer industry, years of learning how to wrestle with and overcome the challenges of new and different technology. Interesting reading, particularly since I too have been involved with the Unix community for decades.
There are a few key points he makes that I want to address:
“Most users love to learn new things and really like it if they are one of the first in their group to learn something”
In my experience that’s not true. In fact, most people – particularly in a corporate environment – are interested in getting their job done and getting out of there, not learning new tools and techniques. That’s why there’s still such an installed base of Windows 95 and Windows 98, along with MacOS 9 (yes, I hear from users of all these systems).
This is a key point, because just about every Unix / Linux / GNU person I’ve bumped into during the 25 years (jeez!) I’ve been associated with that community has a high level of intellectual curiosity about the tools they use for their work. They like getting incremental updates, they like playing with new tools, they’re curious. That’s great, but it’s not the way most people work and it’s a mistake to assume that it is.
“Training and perception are the keys to successful change”
Agreed, but this assumes that people want to be trained and that the benefit to the business – and the individuals – after the training is sufficiently high that they’ll accept being trained in the first place. Worse, most corporate trainers are terrible teachers, boring and fairly unforgiving of those who aren’t immediately grasping the new concepts or tools.
Nonetheless, my main point is that, yes, perception is key to successful change. And since the perception of Linux is that it’s far more geeky and difficult to work with than Windows, this needs to be addressed directly in the marketplace too.
And, to be honest, it is harder to work with Linux than Windows or Mac OS X because you can’t go to Kinko’s and buy an app for your Linux box, you can’t just plug in a printer and get it to work, and you can’t get your friend to pop over and help you fix things. No perception involved, this is just the reality of working with an unpopular system in the marketplace.
“The person installing and training on new systems and software must know it so well that they make it look easy”
That’s a good point, but it’s extraordinarily difficult to pull off. If nothing else, there’s the whole “demo syndrome” where things inevitably fail when you try to show others how to use them. You see that again and again at trade shows, for example.
“If there are problems, they should be resolved without making it look like it is difficult to overcome issues.”
This is good in the sense that it recognizes that perceptions are critically important, but on the other hand, so many things associated with Windows are mind-numbingly complicated (and some times well nigh impossible to fix) and yet… somehow that doesn’t seem to slow down the adoption of Windows in the corporate environment or at home, for that matter.
Finally, my main disagreement with Rip is that people don’t embrace change, they run away from it screaming. There’s a cliché that addresses this too: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
Windows, particularly Windows Vista, is basically broken, but it’s not so broken that people are eager to fix it by going into a completely different world, an alien world of geeks and hourly system patches called Linux.
Is Linux ready for prime time? No, it still isn’t. After decades of development and effort by the folks that enjoy new tools, gizmos, and poking around with things on a daily basis.
But maybe you disagree? Share your thoughts, let’s talk about it!

8 comments on “Is Linux ready for “the masses”? Nope.

  1. I am a total Linux advocate. I use an Ubuntu desktop everyday but I have to say that I agree. Linux isn’t boxed for the mainstream. Hardware support isn’t that great especially for laptop power management and WiFi.
    Though when I think the gaps closing. I think that someone who needs a general productivity desktop PC with Office apps and email can have a perfectly fine experience using Linux though.
    I do think that Windows is seriously flawed and truth be told, I run Mac OS X on my primary laptop. Then again I am totally not the mainstream having a secondary and a primary.
    I do think that the innovation in desktop computing will likely come from Linux and Mac OS X and be mimicked some day in Windows and that’s not a bad deal for end-users.

  2. Right on the money, Dave. I’m a big fan of Linux since the *very* early days (doing the math – has it been that long???) but even the most simplified environment still has a steep learning curve.
    Haven’t we already seen attempts by vendors to package Linux with hardware, at rock bottom prices? People still buy Windows, or a Mac if they’re a bit smarter. 😀
    I don’t know how “broken” Windows is to the average user. I use it fairly often (admittedly never downgraded from XP to Vista) and everything works, it doesn’t crash all the time, etc.

  3. I agree with you. I have used Linux for years, and even though things are a lot simpler, I still wouldn’t recommend it for your average user. Most people don’t want to update cryptic text files to get drivers to work or worry about dependencies when installing new software. Do we really expect a windows user to mess with makefiles and compile his own software?
    As I said, things are a lot better today – you can install Firefox easy and OpenOffice comes with most distros.. but we’re still not there yet.

  4. I agree with you, too, Dave. I handle small business, mostly retail and bar/restaurant POS and ecommerce. These users are not going to Linux any time soon, even if all the ecommerce packages we use are on Linux servers. As you said, they just want to get the job done and go home. Office, Quickbooks, and the Point-of-Sales. The only up-side here is that I have managed to work out the 95/98/ME for 2000 and XP.

  5. I don’t see what’s so hard about Linux distro makers getting “normal users” into usability tests and thus seeing how far they really have to go to get things dumbed down to the right level.

  6. Users are interested in getting their job done … that is true! I’m a Unix/Linux admin in the corporate world, and for most users, Linux remains a system designed for geeks by geeks, and they’re right.

  7. Funny, But I currently deploying Linux in a very large corporate environment. Having fought with and winning most of the battles against the Redmond neigh-sayers I can tell you that this fallacy above is silly. End-users in the Corp environment can double click a Linux icon as easily as a Windows icon. Your arguments are tired and old. I will have to say that you are correct that I usually cannot run to office max and buy an application for my linux desktop, and why do I need to? It has everything that I need already, and that of most of my corporate users. I can plug in FAR more cameras, printers, usb-devices, etc than you can in your Broken Windows. Without needing to get drivers… This is a garbage article, those of us that know Windows and Linux already know why we are switching from Vista Vaporware. There is far more training for Linux freely available than there is paid for MS. You sir are a Shill, and you seem very happy to make that fact plainly clear. I have been dealing with Windows, Unix, Frame, and Linux since the early 90’s. Your argument is dated.

  8. And your argument is just as dated as the early 90’s too, Steve. The only valid argument you have is that it’s just as easy to double-click an icon in Linux. Your argument about being able to plug in far more devices shows how truly ignorant you are of Windows. Please show me a Linux distro that will automatically install my five-year-old HP PSC 1110, as well as my EVGA GeForce 8800 GTS graphics card, without me having to do ANYTHING at all. In “broken” Windows Vista.
    You cannot.
    You’re deploying Linux in “a very large corporate environment”. That isn’t necessarily representative of “the masses”. If your Linux was ready for the masses, it would install printers and graphics cards automatically for me, and set optimal resolution, like Windows Vista did.
    The vast majority of Linux apps are far less intuitive than Windows apps. The latest is less user-friendly than Microsoft Office 2007. GIMP is ridiculously clunky and unintuitive compared to Photoshop.
    Linux may be corporate-ready. But it is FAR from ready for the masses. By the way, you said you are “currently deploying” Linux. By now I assume you have enough user feedback? Why don’t you let us know what all the users think about Linux? 🙂

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