Linux for the masses? No thanks.

I just finished reading The Great Ubuntu-Girlfriend Experiment, a well-written log about the problems the author’s girlfriend had when first sitting down at Linux (Ubuntu, in particular). The author makes several suggestions for how usability could be improved to help the uninitiated get acclimated to Linux.

There’s a lot of talk about whether or not Linux is or will ever be “consumer grade.” I think it’s an interesting question, but for some very nonstandard reasons: rather than making Linux more like Windows in the hope of achieving some sort of ubiquity, I’d rather that we make users generally more computer-savvy in the hope of having competent users. I think the standard for “knows how to use a computer” has been set too low.

Thing is, a big draw for me to Linux is that it doesn’t bother me with “welcome here’s a tutorial!” screens. Please don’t take that away!

Leave a comment


  1. Richard Chapman

     /  28 April, 2008

    I read that blog too. I think he did a good job and deserves all the hits he’s getting. I see now a great misconception with all of this ready for the masses crap. After going through this process with his girlfriend he states “Linux won’t truly be ready for the desktop until someone computer illiterate can sit down at a the computer and with little effort do what they want to do.”

    The implication is that someone must be more computer literate than his girlfriend to be able to get up to speed with Linux. What does he mean by computer literate? Based on his experiment and many experiences I’ve read, the more you understand Windows, the less you’ll understand Linux. Think about it. If someone had never sat down in front of a computer in their lives, would it make any difference what they learned first? I’ve read accounts of people who have never used Windows, only Linux. You know what? Windows fails miserably as a desktop for normal users according to their trials. This is not a test of Linux usability. This is a test of how difficult it is for someone who has a Windows-only experience to use Linux.

    Linux has only one problem, it wasn’t preinstalled on every first-timer’s computer.

  2. michal

     /  6 May, 2008

    i disagree ..of cause there are some disadvantages in ubuntu distribution, as too many software preinstaled and too many settings are hidden to user, ubuntu-desktop package is hell … BUT you should everything setup by your own, like in other “no-mass” distributions ..nothing is really hidden, like in windows, so whats the problem? …i dont thing canonical is trying to make linux look more like widnows, but they are trying to make linux more friendly for people, who dont have time to search, compile and configure drivers for every single piece of hardware in their pc

  3. I think there’s a happy middle ground when it comes to user-friendliness. One problem with the discussion is that we often confuse user-friendliness with usability. Certainly the two are connected, although they are not the same. On one end of the extreme, poor-user-friendliness prevents a system from being usable by making it too unapproachable; at the other end, too much user-friendliness can suffocate a system.

    Naturally, the balance depends on who is doing the judging. I tend to think that the user-friendliness bar “for the masses” is set too close to the suffocation side of things.

  4. I know this is an old post, but there’s a few things I wanted to point out about the whole “Windows -> Linux” migration thing:

    1. Windows assumes a passive audience. It’s made to be easy to use, easy to administer (this is the most infuriating part of being a sysadmin who has to administer Windows systems: there’s a lot of safety brakes in even sysadmin tools), and is an easy platform for consumption. *nix systems are the exact opposite: they were born and raised from an academic community, and assume that the audience is intelligent. It’s only hard because you have to be thoughtful before committing any actions in the system.

    2. Good riddance to the educational system when it comes to computing. It breeds us to passively use computers for consumption (think back to all of those classes where we were trained to use Word and Excel rather than learning principles that allow us to be creative with whatever program we choose to use.)

    3. Mac OS X is probably the closest to a user-friendly experience without necessarily suffocating the power user. It’s even easier than Windows in many cases, but I can still open up a terminal and expect a bash prompt in a POSIX compliant system. In fact, I use my Mac system as a secondary sysadmin machine (my primary sysadmin machine is usually some sort of Linux distribution, like Ubuntu or Debian.)

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