Linux Ready for Prime Time?

Devin Carraway aqua at
Tue Jun 20 19:33:15 PDT 2000

On Tue, Jun 20, 2000 at 05:53:08PM -0700, Eric Skagerberg wrote:
> I got this call from a reporter at the Press Democrat, and he's doing a
> story about Linux.  He's going to call me back tomorrow (Wednesday), and he
> wants to know if I consider Linux ready for the average computer user.

	I have this sinking feeling you're dealing with the illustrious Bob
Norberg.  If so:  (1) he's easy to manipulate; once he trusts you, and he
trusts most any computer person with nice clothes who will actually talk to
him, he'll print must anything you say with a straight face.  (2) He's a lot
like other PD staffers in that he's credulous, but can only reliably be
expected to focus on the sensationalist, flashy pieces.  Logic and supporting
arguments don't work with him.  (3) He doesn't check his facts, except against
other things he already thinks he knows -- so to get him to believe something
that another person in a similar position has already told him, or he's
learned by skimming, you may need to preface statements with
"Despite what some have said..."

	Most PD "tech writers" think a demonstrative supporting photo is a
MacOS screenshot of a web brower, or an interview subject sitting in front of
a Mac.  So have some screenshots from ready to give him copies of.

	For the less propagandic stuff:

> The Linux GUI has improved enormously.  But fellow instructor Sean
> Kirkpatrick has always asked:  Would you turn Linux loose on your typical
> white-haired grandma?  Could she use it as easily as a Windows or Mac
> machine?  Or are we still a year or two away (or more)?

	I wouldn't put a grandmother in front of Windoze; I'd either give them
a Mac, or a forcibly simplified X GUI with only a few buttons.  The only real
edge left over us to the Win interface is that the GUI is more thorough, and
the help system is more frequently available, even if its content is
miserable.  IMO the main reason people regard Windoze as easy to use is that
it's what they were obliged to learn, and inertia plays a big role in people
who learn computers by memorization rather than intuition (the mac plays to
the latter, windows and for the moment Linux to the former).

	Linux' big edge in GUI is the level of customizability; we're not tied
to any GUI, so an OEM can make their own desktop to a particular need.  That
makes it good for appliances &c.  Recall that MSFT got slapped around for
forcing the OEMs to accept its own GUI, rather than putting simplified shells
on top of it for newbies, which several OEMs had already done. 

> Key usability issues for me:
> - Installing the OS

	As good or better than windoze for clean-machine installs.  Preset
installation options require about the same level of user involvement.

	Unfortunately, Linux is usually held up to a standard of installing on
machines that already have OSes, frequently taking up the entire disk.
Windoze and AFAIK MacOS can't cope with that situation except by blowing away
whatever's there.  Linux can deal with it, but it's going to require that you
know a bit about what you're doing.

> - Installing software

	Already much superior to Mac/Win in the technical sense on
package-managed systems.  In ease-of-use, comparable on recent distributions
that have properly connected the GUI's filemanager to gnorpm/kpackage/etc, and
arranged for authentication to be taken care of (RH6.1 and later do this that
I know of).  The usual stumbling point here is that of the multiuser
access-controlled environment, which is totally new to most.

	It's generally necessary to know what package to download; that's
similar to the distinctions between OS versions on other platforms, but
fractionally more complicated.

> - UNinstalling software

	Same story; a GUI package tool (gnorpm/kpackage, corel's package
manager, etc) can show you what's installed and let you remove it.  As you
gain skill you can start using rpm/dpkg dierctly.

> - Hardware compatibility (modems, for example)

	The two catchphrases here are "don't buy wierd proprietary hardare"
and "check the compatibility lists before you go shopping."  Most
bells/whistles don't work outside a single platform, but most things they do
can be done by some piece of well-supported hardware.

	Without going into the "it's not fair, we have to write every driver
ourselves while mickeysoft gets it done for them" complaining, support for
hardware you already have is good if it's been around a little while and is
properly documented by its makers.  If not, not.  The bleeding edge isn't
usually supported because manufacturers usually (exception: 3dfx) don't
write drivers themselves, and it takes time either to cajole them into
releasing adequate specifications or to reverse-engineer the hardware.
A large body of standard commodity hardware works, the stuff that needs to be
reverse engineered usually won't unless it's especially cool.  Server-market
hardware manufacturers often provide specs, engineering samples, code or
sponsorship to get good drivers written for their hardware; sofar only a few
video and sound card manfuactuers have done so for the desktop market.

	The time 2.4 has spent in development has held up USB a fair bit; I
haven't done much with USB yet to know how well it works.  Many standard USB
devices -- serial units, modems, mice, keyboards, etc. work, the latest
taiwanese plastic multimedia whirlygig doesn't.  Firewire and I2O are in.

UI: ideal for customized or appliance implementations, thoroughly
customizable.  The novice-level desktop is Linux' weakest area, and the one
we're least favored to conquer.  This area is improving, though, and unlike
existing platforms we don't have years of legacy to hold us back (hence the
introduction of CORBA as a desktop interoperation mechanism).
Installation/administration: Recent stuff is pretty good, older stuff is
harder.  This is an area the distribution vendors are putting a lot of energy
Hardware: It pays to buy proper standard hardware.  Fancy multimedia gadgets
tend not to work unless they're good enough that someone takes an interest and
writes a driver.

The good points to mention:

Customizability is quite good.  You can make a Linux GUI look like all sorts
of things to find what suits you, and control the feel of the interface at a
fairly minute level.  Neither windoze nor macos can match that aspect, and
neither (through brand-recognition and consistency issues0 has made much of an

A real UNIX kernel is a good basis on which to build a GUI -- you can point at
MacOSX for that.

Linux will probably take hold of the office desktop before the home desktop;
office users are slightly more skilled, but offices often have system managers
of various sorts who make purchasing decisions about machines, and like
maintainability.  The bit about it being really cheap helps a lot here.  There
are enough office-software packages around now to do the productivity work
(wordperfect, staroffice, applixware and the upcoming OSS packages), and Linux
can integrate into a mixed mac/win/netware/unix network much better than the

Synopsis: Linux is excellent on the desktop for people who have a good grasp
of computers.  It's good for the office.  It already has the initiative in
servers.  It's not yet the right desktop OS for total novices unless they're
willing to learn from the commandline up, which most newcomers these days
don't seem to be.  It's improving in all these areas rapidly, but outside of
appliances, the novice desktop will be the last place it conquers.  :)

Devin  \ aqua(at), 1024D/E9ABFCD2;
Carraway \ IRC: Requiem  GCS/CC/L s-:--- !a !tv C++++$ ULB+++$ O+@ P L+++

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