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Linux and Newbies: Some Cold, Hard Reality

Date/Time Permalink: 12/09/06 09:10:58 pm
Category: General

This forum example (link here) is one I'm using not to poke any fun at the people involved or say anybody is incompetent, but simply because it illustrates such a profound point. I stumbled upon it whilst Googling to find out the same thing: how to play movies in Microsoft's WMV format on Linux. It worked, by the way.

This is a classic case of newbie frustration. To quote:

arggghhh I swear as much as I like ubuntu/linux, I am sick of dealing with all the issues. No one has anything for a beginner. I dont’ even know how to create a new folder above my home directory, and I’m already on my 50th google just to watch one stupid wmv video.
Also is the Mplayer kaffiene? or do I download Mplayer from somewhere else? I’m trying to watch a video for my homework here.
If linux wants to make it mainstream, the support has got to get better people. Put in all the steps. Sorry for venting, but it’s tough being a “newbie.”

My point is going to be (a) the typical reaction of Linux apologists to this is WRONG, and (b) my own unconventional means of addressing this issue.

The Linux apologists are the ones pushing to throw away everything that makes Linux Linux in the feverish hopes that Linux will replace Microsoft and get the world market. Doubtless, I could circulate this to ten random technology blogs and in the morning there will be ten new "Linux will never make it on the desktop" editorials. The suggestions will run the gamut from how Linux "elitists" drive newbies away, through to suggestions that we throw away the folder hierarchy system, and there will be plenty of bashing of Linux's user interface along the way. You could set your watch to it.

Here's how I would react to a newbie who said this to me: I would first ask, "What are you doing using a computer?" Seriously, without sarcasm. If all you're doing is watching media files, there's TiVo, WebTV, cell phones, and gaming consoles both monolithic and portable. I don't know where this idea that computers should be movie players came from; it is the equivalent of using an atom smasher to peel your banana. Computers want to compile code or at the very least edit video, not be turned into TV sets.

But, assuming that the user has other purposes which justify the expense and trouble of owning a computer, my next question would be "How is this Linux's fault?" Microsoft goes to great pains to rig the market against Linux. Every time we're able to access a Microsoft document, format, or codec, it has been a game of guessing and hacking, most likely with Microsoft lawyers biting our hind ends at every single step. When we use our own (and the public's) non-proprietary formats, we never have this problem. Even to run on the hardware is sometimes a struggle, since hardware manufacturers frequently deny Linux programmers the specs on their equipment, and have even sued to cease and desist when we cracked their hardware to run Linux on it even after we've paid our money for that hardware.

Next I would ask, "How did you ever handle Windows?" Again, no sarcasm, I'm seriously wondering. See, if a simple thing like a folder has you stumped, and folders have been a computer metaphor for file organization since at the very least the mid-1980's, and even Windows has folders galore, then how have you even gotten this far? To say nothing of accessing Windows' "hidden" and "archive" files and folders. Let's not even pretend that this is a Linux issue. You are doing the equivalent of standing outside the new car you've just bought and asking "How do I get in?" And the Linux apologists are doing the equivalent of saying "Right, we'll remove the doors from all cars from now on, so it's not so confusing for the new user!"

By now, by way of doing all that I honestly can to sincerely help a new user, I've established myself as the World's Most Evil Person by the standards of the Linux apologists. I'm now going to seal my fate as the Person Most Likely To Be Lynched By An Angry Mob Waving Pitchforks And Torches. I'm going to tell the new user to RTFM (Read The [Fine/Fun/F***ing] Manual). Not just man pages or info files or the Linux documentation project: no, the user should step AWAY from the computer, keep moving away until they reach a bookstore, and then go in, climb the nearest shelf until they have the attention of the staff, and then scream, "Where can I buy a Linux manual!?!?!"

The user indicates that they're on their 50th Google. Well, even a million Googles wouldn't answer one chapter's worth of questions to be found in such fine works as "Linux for Dummies", "A Practical Guide to Linux", "Beginning Ubuntu Linux: From Novice to Professional", and hundreds more. Go to and search for "Linux". Any book with "Linux" on the cover plus any one of "non-geek", "dummy", "idiot", "beginner", "basic", or "easy" will get you miles farther than all the Googles and forum posts and chat conversations in the world.

Don't tell me that newbies can't read manuals. The average beginner Linux manuscript might run 100,000 words tops. In a lifetime of reading chat room replies, message board posts, forum tutorials, and scanning Google search hits, you might read several million words and not know as much as you could from just one single book. Books are how I got where I am. Books are how many geeks got to be geeks.

Public libraries also have a stock of accumulated computer books, and quite a lot of them are about Linux as well. In fact, that's how I tried my first Linux: I found a copy of the Red Hat bible (version 5.0? if memory serves) with disks in the back, checked it out, and went home and installed it... by myself, following the directions in the book, with no further help. Best expenditure of my tax dollars I ever saw.

Finally, for the people who say that it's the interface's fault: go away. Seriously, if you can read and comprehend this far and still say that an easier interface is the answer, then just leave technology and never come back. At least the newbie has potential to be saved; but an information architect is not worth the waste of electrons to flame them. Computers are difficult because they are powerful. We have enough trouble without the desktop Fung-Shui consultants obfuscating the issue. Go complain about the interface to advanced calculus or organic chemistry for a change. Computers are subject to the same laws of physics as the rest of the universe. Rethinking the interface isn't the key to newbie adoption any more than finding the right pattern of diamonds and magnets is the key to turning lead into gold. But it took humans centuries to quit trying the latter, and that will probably be true for the former.

What are my motives in saying this? Am I a stingy Scrooge who is keeping Linux to myself? Am I an elitist egghead who disdains anybody who isn't as smart about Linux as I am? No, I'm actually helping the newbie. As opposed to the Linux apologists who say it's all Linux's fault, it's Linux expert's fault, blah blah blah. The key cliche here is "killing with kindness". We can keep trying to baby new users because we're just so amazed that anybody would want to use our sophisticated system, or we can quit bullshitting around and actually, really, truly help them adopt Linux. But go ahead for a while longer and try it the New Age Way and type in each step for the hundredth time "This is the mouse. Move it until the pointer on screen is where you want to be. Now click..." for everybody who asks a question. Eventually, the new users' patience is exhausted, and they go back to Windows as one more disgruntled user harping about how Linux will never make it on the desktop. But show me one case where somebody actually LEARNED Linux, and then quit using it.

And that's how it sounds from somebody who knows what they're talking about for a change.

UPDATE: Thank you all for the fascinating response. I see we have many ways to view this issue.

For clarity's sake, I do not regard anybody as an idiot, regardless of how well (or not so much) they know computers. In the case of Windows users migrating to Linux, however, I have had the idea that Microsoft imposes a prisoner mentality. In short, the answer to our problems adapting people and technology to each other may require some deep study into human nature as well as computer science.

UPDATE2: Ho hum. I've nattered about this before elsewhere, but this looks like another good place to post a link to the new "Windows Power Shell", touted as "easy to adopt, learn, and use", whose documentation is to be had here.

It's related to its Longhorn/Monad line. For servers, or, in other words, what half of the Linux distros do out-of-the-box for free.

I had a dance through the docs, and sure enough, there's command lines and option switches and a text prompt just like Unix has had since forever. It has some C# syntax, it's commands are extensible (similar to Linux piping and redirecting, I gather?), and it bluntly declares that Unix commands are usable in it as well. Here, let me give you a sample paragraph from the docs:

Commands that take parameters have irregular parameter specifications. You cannot use the net start command to start a service on a remote computer. The sc command will start a service on a remote computer, but to specify the remote computer, you must prefix its name with a double backslash. For example, to start the spooler service on a remote computer named DC01, you would type sc \\DC01 start spooler. To list tasks running on DC01, you need to use the /S (for "system") parameter and supply the name DC01 without backslashes, like this: tasklist /S DC01.

And, by golly, there's even books for sale at Amazon about it, too!

Now, then, for those of you flaming me for being elitist, care to explain to me again how when Linux does it, it's evil but when Microsoft does it, it's "easy to adopt, learn, and use"... and worth money as a shrink-wrapped product?

"User-friendly" my stank, webbed foot!

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