Users should be computer-friendly, instead of computers being user-friendly!

Microsoft Prisoner Mentality part 2 - a case study

Date/Time Permalink: 07/31/06 06:57:50 pm
Category: General

First off thank you all for feedbacks to my last post asking if MPM (Microsoft Prisoner Mentality) is in fact a valid psychological effect. Quite a few agreed. However, a lengthy comment on it was *such* rich ground to cover, that it makes a great case study for just WHAT it is that Microsoft does to you! The poster identifying him(her?)self as 'PetMark' gets selected for that honor. Let's take a look at just how hard it is to leave the 'system' and rejoin society, with excerpts of PetMark's in blockquotes:

MS user: What distro should I choose?
My Question: What distro will work?
The problem is not too many choices, but how to narrow it down to a decision of just one. Give me 372 choices. If I know which one I want, I'll choose it. If not, ask me questions to help me narrow down to find the one that I want.

Now, in a free society, we see that we can go into a store and find about 372 or so different brands, flavors, and sizes of toothpaste. It naturally occurs to us to read the label, to shop around, to try a small size of one brand and another until we find one we like, to compare tartar control to baking soda to minty flavors to swirly colors. Damned if *I* know which one's the best, in fact we switch around a lot. But somehow we bring a tube of toothpaste home. This is because we have not had our sense of choice dulled in this area.

In answer to PetMark, for a bare-bones system, darn near any of the top ten distros will be as good as any other. You are given a choice what to install when the system is going in. Don't worry, it won't ask you on a program-by-program basis, but will usually give you options like (basic, office, workstation, server), with some optional categories (games, development) and if you just feel you have to micro-manage you can open the dialog and fiddle with individual packages - not recommended for the beginning user. There are also distros which do a "five-minute-install" that are very basic: Damn Small Linux, Puppy Linux, and Ubuntu to wit. Knoppix if you want a whole smorgasbord installed at once. But honestly, I could no more help you pick a distro than I could help you pick a mate. It's based on your personal needs.

Of course, we have a way to manage this madness (even experienced Linux users sometimes seek advice of their peers before switching distros): live CDs! If you have a CD burner (and they're cheap, like $20-40 will do just fine), then for the cost of a CD (they go $20 for a pack of 50 up my way), you can download any live distro, burn it, boot it, try it, and if not satisfied, chuck it with no consequences. Seriously, do that with ten CDs in ten days, and you'll pick up Linux in no time. You'll get a feel for what's common to all distros and what the difference in various ones are. At least you headed to the right place! distrowatch.com is fantastic for giving information on a distro, and you can follow the "lineage" of distros (for instance, Debian has spawned Knoppix, Damn Small, and Ubuntu) so when you run one, you can then ask how is distro X different from distro Y and at least cut the answer down to something you can identify with.

Windows gives you a foundation. You then customize it. You can choose to change theme, background, use single or double click. With additional apps you have multiple desktops, and even use a different shell.

Um, these... are choices like "do you want one salt packet on your cracker or two?" Linux is everything you mention plus a whole universe beyond that. Mind you, I'm not saying you have to use Free and Open Source! Nobody's putting a gun to your head. It's why I advocate live CDs. You can boot the live CD and run it, then reboot and take the CD out and Windows will come back up like nothing happened. No pressure. Keep dual booting for a week, a month, however long you need. Gradually learn Linux a piece at a time, without having the panic of being committed to it right away. And don't forget BSD, Open Solaris, and others out there; these are just as free and open as Linux (to tell you the truth, I can barely tell them from Linux), but there are far fewer distros of each, so that's narrowed down.

Windows Advantage: You have the same base on every system. You can get right to work.

You really do have the same base on every major system in Linux. Every distro is going to come with the basic system, the X server (the GUI desktop), a desktop environment or two, and the basic GUI programs of web browser, editor, file manager, system configurations, etc. Package management of some kind completes the round from there, as you can go on getting anything else you need. You really can "get right to work".

Before you can use the application, you must install it. With Linux things install to different places depending on the distro, even depending on the version. Then you don't know if it installed, and if so, where it is, or what do you use to run it.
To install on Windows it's just a double-click on Setup.exe. With Linux it can be half a dozen different ways, if not more. If there are instructions it can help, but many times you don't even have any documentation.

I'm afraid you've been led astray. Each major distro has a package manager that checks all the dependencies automatically for you (although dependency issues *do* exist, for out-of-the-way applications that mostly the average user won't need). And it's not just a command-line; Debian-based distros have "synaptic", Red Hat/Fedora-based has "anaconda", Mandriva has "install/browse software". These all point-n-click off a menu, just like Windows' "add-remove programs" dialog. For more software that didn't come with the system, you can point these programs at the online package archive and they'll be able to locate more packages automatically. And documentation is everywhere!

Windows Advantage: You have Program Files. You get a Desktop Icon, a Quick Launch Icon, and a Start Menu Folder. One second after install, you can launch it.
MS User: A command line?

Oh, no, not this one again! OK, look to your right and see the categories on this blog. The bottom one is "reviews", currently at 18. Check those out, I do screenshots with most of them. Especially consider Knoppix and Elive part 2 and Elive part 1. Now, would the people who made these desktops expect you to type in a terminal all the time? No, in KDE's file manager Konqueror, you can right-click and do archive building and extracts exactly as you'd expect. The GUI is really just one way and the command line another, although there are some functions that would be simply impossible for any mortal being to do from a GUI instead of a command line, no matter HOW well the program was designed. I give an example of that here, about halfway down this rant when I show recovering from a huge messy error in 20 minutes. And...

Note also in that rant that I practice the archaic method of typing 'ls | wc -l' to discover how many files are in a directory - well, of course I could have opened up any of the dozens of file managers and seen the file totals in a status bar. But rather than pick one off a menu, wait for the fancy graphics to load, see it, shut it down... power Linux users are notoriously impatient - I had just programmed my gallery system, so terminals were open already - and it's always faster to type 7 characters and have the answer blink in front of you. You can do it 'the slow way' until you can learn 'the fast way'.

Finally, don't look now, but you actually use command lines all the time! But that's another post...

Let's have a big round of applause for our contestant PetMark for providing us all with this valuable opportunity to grow together! By the way, I haven't said much here that hasn't been said 1000s of times before all over the Internet. But what the heck, here it is again.

And now, the Final Analysis:
We see the difficulty in making that big leap from Big Daddy Microsoft. Similar to someone who had spent 20 years in one building and is now wanting to explore the whole city, we see people get easily lost. They just don't know where to begin! Because their skills in independent problem-solving and finding answers has been so blunted, they may end up completely confused by having too many unknowns. How do you find your way around town without a map? How do you get around without transportation? How do you get a job in the city and a place to live and register to vote again when you haven't done these things in decades?

Yet, I wasn't born a Linux wizard. I heard about it first in bits and pieces. Even back in the late nineties, I was already using search engines to research it. My first distro was Red Hat - I believe 5 or 6.0? - which I got from the public library, disks, book and all. It helped that I'd already been using computers steadily before Windows ever hit the market - through Commodore, IBM PC-DOS, OS/2, and early MacIntosh I'd already learned many operating systems before Windows and I met.

What makes it so easy for some of us to find our way around quickly, while others are stuck at square one? The Information Age is upon us in full - hundreds of sites just like mine exist. Dozens of online guides to Linux are out there. And hopefully, conversations just like this one are taking place all over the globe. But perhaps, one side effect to high-bandwidth access and the explosion of Internet culture is that there's more information out there than some people can sort their way through in a lifetime.

I don't call myself a 'hacker'. I really don't qualify; though I program in about six languages out of necessity, it's not what I do best. But I *do* consider myself adept at data-mining - finding answers quickly. I think of it as "information hacking". The more you know, the more you know where to learn more. Which goes a long way towards the other side of the Information Age's revolution: beyond freeing our software and our media, it will be useless unless we have free minds to go with it.

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