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You Can Hack An OS But You Can't Hack People - part 6: The Black Hand

Date/Time Permalink: 05/13/08 12:16:24 pm
Category: General

Why is this part titled "The Black Hand"? Well, because I started this series using a nations metaphor. Citizens of Windows who expatriate and immigrate to Linux will be "foreigners" in Linux. And, if you check that Wikipedia article on the Black Hand - an example of which is seen in the "The Godfather" movie series - you will know that Black Hands are just one of the intimidating challenges facing immigrants.

But back up: First, let's talk about culture shock. Have you noticed that the differences in major computer platforms really do seem to make them like different countries? The different ways we do things like run system tasks, open files, shut down and restart, have different file formats and character schemes and default fonts. These are very much like the international practices we have of eating with chopsticks or forks or driving on the left or right side of the road or each country having its own currency. The same barriers to switching countries apply to switching operating systems.

Step by step, let's go through the culture shock phases and find their equivalent in computing-culture shock:

  • The "Honeymoon Phase" - When you move into a new computer or operating system, don't you look for things to like about it? Wow, look at this desktop theme! Hey, that file opened right up, this is a fast system! Oh, I like this new game they have on here. You even send a postcard to the folks back home, don't you? Sure you do! That's when you set the coolest wallpaper/theme combination you can find, take a screenshot, and post it in some forum to show it off. "The weather is beautiful, wish you were here!"
  • The negotiation phase - Ask any Linux user if a second-week new user in a help forum negotiates. It's a freaking negotiation orgy, OK? "If Linux wants to gain market share, it needs to...(blah blah)" "I would be able to use this system if only I could get this wireless card to work." "On my old system, we did things this other way; why can't you do things that way on this system?" "You'd better answer my question nice if you want me to keep using this system and help it gain market share!"
  • The "Everything is OK" phase - assuming that the immigrant didn't run home back to where they came from, they are now settled in more or less. They might even - finally - crack open a manual and get to know their new culture in depth. They're getting enthusiastic about the system's culture. They might upgrade or try out new things. They're Googling for the operating system's cultural in-jokes, because now they're finally funny. They might even lose their native accent.
  • Reverse Culture Shock - Amen! Probably the biggest enemy of Windows is an ex-Windows user. The old culture is ceremonially vilified, degraded, ridiculed, flamed about, as part of a healthy transition to the new culture. And if it is necessary to revisit the old culture, it is immediately evident that you've now become acclimated to somewhere else. When I check the web on a Windows box when I'm at a library or cyber-cafe, after all these years of Linux usage I'm sitting there trying to hit Alt-F2 to switch virtual desktops and trying to open new tabs in IE6. I'm going "Doh!" like Homer Simpson every minute. The librarian comes by and asks "Do you need some help, sir?"

Does it sound like we're singing a familiar tune? Culture shock is, again, a people problem. If we were robots or even bees or ants, we wouldn't have culture shock. We would soullessly begin assimilating ourselves into the new culture as reflexively as we did our native one. Thus, it does not matter what a different computing culture looks or feels like. It is still not "home" unless it's a perfect clone of home, and then it's a lawsuit.

It takes a long time to adapt to a new culture. During that time, whether you're an Italian migrating to the USA or a Windows user migrating to Linux, you will rely on a set of coping mechanisms. You might try to take things slowly. You might become defensive of your non-native status. Most likely, you will be more prone to identify with a very narrow peer group of other immigrants. In cases where there's large numbers of you, you might band together and form a second, smaller sub-culture for you and your friends, just a little piece of the old culture which you bring with you and use for a grounding base while you adapt to the new culture.

Certainly, you've seen this in any large city. The immigrants gravitate, partly by choice, and partly when they're forced to by circumstances, into little areas. Little China, Little Korea, Little Mexico. The barrios. That's what we're seeing happen with Ubuntu.

Like any ethnic immigrant haven, Ubuntu lives by the rules of the country it's physically located in - within Linux - but also has a sub-set culture of its own. "How do I make what I did in Windows work in Ubuntu?" is the number one type of question in the forums. Cheat sheets of DOS commands translated into Bash are traded, tips on how to make a proprietary program run in Wine are shared. Ubuntu has become Linux's Ellis Island. These are the lucky slaves who left their oppressive dictatorship and moved to where they would be free. They either never had the fear (the kind I talked about in part 5), or they did and stared it down.

Now, you could rationalize that just as the barrios are part of America and that's why we have this great melting-pot culture, Ubuntu is just like any Linux distro because Linux belongs to everybody and we can mold it and shape it however we want. The GPL is their constitution and the penguin is their national bird and the Four Freedoms is their pledge of allegiance. Of course Ubuntu is Linux!

But let's not kid ourselves. People do not come to Ubuntu looking for Linux any more; they come to Ubuntu looking for a Windows replacement. People who immigrate from other lands to the USA do not move to the barrio because they're looking to be Americanized. They move to the barrio because they're homesick. They want someplace where they can order a carne asada with mole sauce and not have to explain what they mean. They want a place where they can still celebrate Cinco de Mayo and Diaz de Muerte, even if they also celebrate the Fourth of July.

Just as we have ethnic slurs for people from foreign lands, the Windows refugees have a word that they hate. "Newbie". The clueless newbie! They hang out in Ubuntu because within the Ubuntu subculture, they are not newbies. Just as an ethnic group, when oppressed, will lash back, the Ubuntu subculture has a word to fling back at us: "elitist". This is the word they can fire back in defense when they perceive that they are attacked by the mainstream Linux culture.

Suppose that this trend of Windows user migrating to Ubuntu continues, so maybe ten years down the road, the desktop market share now looks like this:

future market share comparison

Is it still correct to say at that point that Ubuntu is just another Linux distro?

Are we convinced yet? We have users telling us over and over what they want. They are showing by their actions that this is what they want. Ubuntu is providing that solution. All those people complaining that all the different choices of Linux distros is too confusing for them now have a definite answer: choose Ubuntu. Ubuntu, to quote their motto, is "Linux for human beings" - which is actually coded talk for "Linux for people who are scared of computers, but don't want to use Windows any more". Just remember, I'm not the one who set Ubuntu apart. "Linux for human beings" suggests that those using non-Ubuntu distros are something other than human.

So, what is wrong with saying so? Where am I saying anything bad about Ubuntu here? I'm saying that they have made a commitment to new Linux users and they have kept it. Certainly, when Ubuntu established itself, it was looking to "break the mold" of the Linux distro. It is evolving a step forward towards making a Linux for non-geeks. Yeah, OK, we don't have to insist that "non-geek" = "Windows". But "non-geek" is how Windows and Apple were intended.

New arrivals to Linux have their subculture distro where everybody else is new enough to be able to understand what it's like to immigrate. This is the solution to the 145-1 (or 15-to-1) ratio of migrating Windows users to native Linux users. Help the new arrivals a little bit, then direct them to a distro where they can all cluster together on a forum and learn together.

I don't know why so many in the Linux community cringe at this concept. There's nothing wrong with it. It's the kind of solution that Linux is good at: customizing for individual's needs. Within Linux, we have emulators for DOS and Windows, systems that can be embedded and virtualized within other systems, window managers that can be made to look and feel like CDE or NeXTStep or Plan 9. Obviously, somebody finds them useful, or they wouldn't be here.

Obviously, somebody finds the Chinatown district of Los Angeles useful, or it wouldn't be there. Obviously, somebody finds a distro for new immigrants to Linux useful, or it wouldn't be there. We can live in denial of it, or we can quit imposing our flaky judgments on who's a "Joe Sixpack" and who's a "guru" and who's a "True Linux user" and who's a "poser" and who's an "elitist". We can objectively look at the trends, listen to what people want, and give that to them. Isn't that what having a "melting pot" culture is all about? At a 2% market share, Linux doesn't have a very large native culture. If we really want more people to use Linux, we're going to have to accept that the only way for a tiny country to turn into a big country quickly is to accept a melting pot culture.

Preferably, we do that before the Black Hand gets them. Because we have Black Hands all over the Linux islands. We have the dictator from that other computing republic buying up Linux distros to try to set up an alternative landing point for Windows expatriates. Yes, Microsoft is falling victim to the same bad logic that many in the Linux community are: they bought Suse, Linspire, Xandross, and TurboLinux based on the mistaken belief that people are leaving Windows for Linux. They aren't; they're leaving controlled Windows looking for a liberated Windows. Once again, we mistake a people issue (desire for more liberty), for a computing issue (different operating system).

And then there are the other Black Hands: the small-timers who carpetbag for Linux. They look at Linux and they don't care about the GPL, the Linux way, or even if any work gets done. They just have dollar signs in their eyes. If they can just slap a Tux sticker on any flat surface and find people who've never heard of it before, they can jump in front of Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, and the Linux companies and misrepresent themselves to take full credit for Linux itself. And there comes the hand, palm up!

The small-time Black Hands will rip up anybody else in the community but themselves, because they don't want new Linux users walking the streets; they want them in a cage, where they can milk their naivete for all it's worth. To hear these thieves tell it, they own Linux, you never would have found it without them, they set you up - so you owe them, and you'd better pay up or they'll kick you right back out of Linux again. And so the Black Hand goes door to door every month collecting his protection money, while the immigrants huddle in fear of him, not knowing that he's not the government and has no authority.

Many similar scams are run on immigrants looking to come to the United States - example: "the Green Card Lottery scam". If you go to the Federal Trade Commission page on the subject, you'll see where "There’s no charge to enter the green card lottery." And yet, there's plenty of con artists out there who will charge you money to file your free entry for you! Ahhh, making people feel obligated to you for something they could get for free from the original source with no obligation - where have we heard that before?

You might think, in talking about Linux's Black Hands, that I have a specific party in mind, since I did fight a minor war against a cell of them last year. But there are many more where those came from, all the world over. That was just one case. Internationally, software pirates don't care if they've ripped a copy-protected CD or burned a freely-copyable FOSS CD - people pay the same money for it and never know the difference. Don't think for a minute that if Linux gets even half as popular as we hope it will, that we won't be swatting hundreds of Black Hands like cockroaches.

Am I done yet? I'm done with the main idea, but there's some matter to attend to in the cleanup. That'll be part... uh, 7.

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