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The Best Newbie Distro is You

Whether they love it or loathe it, they'll need to brace for impact.

Whether they love it or loathe it, they’ll need to brace for impact.

Oft asked is the question, “What is the best Linux for beginners?” It is The First Question, the one that hopefully brings one more user away from the wholly proprietary desktop. And oft is the query answered with the name of a distro, straight, with no introduction, discussion or consideration.

A post I came across on LinuxInsider collated a few suggestions, but most pertinently concluded that the actual distribution does not matter quite so much as how much you are willing to help the new user. Dedoimedo guest posted at netrunner-mag.com how he imagined on-boarding an enthusiast would go.

I would like to point out how it is for the fearful – those who are needing to move because XP is running out, or who’ve bought a new PC with (woe!) Windows 8 preinstalled, or that friend for whom you’ve acquired an old laptop in serious need of a rejuvenation…

It is of vital importance to remember that these neophytes do not likely think like techies, or they’d be taking the activity in stride and finding out for themselves. Non-technical users are afraid of computer problems. Non-technical users want things to “just work,” or a system that makes troubleshooting easy. Not just “easy with the right mindset” but “no-brainer easy.”

Having forgotten these differences, it is a temptation to point a user at a distro and tell them “it’s very intuitive, and if there are any problems, you’ve got a great community to ask!”

This approach benefits none of us – neither the newly curious, nor the old hands. Even if you setup the distro for them, the nubile will try to get apps (and may face hurdles, read cryptic descriptions of missing packages, misunderstand packages, be missing plugins), or may find that a they need a drvier for their fancy mouse or work printer (and be overhwelmed at the ridiculousness of the driver acquisition excercise), and ultimately will take to the forums of that “great community” to fill them with trivial questions – whilst also polluting future search results with noise – and will encounter resistance from older hands who would like to see people help themselves for once… Of course, the “friendly” forums discourage expression of such recommendations: where we recommend even in kindest terms to read the appropriatesection of the manual, or use a search engine with specific search terms, we’re reminded that “a full answer is preferable – please be nice to newcomers!”

It would be much more constructive and beneficial in acknowledging that the beginner will make beginner mistakes, both in their OS use and setup, as well as in their very methodology for finding help to take personal responsibility for the new GNU/Linux recruit.

It is up to those of us who are leading them into these new lands to mentor them until they can explore on their own. This means being ready to answer their every question, and demonstrate that you too use search engines, and more importantly that you use search engines much more than you use forums. There are manuals, blog posts, articles, wikis and tutorials galore, all to be explored before posting. But the non-technical user is most likely petrified of venturing forth into this new world alone.

So, which distro?

If your are the rookie yourself, you may want to know how to make your own decision – but there are enough reviews and guides just a web search away to open many doors to you: the question has been asked many times before, and been answered many times more.

For those who have already trodden the path well, the answer is fairly simple albeit generic: recommend any desktop-user-oriented distro (down to the variant) that you yourself are thoroughly acquainted with – and has enough popularity to be findable in search engines. This means that you can at least:

a) pilot your apprentice blind through an uncustomized version of their desktop environment

b) know what application installation GUIs are available,what comes preinstalled, and what will likely need effort

c) remember the package and repository install commands and procedures to at least help them search packages

Free Software and Blobs – Gratis sed non libere

If your charge is coming in as a non-technical user, the most out-of-the-box solution is invariably best for them. Throwing them into the Free and Open Source Only stance will likely hinder their first approach than help: not having drivers for wireless, printers, sound and graphics will be an issue; and not being able to install MP3 codecs will be a massive disincentive to make the move.

It is my opinion that use of a Free distribution (as defined by Free Software Foundation) in a world of predominantly proprietary hardware still requires more advanced technical skills to survive, let alone thrive, and that whilst these skills can be taught, it disservices us all to attempt to foist this on non-technical newcomers from day zero.

The same logic used by Richard Stallman as to why the Ogg specification should not be forcibly licensed under the GPL stands: we first want to address the task of adoption, and retention – admitting a compromise at this stage can still result in proper Freedom in the future; if we remain the trusted mentors of our charges, we can still further guide them. Throwing them in the deep end and telling them to sink or swim will kill their curiosity for sure.

With this in mind, I personally would go with Korora 19.1 — you may want to suggest OpenSuSE 13.11, Ubuntu 13.10 or Mint 15 yourself — they should all be viable for a beginner, and ship with (at least the option of) a full set of firmware, plugins and codecs pre-loaded. It is better to start the novices out with gratis proprietary blobs than to see their hope and enthusiasm dwindle until they resort to sticking with the default Windows their machine came with. Imagine that today in 2013: choosing Windows 8 over GNU/Linux because they couldn’t get their music collection to play or their wireless to work! Give them a distro that has the best chances of working first time.

Holding hands: Installing new software

Finding software and installing it is the one admin task the newbie will need to eventually do on their own. This involves not only installing the software, but finding it (and maybe adding repos). You need to be able to point them to resources where they can find alternatives (I use alternativeto.net and osalt.com as starting points, then Google), you may recommend “I use X because it does A and B, but you can try programs Y and Z as well.” You may even need to tell them how to search.

If you’ve recommended a Ubuntu derivative, you can point them to the Ubuntu Software Centre; if OpenSUSE the software.opensuse.org site is fantastic, and Korora gives access to Apper. If you’ve recommended another, it is likely they will need to use the package manager – for their first time, you will need to be on hand to guide them.

Q: Why do I get no results for “libre office”?
A: Maybe you misspelled it. Did you type a space between “libre” and “office”? Don’t, it’s just one word.

Q: Why do I need to install all these other things when I just want to install LibreOffice?
A: They are part of the installation. When you install in Mac/Windows, all this is generally hidden from you. In the package manager, you see them all. Don’t worry, they’re legit and it requires no extra effort on your part.

Q: What are packages?
A: That’s a big topic! I’ll send you good a link that can best explain it to you.

(Hopefully your charge will be curious enough to ask you the third question early. Eventually they will find the need to know, and they will ask. All in due time.)

Q: What software is there instead of iTunes?
A: There are a lot! You can search http://alternativeto.net and find some recommendations there. I use {X} because it has features {A, B}

Q: I need to install a driver for my printer – how do I do this?
A: *aside* (…. aw crap….)

Try to cover most bases with your charge early. Especially working around proprietary hardware. Because that printer… it might need you to build ndiswrapper from source, to download the headers for the kernel; you’ll hunt down the driver, and pick one of the many that the manufacturer is presenting under odd, gibberish names.

But don’t shield the padawan here: all this time you need to be explaining to them what it is you are doing, and also the logic behind your thought process, step by step.

Tugging sleeves: How to troubleshoot

Over time, you will find yourself guiding the fledgling through search engines to troubleshoot. Possibly over the phone. Again, explain step by step, and why you’re doing what you are doing.

Them: Why can’t I play MP3s?
You: What program are you using? What behaviour are you seeing?
Them: I’m using Rhythmbox and I’m getting an error about an “ID3 tag demuxer” not being found*.
You: OK – I’m going to have to use <search engine> for this. Why don’t you follow at the same time (…) Type “rhythmbox id3 demuxer cannot play mp3” and search
Them: OK
You: …. OK, that second link in the results is for “experts-exchange.com,” ignore that one, it’s just a forum behind a paywall. The first link though is for a Ubuntu forum, the second is for Arch, but they’re both about the ID3 demuxer problems, so we should have a look. Open them both in tabs
[….. etc ….]
Them: Can’t we just ask people in the forum? You said they were friendly, and this looks more complicated than we thought!
You: We haven’t exhausted our possibilities yet – the Debian forum post still has suggestions we need to check. Let’s avoid asking a question that’s already been answered. If the third option does not work, I’ll create a post and summarize what we’ve done so far for posting in the <distro> forums. But we need the results of our own work first.

* pain that I once had to resolve on Fedora 19. I never did figure out where I went wrong… installed VLC instead.

Notice that last part: don’t let them post in the forum first – ensure their first forum question (via you) starts on a good footing. Show them the right way. Explain why just giving a brief description is not sufficient. Explain that searching by yourself, trying suggestions, and posting the results are essential to a good ask in a forum. And if you get any form of pushback, you can explain to your apprentice why – and it won’t be their fault either.

Tightening grip: The Command Line

Another task is to help your charge overcome the fear of the blinking prompt. The monochrome text area where mystical incantations and unfathomable scripture lies.

Demystify it for them.

For everyday users, it should be as necessary for them to visit the command line as on Windows or on Mac OS X if you’ve chosen a desktop-user-oriented distro for them. But even then, they may want to do something just that much more technical…

The only advanced commands they’re likely going to need to know from the get go are the following:

  • mounting disks (mount)
  • checking attached block devices (lsblk)
  • unmounting devices (umount)
  • changing permissions (chmod, chown)

A context in which this needs to be done (a tutorial excercise) can be set up by you, the mentor, in conjunction with explaining cd, ls, mkdir, mv and sudo – and then, before attacking the more advanced topics, showing them man and less. Don’t put them on vi yet – first give them nano.

The key things to remember are that these users are going to be terrified (I do not use the word lightly) when there are no menu commands to help them out (recognition being easier than recall), and that you can teach them more advanced techniques later.

Every one of the above commands needs to be explained by reminding them that the man page exists. Early on, refer them often to the man page, even if you answer their direct query. They’ll develop a habit quickly, but wait a bit until directly asking them if they’ve checked the man page.

Q: “How do I list contents with sizes and permissions again?”
A: “Use the long list option,”-l”, with the ls command. You can also activate colour and such – check the proper syntax with man ls.”

Thirdly, if they do venture out onto the net and find commands, they are likely to ask you about ones they are unsure of. More than likely, these are going to be commands that take a little more explaining than you can simply impart in a few phrases. You may yourself need the man page. Like with web searching alongside them, highlight to them that you too need to check the man page to be sure. Have them follow along with you.

Hanging on for dear life: A truly Free Distro

Remember that you were trying to impress upon them the importance of Freedom in software code distribution? You made the compromise of allowing them to have blobs in their kernel, proprietary applications in their repository choices, and patented technologies in their system.

Throughout the entire guidance, you’ve been highlighting where each of the proprietary and Free Software counterparts excel and fail. You’ve been encouraging them to convert their audio and video to open formats.

A few months down the line, you can approach the idea of trying out a truly free distro, as defined and hailed by the Free Software Foundation.

It won’t be easy. It will require work, consulting man pages, searching and compiling. If you’ve managed to give your charge an interest in computing in itself and not just a means to Facebook and YouTube, this will be the next step in the learning.

But you may also need to face a reality: if they still have no intention on using Linux as a means to understanding computers, but merely as a way to be online, leave them be. At least they actually are on Linux and can operate comfortably by now. And they’re that much closer to being ready for the day when the last devices are made libere, and where the majority of desktop OSs requiring blobs is a thing of the past.

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