There is no such thing as “Linux” as an operating system. Yet we all think we’re marching under the same banner when we’re clearly not. Between desktop environments, package managers, display managers and the rest, we’re a highly uncoordinated bunch. If anyone from the outside should dare ask for a consistent response, they’re greeted with everything from hand-holding to cold shrugs, from slaps on the back to slaps in the face.
I am not proposing that we as techies forget about Linux, nor that we let individual projects’ managers and leaders forget about the community and their Open Source Free Software roots – but to recognize that whilst for us “Linux” is a selling point, for the masses that drive adoption and support, the label “Linux” is a big turn-off.
From a technologists’ standpoint, when we talk about Linux, we all generally know what we mean: a kernel that forms the core of a vast series of operating systems, of which Android which isn’t a GNU/Linux but is nonetheless powered by the Linux kernel.
For persons outside of the tech-sphere, the concept of “Linux” is at best a moot point, if not an actual source of confusion. Numerous times, we’ve tried to explain what “distro” means and why there are different “desktop environments,” whilst applications are downloaded by “package managers” from “repositories”… all of this heavily discussed in “the community.”
The Curse of Choice
For us techies, choice is good. In Linux-land, choice is sacred. To us, choice is Freedom.
To the average person, choice is Hell.
Distro flame wars aside, there’s the obvious fractioning of the developer community. Some develop for KDE, some for GNOME, some independently. Some have packaged for DEB whilst RPM riders have to get the tarball. Arch always gets a tarball. Notifications and panel icons aren’t always there in all desktop environments. And all the varieties.
Even if you try to not stray far and stay on “the most popular distro for newbies” a.k.a. Ubuntu, you still have Lubuntu, Xubuntu and Kubuntu confusion, with Linux Mint and Linux Mint Debian, each with Cinnamon and MATE flavours, close behind. Newbie asks how to change their desktop and are asked in return “what desktop environment are you using?” The newbie answers, “I dunno, it’s blue, I want it to be pink.”
Try telling Average Joe that Manjaro (Xfce), CentOS (GNOME 2), Ubuntu (Unity) and Chrome OS (Chrome) are all Linux whilst merrily swapping through screenshots. They’ll ask you what tea you’ve been snorting. Kinda like showing up at a botanists’ convention and being told that apples, hazelnuts and tomatoes are all fruit, broccoli and artichokes are actually flowers, and that all of them are, indeed, classified under “Vegetable.” The geeks know this. The rest of us model the ecosystem in a very different way.
The other issue is the consistent inability for techies to grasp the very idea that installing a new OS is fraught with danger and uncertainty for a non-tinkerer. Consumers have heard that Linux is hard. They’ve heard it doesn’t run Windows. (Or Windows applications). They’ve heard it might void their warranty. We reassure them that it isn’t hard, to try it, and next thing you know they’ve hosed their data, their printer can’t be found right in front of them and what’s all that scary text on the screen?
And yet we repeatedly see the technology blogs preaching to the choir, “Why DistroX is great replacement for Windows XP” with that chipper encouragement to “give it a go” — like the kind of person who would keep XP for so long would know exactly what to do after reading the article!
There have been plenty of stories in forums, podcasts and so forth where so-and-so managed to put their grandma on Linux Mint and she loved it; or moved their dad to Ubuntu on Unity, so what’s the fuss; or the uber-geek who moved their wife onto a Gentoo or Arch setup and with them at the ready to help, their loved one was absolutely fine. Those are, no doubt, great wins on individual levels, but is kind of a moot point on their own, and still collectively amount to little much than a pat-on-the-head level of success.
But then there are the bigger, more ambitious goals: the City of Munich famously distributing Ubuntu 12.04 CDs for free in the public libraries was one. Whilst the City successfully completed their migration with a host of consultants and internal IT technicians, out in the town, how many people knew what to do with these Ubuntu CDs? Free coasters? Pocket-mirrors to store in your glove compartment? Arts and crafts projects? And did all the gendarmes in France start coming home declaring “ma chérie! I am going to replace the Windows on our PC with Linux?” Mais oui bien sûr, Maurice.
Any time you point out how difficult it is for the average user to install Linux, thousands of commenters are poised at the ready to tell you how easy it is. And I concur that, for me and you, it is dead simple. For grandad and the arts major who pointedly shied away from the school ICT course, installing a new OS is a big freaking deal.
The enthusiasts who are dead set on convincing us that it’s easy have never actually sat down and talked to an actual user. No doubt they’ve gone and done the install for them, and heard “oh it wasn’t so hard then!” after they had gone and done all the hard work.
In reality, if you were to leave an average user to do the switch on their own, you’d need to write a complete manual, many pages long. And that’s just to install the system. There’s a fair amount of IT to be learned before you can go thwack your PC with a new OS. You’ll probably find after a few weeks that Windows is still on their computer and the manual has found its useful place levelling a table leg.
Seriously, have you ever tried to have the conversation about replacing someone’s desktop with Linux when they’re not a close acquaintance and you’re not going to be on hand at their every issue?
Sure there’s a fantastic community out there – of techies speaking techno-babble.
Even in AskUbuntu which is supposed to be the forum of the “most popular distro” (read: the distro that has the lowest skill barrier for entrance) the speak there rapidly becomes super-technical for anyone who hasn’t tried to understand their computer before.
Forget that it’s “Linux”
Ubuntu has dropped the word “Linux” from its name and I don’t think it’s that bad a thing. Sure Free Software purists will be railing against their decisions on Convenience over Freedom, but face it: even when we do away with the ethical and philosophical discussion, getting people to switch from one technology to another, core technology that changes everything about they way they operate on a practical level, introduces a whole load of issues and fears, and just saying “you’re freer” will win you not votes.
Most people are actually absolutely fine with “software Freedom” and would gladly shy away from lock-in and software slavery dungeons of Windows and OS X – but if it means they’re out in the cold of Fedora or Trisqel to fend for themselves in a world they were never brought up in, they’re most gladly consciously choose their old masters. When you’re a slave of the castle, you can either keep serving or run away into the wilderness, hoping you have enough survival skills to patch wounds and pick the right berries, let alone stay safe from the wolves and the natural elements around you.
For me, Ubuntu (or rather, Xubuntu) is [an] answer. Ubuntu just being “Ubuntu OS” allows provider companies something to home in on. Those of us riding all manner of Linux – Fedora, Arch, Trisqel and the likes – can deal with hardware intricacies, repackaging Ubuntu-oriented packages and such; let software authors just focus on supporting “Ubuntu Linux” (and let’s ensure they do it as Open Source if not Free Software); and let members of the general public the option to say “I’m running Ubuntu.”
By letting average users just think in terms of a coherent brand, we can move them to a platform that prepares them that much more for Freedom, and improves the state of support for Linux as a whole, removing over time the practical barriers to adoption. Imagine the state of consumer desktops where Ubuntu has mostly replaced Windows, and where the average user still doesn’t know they’re using Linux. Imagine Canonical does something…. rash and unethical. The move from Ubuntu to Mint, CentOS or OpenSUSE is so much easier to do both from a “sell” point and a practical point of view, because we’re not switching the ecosystem. And to average users, this is seamless. There are no questions about supported apps or document compatibility.
Saying “I have an Ubuntu” allows us to know that it’s consumer. After all, we don’t ask Mac users to recognise they are running BSD, nor Windows users to know that their “NT kernel” is insecure.
Running “Linux” is still (and will probably always remain) a badge of technical honour. Saying one is running “Ubuntu Linux” is still running Ubuntu as a technician. Just let the average person have their plain “Ubuntu” and be happy.