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About that: Growing the Desktop Linux Community

I have a great interest in growing Desktop Linux as a community – being able to learn about the system and do all sorts of things with it is fine and dandy, but when you still have to deal with the Real World that uses closed source systems en masse, you find that your system is still a fringe consideration, not worthy of time and investment by others, with vendors only making software for the closed systems, and your knowledge only has limited use when helping your peers with desktop problems. I like helping my peers with the knowledge that I gain. And I’m sure that people I help are happy to have someone who can help them.

Over at OStatic, Jon Buys has written a piece calling on the community to stop bickering and getting into flame wars, and start bringing productive input to the table, so as to make the Linux Community a welcoming and intelligent place. I couldn’t agree more. But that alone will not swell our numbers.

I come from a support background with a good few years under my belt, and I know a thing or two about helping users remotely on a diverse array of setups. I can pilot a user blind, over the phone, when they need Mac help. I can pilot a user fairly well on WinXP or Win7. But I still have to properly learn Pantheon, Xfce, KDE, LXDE, GNOME 3, MATE, Cinnamon, e17 (not to mention the tiling ones I never explored) and all their customizable tweaks that make them look like something completely different from distro to distro.

Someone calling up saying “I’m having a problem with my computer – it’s running Linux,” fills me both with excitement and sheer dread. Can you imagine, then, what it does for planning to support Linux for your product – from a UI integration stance and the ensuing QA testing? Along with support considerations? The user still needs to be a computer geek at this point. Not to mention figuring out whether yaourt/apt-get/yum/make installed it properly in the user’s system…

This prevents two things from happening, cyclically feeding into each other:

  • companies who produce software and hardware do not want to spend time supporting “Linux”, in all its shapes and sizes, reducing incentive for consumers to have Linux-based desktops/laptops
  • non-technical users don’t want to deal with “Linux”, in all its colours and shapes, reducing incentive for companies to support it

As a community we are splintered, united around but a kernel (and barely united at that) and incapable of consistency in the market, our distros offering varying levels of (in)convenience to consumers. RM Stallman might have argued against convenience without openness, but we have to make inroads somewhere, somehow – and that means ensuring we play well at some levels with corporations as well as them playing ball with us.

So as I said on the original article at OStatic:

The size of the Linux community can only be swelled by completely non-technical users – the technologically averse, even. Linux’s market share is tiny – and when I say “market share,” I mean the size of the install base which directly affects whether companies see benefit in investing R+D time into servicing Linux users.

Market share is not about how much Linux is sold, but about how many Linux users there are to cater to.

Nvidia is only playing ball because Linus Torvalds literally gave them the finger at a high profile event. We can’t drive further corporate cooperation solely by transforming the founder into ‘Linus “the Finger” Torvalds’.

This means that “Linux” has to mean something precise to the layman in terms of usage – and to those supporting it for this use case. With the variety of desktop environments and distros, it’s no wonder the average Joe is confused.

“I have Windows 7” tells us alot about the OS, the version, the interface, the capabilities and the locations of various settings we need to know to assist them.

“I have Ubuntu” (let alone “I have Linux”) raises questions like “What release? What desktop environment? Have you got [option X] active? How did you partition?” and so on. And average Joe doesn’t have the knowledge to even answer you, making it even more painful for him.

Whether we want to have basic users – people who can’t answer questions most power users expect of their peers – in our community is a moot point. We remain a fringe group without them. Canonical has made good in-roads on the desktop in signing agreements with hardware manufacturers; and whilst their advantageous position has given their leadership some funny ideas of grandeur, these are not totally unmerited. They’re making their OS their way; and eventually support reps at various companies (ISPs, device manufacturers, etc) facing a user telling them “I have Ubuntu” only need to ask one thing: “was it on your computer when you bought it new from the store?”

In parallel, issue has been taken at TechRepublic and re-discussed at ITworld around the language used in talking about Linux. Mention Linux to anybody and they’ll probably either shrug in indifference or ignorance, or have some very strong opinions around the topic. But I think it’s more to do with knowing whether you’re wanting to address consumers, or fellow geeks. I don’t think there’s a “language of Linux” that needs simplifying: there’s the language of computer geeks on one hand, and the language of basic users on the other, and that it indifferent to the brand of OS they have on their computer. As I posted to the ITWorld thread:

I don’t think it’s necessary to “dumb down” the “language of Linux.” Quote marks, because:

-the language used currently around CLIs, packages, DEs, config files, filesystems etc is for the geeks. It’s the language of computer geeks in general.

-the language needed to communicate with consumer-level (non-geek) users is completely different, and for a different purpose. It’s the language of non-computer-types whether on Mac, Win, Linux.

For the persons who want to install Linux themselves and are curious, the language used around Linux is fine. It’s to the point and designates real things.

For the persons who have found their own PC converted by their enthusiast friend, but who themselves know nothing about Linux: they need to be talked to differently, in terms of “the mouse” and “your files” and “here are the settings.” Even on Windows and OS X you sometimes need the command line, but nobody in their right mind would direct the consumer user to a CLI.

Except on Linux – where the only way the enthusiast knows how to do something is probably the command line. OK, maybe sometimes there is no other way than CLI but normally for Win and Mac, support will say “please bring your computer in”. On Linux that’s not an option – there is no “support” just forums.

So for any non-geek user of Linux, I’d expect the enthusiast who visited this change upon their friend to be there and ready to help their convert…

Posted in About that..., Customer Support, Linux

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