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Old FUD v. New Reality, by Terry Vessels
Friday, February 20 2004 @ 11:51 AM EST

IBM's General Manager, e-business on demand, Ross Mauri, gave a keynote speech at LinuxWorld, in which he said that Linux is unstoppable:
The underlying technology of Linux continues to be enhanced, expanded and improved, enabling greater security, reliability, scalability -- the essentials of first-class computing are either in Linux today, on the near-term horizon with 2.6, or coming in 2.7 and beyond.
He was talking about using GNU/Linux in business, of course, because that is what he does, and the statistics in the article are interesting indeed. But what about your average home user? Is Linux still too hard for your mom? For Joe SixPack, as he is sometimes called? Joe Average User?

Groklaw reader Terry Vessels has written his experiences with average users in both Windows and GNU/Linux, in an article he calls Old FUD v. New Reality. For any of you thinking of trying GNU/Linux, but afraid to dip your toe in the water because you've heard it it too hard, this article is for you. Note the helpful references at the end. You might also enjoy this brief tutorial on basic commands.

If you don't have a copy of Linux yet, you can get a Knoppix CD, as the article explains, and have fun learning that way. The premise of the article is that the world has changed and installing and using it today is easier than using or installing Windows. Deeper, he highlights why Linux has developed so quickly, and it has nothing to do with someone's legacy Unix code.


The Old FUD and the New Reality,
~ by Terry Vessels

Every time someone suggests Linux for use on a personal, home computer, the same old "Joe Average" and "Joe Sixpack" and "your mother" are trotted out to chase the curious back into their cage. In case you haven't encountered them before, "Joe Average" and "Joe Sixpack" are mythical creatures supposedly representing average personal computer users. "Your mother" is assumed to be some slightly doddering mouse-clicker, instead of possibly one of the people who created, or is creating, the world of information technology. (Please do not take offense, ladies. Assume those who use the "your mother" argument are ignorant of the pioneering of computing). Naturally, so the old argument goes, "Joe Average" and "Joe Sixpack" will never comprehend compiling a kernel, and you'd never want to leave "your mother" suffering through 'more README; less INSTALL'.

It might be enlightening to consider these mythical people as if real, and see whether Linux or Microsoft Windows suits their needs best. Your mother supposedly just wants to click things to "surf the web", email, print some pictures, do a little typing (letters or work), and listen to some music. She supposedly would suffer severe emotional trauma if "Kernel Panic!" appeared on her monitor, or instructions such as "config --with-foo=/bar/lib". The near-twin Joes have the same goals, with the possible addition of attaching various new techno-toys to their PC, like a scanner and digital camera. None of these three are interested in partitions, filesystems, iptables, sendmail configuration or kernel compiles. Once upon a time, using Linux required you learn about these things. Now, Linux doesn't require you learn such details before you use the system; it just won't stand in your way if you want to learn them.

As I posted (anonymously) in a comment on NewsForge in 2002,

We who use Linux sometimes forget what it is like to face a computer for the first time. Linux gives the newbie the freedom to explore and tinker without the fear of destroying the system with an inadvertent click.

I just spent a day rescuing a "newbie" from MS Windows. Someone had loaned her an old computer with MS Windows. Neither she nor her husband knew beans about a computer, except how to hit the power button. They worked out the mouse (remember watching newbies twist and steer the mouse?). Somewhere in Windows, they clicked the wrong thing and the next time they turned it on, it asked for a boot disk. No such creature was included with the loaned computer, so they hired a lady "down the road" to "repair" the system. (My suspicion is that they may have dragged the System "folder" and dropped it inside some other, or some of those "hidden", "system" files were left available). Regardless of how it happened, the experience left them afraid to explore anything beyond solitaire. . . .

If someone gave you a new toy, but told you if you twist the wrong knob, or push the buttons in the wrong sequence, it would completely fall apart, you might be reluctant to play with that toy. Newbies should be allowed to play with the pretty knobs and buttons without fear of breaking their new toy.

Linux on the personal computer has moved from being suitable only for true hackers, to including moderately skilled programmers, then professional administrators and amateur computer "nuts", to including so-called "power users" and then average computer users. It is helpful to remember that the hacker who created the first Linux kernel and put it together with the GNU tools did so because he wanted a better operating system for his personal computer. The hacker who began GNU did so to increase personal freedom, for himself and others. The underlying motivation is a strong one. It's called enlightened self-interest or scratching your own itch. As people in each of the computer-specific skill levels listed began using Linux and scratching their own itches, they naturally improved the usability of the system. This in turn enables those of less computer-specific skills to use and adapt the system. Linux and Open Source do not thrive on elitism; they thrive on sharing and enabling and empowering. Its natural evolution is inclusive.

Contrast this with Microsoft Windows, wherein everything is locked away from the curious eyes of users. You may not examine the source to find out how things work. You are prevented by law and by design. This leaves Joe under-informed. Granted, Joe Average is not likely to be interested in the source code of MS Windows. However, the number of people with access to that code who might make sense of it for Joe's benefit are extremely limited. This creates an artificially maintained mystery surrounding computers and an artificially maintained hierarchy of experts. Joe is subtly trained to accept the proclamations from on high. Joe is not encouraged to stress his software, report its failures and assist in its improvement. Joe is made to believe that if the magical, mysterious software fails to perform as expected, then Joe is using it wrongly or is just dumb. (If Joe is dumb and the computer is smart, why does Joe have to learn the computer's mouse and keypress language to get it to do anything?)

Linux has grown by encouraging its users to speak up, contribute, help out. People like to adapt what they have to suit themselves. They also like to share their creations, adaptations and discoveries. Linux encourages this. Whether what you have to share is a patch for the kernel, a cool new theme for your desktop, assistance, or a bug report, your participation is significant.

The freedom explicit in GNU and Linux means that the system evolves at an ever-increasing rate. Since it allows anyone to use it, develop it and develop with it, as well as providing free tools to accomplish those tasks, it continually expands the number of people who can add to it and take it forward. A result of this is that the system itself, including all the GNU tools and piles of software, rapidly improves in ease of use. It's only natural. People try to make their tools suit themselves and easier to use. This in turn lowers the new user entry requirements and increases the power available to those new users. It includes more and more people rather than excluding.

I am very grateful that so many people offered their hard work freely to the world, for whatever reasons, so that people like me can use this software without the burden of first trying to learn as much about programming as the authors. I consider the immense collection of such software to be as great a gift to the people of the world, by the people of the world, as the printing press itself.

There was a time when books as well as literacy itself was the exclusive province of the rich. Consider how much the world changed due to the printing press allowing books to be within the reach of those who were not rich. Free public education, everywhere it took place, caused another explosive growth in the knowledge bank of the world. Global communication disseminated that knowledge. Digital global communication, computers and software are spreading that knowledge to more people more rapidly than ever before possible in the history of the world. They also facilitate the expansion of that knowledge bank as never before. With so much at stake and so much to gain for so many, free and open software is a powerful enabling force, while closed source software is a barrier to all.

It is time for the dark ages of computing to end. Free, open source software has begun a renaissance that I believe will surpass the Renaissance of history. Instead of each programmer being required to re-invent each software solution over and over because of closed source, open source means that each programmer can build upon the previous work. Having the fundamental software tools of computing available for free puts them in the hands of anyone capable of using them without the burden of also being rich. Who can tell what talent or even genius is frustrated and denied to the world because of the barrier imposed by the price of closed software?

That barrier is being dismantled by free, open source software. The outer wall was breached long ago. Now the breach is wide enough for many to pass through and the dismantling subsequently is accelerating. As more are able to assist, this free software spreads wider and enables more advanced operations. It is inevitable that closed, commercial software will eventually be relegated to niches. Closed commercial software excludes, if by no other means than the price. Those who unleash free and open software on the world are inviting everyone to come along.

It is time for people to stop comparing Linux of 1999 (the year Red Hat 6.0 was released) to Microsoft Windows of tomorrow. Linux is not the exclusive realm of geeks and nerds. Microsoft Windows is not kind to new (or existing) computer users. Linux doesn't require a degree in Computer Science or the ability to read C code. Microsoft Windows won't let you choose to remove certain of its parts, but will happily allow some stranger from parts unknown to run programs from email on your computer. Linux runs gadgets and appliances without ever intruding on the user to announce itself; it just works. Microsoft Windows still provides a "user experience" that a great many users wish they had not experienced. Linux is suitable for almost anyone, now. MicrosoftWindows is suitable for niche tasks, now.

As Joe Barr put it:

"I need a desktop where new apps are comfortable from day one. And it just so happened I had a complimentary copy of Mandrake Discovery 9.2 sitting unopened nearby. I chose Mandrake. . . .

"In the copy I received, all the accompanying manuals were in French, and the box itself was as well. The installation default was US English, however, so that didn't slow me down. I suppose it's a sign of how far Linux installation has come in general that I didn't even notice the manuals weren't in English until after the install was complete."

Oh, and by the way, you shouldn't have to accept MS Windows pre-loaded on a new computer.

The old FUD *is dying*. May it rest in peace.


For the sake of the next generation, we need to help educate.

Copyright 2004, Terry Vessels.
licensed under a
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