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Linux Is Not For You


Linux is not for you
(if you are a normal everyday Joe)

Okay, you've got a home computer, most likely a PC. You've been surfing the net for six months to a year, so you reckon you are pretty wired. But you've been hearing a rumour, a little whisper, a voice in the back of your head that states, "There is another operating system and it's cool and funky, free, stable, powerful and fast". Memories flash up of the time you were working on that really important letter and the system suddenly locked, the day that you finally found an interesting web site then the screen went blue, and you never found that site again. This hint "at a better way" plays on your doubts and suspicions, and after a little surfing you come across the holy grail of Operating Systems, Linux. Perhaps you found it through a document like this one which states, "Linux is no longer only for UNIX wizards who sit for hours in front of a glowing console".

Okay, Sparky, stop right there. Linux is not for you. I really should add "currently" to that statement, for there does remain hope for the future. But for the moment, Linux is out of most people's league.

Let me introduce myself. I am the guy that your Uncle Bob calls when his computer crashes, the knowledgeable friend of the family, the man that can sort things out. Self-taught, I don't know everything, but when it comes to the home computer I can sort out most things. Generally this means Windows 95. The faults that I find with most people's systems are extremely easy to rectify, but working on them does give some insight into "the average user": what they want, what they can and cannot do. Also, I myself have been 100% conned by the Myth, and indeed have over the last five days I have installed Linux three times all with varying degrees of success. So I now have a pretty good idea of what is wrong with it in reference to using it for the first time.

Sad but true, Linux is moving rapidly away from being usable by "the average user". People may choose to argue that with the latest major distributions including Partition Magic and Boot Magic, things are getting simpler, but this is not the case. Look at what the distributions come with: four to six cd-roms, big manuals, yet hardly any help unless one is prepared to search for it. Give me a single Windows 95 CD-ROM and a boot floppy, and I can install an operating system that will have a nice friendly interface, where most people will be able to work out where their hard drive is. It will have a printer installed, and will attempt to sense any other devices.

With the KDE install that Caldera ships, I was pleasantly surprised to see that on the desktop was my CD-ROM and floppy, but where was my hard drive? What about that ATAPI Zip drive? Why is my printer not working? Eventually after searching the internet (through Windows because there is no obvious quick way of installing an internet connection on Linux), I find out how in theory to install the zip drive. Imagine my surprise when I type in:

        # dmesg | less

and see that somewhere, somehow, my computer already knows that it has a zip drive. It just didn't put an icon anywhere for it or indeed even mount the drive. So I have to do this by typing stuff in: arrgh, horror of horrors. I am not even going to go into the problems I had with the sound card which resulted in severe feedback and waking up the neighbours. I have not even attempted to install a printer yet, because quite honestly my nerves aren't quite up to it.

Now that deals with the installation problems, no visible hard drive. Although with a little bit of guesswork you could probably work out that it is /, that's not really as intuitive as a Hard Drive Icon. As for finding the other partitions on the drive, well I can do it and am feeling pretty damn pleased with myself, but the average person could not, even though the operating system is perfectly aware (just like with the Zip) that these exist.

Now let's deal with the issue of Linux moving rapidly away from what the user wants. One of the first things I did was click on the big K. I see a wealth of software: games, text editors (both advanced and normal), and various things that I don't know what they do. I'm going to click on them anyway, but the question is, do I need this stuff? Of course not; the installation does not provide what I need. A good example would be SANE, which apparently is scanner software. This I know, because I already knew what the KRPM did. I look to see whether SANE is installed on my system. Apparently it is. I can even uninstall it by clicking on the button in KRPM. But I can't find any way to run the program. I look in the manual. It tells me to do various things. While this may be good for a UNIX guru, it doesn't help me, because I don't understand what the words refer to.

This is a plea on behalf of the home user. Companies, stop concentrating on adding as much software as possible! Instead, redirect your effort into producing a sound, simple, base installation! Take a good look at Microsoft's products. Study what they install and how the user navigates around. Microsoft may be despised by the Linux community but it would be best if one were to study the enemy and exploit their strengths as well as their weaknesses. The home user doesn't care about open source codes, they don't program. They want to get a system up and running that they can use, and where they can then install any additional components, preferably without having to type anything in. Keep it simple, concentrate on wizards rather than adding features. I've tested out the speed of Linux using my dual booting system these were the results :

Copying a folder containing 4 files totalling 149 megabytes to another partition on the same hard drive:

          Linux:  1 minute  47 seconds
        Windows:  2 minutes 37 seconds

Now I have no idea how or why etc., but Linux seems faster so I am keeping it. I know that at some point it could be the OS of the future, and would like to discuss with anyone that is interested, what form the perfect, simple base installation could take. One of the fundamentals was that Linux was for the good of everyone, and as I'm a newbie I figure that I'm the perfect idiot to test it on.

Copyright © 1999, nod
Published in Issue 46 of Linux Gazette, October 1999

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