Linux is not hard, it's ignored

We’ve all heard the complaint: “Linux is just too hard to use”. Very often it’s not defined in any more detail than that but it is enough for most users to write Linux off.

So, is Linux too hard?

Honestly, Linux used to be hard to use. Ten years ago I could regularly be found sweating and cursing in front an unresponsive PC, willing the Linux software on it to do something, anything to validate the many hours I had sunk into getting it to run. It was a thankless task with little obvious reward but it somehow made sense. And when something did work right it was like being part of a secret club; a group of insiders who knew something more important than anyone else. Which probably has a lot to do with the way Linux is perceived now.

Today I run Linux on a couple of desktop machines, on my laptop and on a netbook. I also run it on my phone, thanks to Google’s Android operating system. I do also have access to Mac OS X and Windows but, after ten years, I am too familiar with Linux to really be bothered with them.

Which explains my preference but doesn’t really answer the question of whether Linux is hard to use.

Ignored

Linux on the desktop is not hard to use. It is different to Windows or Mac OS X, but not hard. Unless, of course, you’re keen on plugging in your fifth-generation iPod and syncing it with your music library. Then you’re down the proverbial river. The same is true of a range of other devices that use proprietary drivers to achieve their full potential.

But that’s not the fault of Linux. It’s the fault of product makers who can’t be bothered to make drivers available for Linux when they issue new releases.

A couple of years ago, for example, it was a hair-pulling task to get a 3G modem to work on Linux. Unless you knew the appropriate command line strings and knew how to start the modem from a command line you were sunk.

On Windows, on the other hand, you simply loaded the software – which Vodacom or MTN provided you with – and were connected. It wasn’t that Windows was intrinsically easier to use than Linux it was just that the cellphone makers saw fit to ignore Linux users.

Today using mobile broadband on Linux is a snap, thanks mostly to smart developers that have built support for most common 3G hardware.

The same is true of application makers. No-one would dare release a beta software product without a proper Windows installer. But it seems that simply pointing Linux users to the source code and telling them to get on with it is deemed to be good enough.

Of course, Linux users are not entirely blameless.

As a grouping we are often our own worst enemies. As I said, being a Linux user in the early days was a little bit like being a member of a secret club. Some of that mentality still exists today and the impression given out to the rest of the world is that Linux users not only don’t want help but would also spurn any attempts to offer help.

The truth is that not all of us want to spend a week’s worth of nights awake hacking away at a driver just so we can print a document. At least not anymore. There are many that are still prepared to do this but most of us long-time users now appreciate it when a product is released that includes Linux support out of the box.

Marketing

Linux users are, in the main, terrible at marketing. Take the most recent release of Ubuntu Linux, Karmic Koala.

While the world was comparing it to Windows 7, which was released at almost the same time, Ubuntu users were cramming forums, blogs and mailing lists with a tirade of things that were “broken” with the latest release.

Of course there were things that weren’t right with Karmic Koala straight away but then there were also issues with Windows 7 when it was first released. It’s just that Microsoft’s marketing more than drowns out the naysayers while Linux marketing is so small that only the bickering floats to the top.

I am now running Karmic Koala and very pleased with it. But I confess I held off installing it for a while after the release, swayed by the cacophony of complaints about it from users.

Whether those were all genuine problems or just teething issues, I’m not sure, but it was enough to make me hold back. Perhaps it is too much to hope for a Microsoft-sized marketing budget for Linux but a bit more effort in projecting a positive image would not go astray. After all, if a Linux fan says that Linux is hard then why would anyone think otherwise.

And then there is Android. I am infatuated by Android and almost everyone I show my phone to is blown away by how easy it is to use and how attractive it is. Here’s the rub: Underneath the shimmering graphics Android is just Linux. And no-one really cares that it’s Linux and no-one complains that its “hard to use” because of that fact. Just like Mac OS X which is based on FreeBSD, that other open source operating system, Android is proof that Linux doesn’t have to be hard.

Linux isn’t hard. But it doesn’t market itself well, is regularly ignored by product makers, and has a user base that likes to complain a lot more than anyone else.

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Linux is not hard, it's ignored