I know, if you have used many of the newest iterations of the popular flavors of Linux, that you must be asking yourself, “What documentation?”  For many of the latest releases, the documentation is either online, in the form of a loosely joined FAQ, or simply non-existent.

It is certainly a distance from the days when Unix users knew that there was a voluminous part of that installation that was nothing more than the “man pages”, Unix-speak for the manual. For the Linux community, those days are gone, as some distributions don’t have anything that is up-to-date, and the user is left to contacting other users in hope of help. By the way, it seems to be understood that the user will either have a working Windows machine, either on another disk volume, or an actual separate machine, to be able to access these online resources.

A small blurb on slashdot asks about this problem, and perhaps might begin the journey to a resolution –

“A number of blog posts are surfacing that are calling out the helpful open source community on their documentation. No, not the documentation for the highly skilled technical people, but the documentation from beginner to apprentice. A two-part series by Carla Schroeder lists bad documentation as ‘Linux Bug #1’ and advises users to use Google as the documentation. We’ve discussed before some of open source’s documentation being out of date. Is it really as bad as these blogs paint it? Has it come down to using Google before a man page?”

I would tend to say that both the beginner and expert help is almost totally lacking. I read with understanding, and have an IQ in the 150 range, but I am not yet psychic. I cannot figure out what is not there. I also had quite a time when I started using Linux, simply because I remembered being at a friend’s house in the 80’s, and seeing the actual man pages that his home install of Unix had. If you were willing to spend the time, you could seem to find the answer to anything in those pages.

Today, we have everyone worried about costs, and the overuse of paper products. There are none of the books that were available for Linux that existed back in the early days of Windows. Linux books today tend to be tomes that would make Tolstoy blush at their excess, which is a good one if you have ever read “War and Peace”. They also tend to be expensive, not the best thing when you are trying to promote something that is free.

This is a case where Microsoft deserves a large portion of the blame, because as they began to reduce included documentation, both the physical kind and that binary type on disk, they reduced the average user’s expectations to near nothing. The only reason they get away with it is because they are almost the only game in town. The fact that Windows is almost ubiquitous helps, but it is mostly because they are the long time contender. By now, knowing the basics of Windows is almost an acquired human characteristic.

I have always maintained that this is one of the big stumbling blocks to large scale usage of Linux, FreeBSD, or whatever else is being developed. People like the book to be there, just as Linus (no  the other one) likes his blanket. It’s comforting, and everyone needs that.

As the blurb above mentions, you can use Google, but that too, means that the user has a way to access Google. Not always possible.

If there was a documentation project, a serious effort, not a sham; where the pages were kept up to date, it could definitely be sold, and would help in the efforts to continue free and open source software. I doubt that anyone would refuse to pay $10 for a DVD of complete documentation. Though some would pass it along for duplication, many would do the right thing, knowing that it is right, but also the expedient thing if they wish to continue getting proper documentation.

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