that expect their work to amount to anything other than a hobbyist’s plaything.

That is what is over on the ZDNet site this morning. Now perhaps it is the frame of mind I’m in, but I don’t think that is the only reason I find this the most precise and perfectly timed statement of the past 5 or so years. Every year lately, it seems, the pundits of computing put forth the notion that the upcoming year will finally be the year Linux breaks through, and becomes the mainstream wonder it should have been years ago.

Unfortunately, all of these would-be-prescient proclamations forget the one thing that is the stumbling block to their statements, that the average computer user is a dummy, and that is exactly the way the greater computing world wants them.

Anyone who is 40 or under and raised as a user, rather than an expert, is unlikely to even remember MS-DOS. Let alone command-driven Unix.

Those that do remember may find their memory foggy, for unless use is made of knowledge, its quick retrieval sometimes escapes us. Those of us who remember, or continue to use the command line know when it can save massive frustration, but also know how easily the skills fade, if not polished every so often.

The point-and-click interface of Windows 3.0 dropped 20 years ago, and the mass market no longer knows any other way. (The picture is from CNET Crave UK, a story about monitoring power on Windows using DOS commands.)

Users (as opposed to experts) expect that if a point-and-click solution doesn’t exist on their hard drive, or can’t be readily downloaded, that there will be an online service that can diagnose and fix the problem somewhere. That’s how they roll.

Ubuntu has never had the financial scale to provide this. GUIs like KDE and GNOME are great while you’re in them, but way too often you’re not in them, and when that happens you’re lost.

Let me illustrate with the example of a friend who recently bricked a netbook.

The unit originally ran Windows. He downloaded Ubuntu to a stick, but tired of Windows’ insatiable demands for space on his c: drive, which “only” had 8 GBytes.

When loaded from the stick, Ubuntu told him his Broadcom WiFi chip set needed an outside module, which was not open source. It found it, and loaded it, then told him to reboot. When rebooting from the stick did not work immediately (Windows got in the way),  my friend tried again, and learned his hard drive was now completely full.

So in frustration, but confident of success (he listened to me unfortunately), he followed the stick’s instructions and loaded Ubuntu directly, erasing his Windows machine. When he tried to reboot, the WiFi was not found. A check of the Web found a solution, but that solution led directly to command line hell.

Yes, there were solutions. Yes, my friend made mistakes. Maybe you think he’s an idiot. But he’s a mainstream user, and mainstream users demand a more forgiving environment.

True, Linux is strong and getting stronger. But if your desktop users have to boot to the equivalent of an old blinking c:/ prompt, and then face the horrors of creating and running a make file, those who succeed will no longer be users. They will be experts.

Thus systems like Ubuntu will remain education and hobbyist environments. Until you can deliver the applications people need and use (a changing landscape) without leaving the GUI, users who buy your line will just be making bricks.

The great hope of Android and Chromium, of Meego and Symbian, is that they can deliver a user experience just like this. By breaking down functions into apps, which are simply downloaded, run, and work, these Linux distros could finally enter the 1990s and compete with Windows and Apple on equal terms.

A boot to the equivalent of DOS frustrates mainstream users. Fewer-and-fewer can tolerate it. If you can’t avoid it you can’t compete.

The piece is exactly right, and as I stated above, the greater computing world is designed, and needs to stay, for dummies. The customer service model is built upon a notion that the person on the other end of the phone is only one page ahead of you in the manual, and, if you ask anything advanced, or off the menu, your call is further delayed by being sent up the line, to someone who might actually know something. This can actually take a while, because at each stopping point, a general test is needed, to see if your knowledge exceeds that of the person on the other end of the call.

Those who want to use Linux, Unix, or any one of the BSD distributions, are expected to know how to read with comprehension, know how to use a search engine – using actual arguments – and, above all else, have some level of patience.

Today’s average user has none of those skills.

The average user today might actually be very proficient at what he has actually been shown, and so my claim of dummy status is a bit overblown, but still, the skills to produce adequate results with something not completely familiar are not there. The closest parallel I can draw is with the child that has been taught to sight read, with no phonetics skills. As long as the words are known, that child may appear to be brilliant as they read from a book, but as soon as the first unknown word comes along, the spell is broken.

So, until we have more help for those who learn by rote, and have no exploratory skills, any non-Windows, not-completely-ruled-by-a-GUI method of operation is doomed to be a niche product.

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