Over the past few weeks I’ve been fooling around with several Linux distributions (distros).Â For those who don’t know, “Linux” is a core operating system (kernel), around which various programming teams have built a variety of interfaces.Â Linux itself is a variant of Unix, basis of the Mac OS and a number of others.Â Thus, all the Linux distros — Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Red Hat, Debian, Linspire, Freespire, gOS and several dozen others — all share the same core and are, in fact, close cousins of each other and of the Mac as well.
Why all the variations?Â Because every geek or group of geeks out there thinks they know the best way to set up an operating system to control a computer and get business done.Â Some concentrate on remaining small and simple.Â Others try to emulate the look and feel of Windows.Â Some are approached via a graphic user interface (GUI) like Windows, and some use a command line approach similar to the Windows “Run” command, that involves entering arcane bits of codes and abbreviations in order to communicate with the machine.Â Most involve both to one degree or another.
Frankly, all that geeky stuff leaves me cold — me, and probably 98 or 99% of the computer users out there.Â We don’t have time to fool with it, and most of us couldn’t care less whether a folder is called My Computer, Home, or C3PO.Â We just want to interact with our machines and check our email, send IMs, create, manipulate, store and transfer documents, send photos of the grandkids, download porn, read and create blogs, and all the other simple things that make computing handy and fun.
I know: in reality, none of those things are simple, but we want them to seem simple.Â We don’t go out to the driveway and connect wires beneath the dashboard to start our cars (well, most of us don’t) and we want our interactions with the cyberworld to be just as painless as cranking up the Prius and driving 500 yards to the market, saving gas all the way.
It’s clear, however, that Micro$oft has fallen down on its job of providing us with the necessary improvements in our computing environments.Â Windows is too big, too buggy, and is simply not up to doing some of the jobs that newer applications and computers are asking.Â It uses basic programming that goes back to 1993, when its core (NT) was first published, and the uncontrolled bloat that has occurred since is clearly seen in Vista, which won’t even run on most older or smaller computers, and doesn’t run really well on any.
The small, stable Unix/Linux kernel seems to be the answer, unless Google has an alternative up its sleeve.Â Thus the rush by developers to get a version of Linux out that is comfortable for the average user.Â In several cases they’re really close to achieving that, but there is one problem — a perceptual one — that even the most polished versions have yet to get past: geekthink.
Geekthink is the misconception that the rest of the world thinks like a programmer; that they intuitively know things that are second nature to geekdom.
This leads to “obvious” things like calling folders “Home” instead of “My Computer,” referring to “easily obtainable by alt-get,” “are you root,” and stuff like that.Â They can’t seem to get it through their heads that noobies like me need to be led by the hand. We need everything explained, step-by-step, in excruciating detail.
People who think like programmers and who are still able to understand how to break information down into bits digestible by non-geeks are few and far between.Â What the Linux community needs is people who can look at their efforts from an outsider’s point of view, say “this isn’t intuitive; it needs fixing,” and be listened to.
Case in point: the Grub loader.Â It’s an elegant little piece of work, but no one outside the programming community knows how to use it, unless they took the trouble to do a lot of research and read through a lot of geekspeak to find out.Â Grub is the program that allows you to have Linux on the same computer or drive as Windows — which most newcomers will prefer.Â We want to try the distro out, get our feet wet slowly, before we marry it by buying a Linux-based computer or installing it as our only operating system.Â We need to learn how virtualization works — ahead of time.Â We need to learn the terminology.Â It would be nice to know which apps on the new OS are equivalent to things like Notepad, Wordpad and the Task Manager — and how they differ.
Grub makes that possible.Â But the programmers miss out on little things.Â They seem to assume, for example, that I will want to switch my PC on and have it boot into Linux, so they make that the default.Â Now, if I want Windows, I have to wait fifteen or twenty seconds.Â Then I have 10 seconds to tell Grub that I want Windows, or I’ll get Linux whether I want it or not.Â If I don’t want it to work that way, I have to perform a precarious task equivalent to editing the Windows Registry, if I can find instructions that I can understand.
Furthermore, if you want to remove most distros from your computer, you have to format the partition they’re on, first digging into Windows and getting rid of Grub so that you won’t get errors that prevent you from booting at all without a boot disc.
Now, there is absolutely no reason that Windows couldn’t be the default, just as there is no reason that Linux should have to be installed into its own partition on a drive — thus opening another can of worms.Â How do we know that?Â Because Ubuntu, of all the distros I’ve tried (about a dozen) has a installer called WUBI that installs the complete Ubuntu OS, with all its bells and whistles, into a folder on the drive of a Windows machine just like installing an ordinary program. Want shed of Linux?Â Uninstall it, using Add or Remove Programs or your other favorite uninstaller.Â I don’t know how it does that, AND I DON’T NEED TO KNOW.Â It just works.
So listen up, programmers: if you want your systems adopted outside your own little crowd of self-congratulatory byte-heads, make it idiot proof, and easy to use. Regardless of what seems to be an elitist attitude that users should have to pay their dues or something silly like that, you have to face reality.
We ain’t payin’ no dues.Â There is a good reason why Ubuntu is kicking other distros all the way to the curb amongst the non-cognoscenti: it’s nearly idiot-proof, and getting closer every day.Â Even Freespire is a PITA in comparison.Â Ubuntu can use CNR too, ya know.Â If you want success in the distro race, the formula is simple. Learn to think like beginners.Â Build interfaces for beginners.Â Find the few amongst you who can achieve “beginner mind,” and let them write voluminous help files covering every aspect of the system, from plugging in the box to running Photoshop in a virtual machine.
Or buy a canoe, because you guys are well on the way to missing the boat.