Originally Published: Sunday, 3 September 2000 Author: Matthew Yeo
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Power to the People?

Today, we'll fire up our time-traveling DeLorean and head back to September 19, 1999, to take a new look at an older article. The fact that most of the issues raised in the article have been resolved within a year is a testament to the momentum of the Linux movement. The once-"upstart" operating system is on the road to becoming the standard by which others are judged, and not the other way around. Read on to start your journey backwards in time...

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I feel that the strengths of Linux are amazing to behold. No one can fault its stability, its speed, or its configurability. Nevertheless, its weaknesses are also formidable, and Luke Groeninger barely scratches the surface of them in his article. What do you do when most of the population can't even install your OS?

I work in a nationally prominent bookstore and manage their computer and business book sections. While I do deal with a large number of computer mavens (who could conceivably install and run Linux with little or no problem), the vast majority of the people I see are looking for books like "Windows 98 for Dummies." There is such a huge discrepancy between what the average Joe is looking to get out of a computer and what he or she is willing to learn to operate such a complex machine and what an operating system like Linux demands. If the system installed itself and configured itself, then I would say that, perhaps, the average user would be able to run the day to day grind--the Internet, letters to friends, etc. The KDE desktop is as simple to run as Windows ... once it is set up that is.

Nevertheless, getting any system to that appliance level of reliability and ease of use is next to impossible when the people in charge of getting it to that point do not even know what a hard drive is. On my SuSE system, it took me almost a month to configure my printer, admittedly only working on it a few hours a day. What consumer out there has the patience to even attempt this level of involvement anymore? If Macintosh is slightly too arcane for the average user and Windows 98 is a darn sight too hard, then Linux is going to have to come up with a terrific installation program and Heaven inspired tutorial software in order to even attempt to break into this market.

Perhaps the answer is not to be found within the existing distributions but with a new entrepeneurial spirit. Existing Linux distros have catered to developers and IT professionals and have done very well by knowing what these customers want from an OS. Simplifying their distributions so that the common user could easily install and configure them might take something away from the flavor of a distribution as a whole -- and possibly alienate existing clientele who like the distribution just the way it is, thank you very much. Moving to include the home market may simply be too much of a shift in perspective for a company like Red Hat, for example, to handle.

Reworking existing software to fit this new paradigm would be difficult, but not impossible. A fictional company focused on the home market could, for example, use the following suggestions to get out a product that most people would be happy with:

  1. Simplify software selection significantly to only those programs a home user might actually use, and then only supply the easiest option if more than one application of a certain type (such as PPP setup) is available.
  2. Autodetect and autoconfigure all hardware upon installation.
  3. Supply a manual written by someone who is a writer/educator first and a Linux user second, rather than the other way around.
  4. Get the user connected and surfing as fast as possible.

The first company that figures out that regular computer users have a million things higher on their priority list than learning their new OS is going to be very wealthy -- Bill Gates made billions by only doing it half right.

Unfortunately, this type of company does not currently exist within the Linux community, which is why I am voting with my feet by selling my SuSE powered PC (along with their nearly indecipherable EngliGerman manual) and moving to the only company that seems truly intent on capturing the home market. Yes, I am going to Apple to buy one of those cute little iMacs.

Hmm ... tangerine, I think.

Matthew Yeo is a freelance Web hack, poet and activist living in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. He is recently married, just turned 30, and is expecting his first child in October. He fervently believes in computers for people rather than people for computers and actively disputes the common belief in the Internet as a democratizing force. Most of the world's people have never seen a phone, let alone a computer!

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