Originally Published: Friday, 29 December 2000 Author: Jason Tackaberry
Published to: daily_feature/Linux.com Feature Story Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

When Will Mom Use Linux?

Jason points out some of the shortcomings of Linux for the average Joe user. However, does he adequately point out what Linux is growing to become? Read through this article and give us feedback on what you think. Will your mother begin using Linux someday? Are we getting ready for that stage in Linux?

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There's no doubt about it. I'm a power Linux user. I love to live on the bleeding edge, installing development kernels minutes after they are released or hacking the source code of my favorite application because I want something to work differently, or writing shell scripts to have my computer speak to me when new mail arrives, announcing the sender and subject. This is the power that Linux offers me. Still, despite all that power and flexibility, Linux fails me in so many ways. And sometimes, in my moments of weakness, I begin to lose faith in my favorite operating system.

Two years ago I was bold and naive enough to assert that my mother would be able to switch to Linux by now. And if Linux were ready for her, I think there's a pretty good possibility that she would do just that. You see, she, like so many other people with years of experience being an end user, despises Windows. Once a month she routinely sends a 10-page essay on her latest Windows escapade, which frequently ends with something like "and after 45 minutes on the phone with Compaq tech support, they had me reinstall Windows and the problem seems to have gone away." She always jokes about being an old dog that can't learn new tricks, but given a feasible alternative to Windows, I think she'd jump.

Unfortunately, there is no feasible alternative, at least for her. My mother, who is by no means technical but is also not completely computer-phobic, likes to try new software. I wouldn't have any idea how to explain how to install new software in Linux to a person whose command line experience involves little more than cd and dir from her DOS days -- which, I might add, is still significantly more than many average users possess today. The best case scenario would be to download the RPM (since I would recommend she use RedHat, or some other RPM-based distribution), double click on it in the file manager, and have it install without a hitch.

This is certainly pretty feasible right now. But such a seamless installation is the exception, not the norm. Failed package dependencies, library version conflicts, and whatever else could go wrong, will. What if there is no packaged binary available? I care too much about her sanity to subject her to compiling software manually. Yes, ./configure && make && make install is too much even for her. Technical inferiority aside, software installation in Windows just works most of the time.

Let's shift gears for a moment. Six months ago I decided to buy a digital camera. After spending some time combing through the specifications of the Kodak DC290 Digital Camera, I made my choice. Obviously there was no Linux support listed on Kodak's website (even today very few hardware vendors support Linux), so I combed the net to see if Linux supported the DC290. While at the time, gphoto had no support for it, someone had gotten the camera to work using a kernel module and a Python script. Having had years of experience with hacking under Linux, that was all I needed to know, and I had the camera in my possession but a few days later.

Support for this particular camera was only available in the 2.3 series development kernels. Building the new kernel with support for the camera and also my newly acquired TV tuner card and getting everything to work was about a full day's job. I didn't mind spending a day on this because making everything work in my primary OS was important to me. Still, as sheepish as I am to admit it, I had installed the drivers, software, and was using the camera in about 15 minutes under Windows.

Yes, support for my new camera was highly experimental. But even for devices supported in Linux since the 2.0 kernels, installation is rarely that straightforward. Occasionally I have been pleased with Red Hat's kudzu detecting a new network card or video card and configuring the drivers flawlessly, but with more extravagant devices like TV cards, IR devices, or cameras, forget it.

I have since sold the Kodak camera and acquired a Canon G1 digital camera. I spent a long time researching this purchase; my requirements for a digital camera have outweighed my requirement that it must work under Linux. My searches have, so far, indicated this camera is not yet supported under Linux, and so I, like my mother, need Windows.

The future is not so grim, however. While I may sound very pessimistic, I am in reality quite optimistic. The problems I've talked about are, thankfully, by no means unsolvable. Initiatives such as the Linux Standard Base (LSB) will reduce and in some cases eliminate inconsistencies between distributions. Vendors will some day be able to easily provide applications and drivers for Linux distributions that follow the LSB. I also have very high hopes for projects like Helix Code's Red Carpet and Eazel's Software Catalog, which have the potential to make installing software on any distribution something my mother would actually find fun.

I'm going to stick my neck out and make another bold statement: In two years I will be able to recommend Linux to my mother. And she's going to love it.

Jason Tackaberry (tack@linux.com) works in Ontario, Canada as an Academic Computing Support Specialist. He is the author of ORBit-Python, Python bindings for ORBit, and several soon to be released projects. Having over 12 years of development experience in C and C++, and hacking with Perl for 4 years, he has turned to Python as his new favorite language.

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