Originally Published: Sunday, 19 September 1999 Author: David Raufeisen
Published to: news_learn_firststep/Firststep News Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Plumbing

I have a confession: I began using Linux because I thought it would be hard to learn. Yes, I was tired of the pointless re-installations of Windows, and yes, I was tired of rebooting and had heard the stories of year-long uptimes with Linux boxes, but that was only half the attraction. I had also heard Linux was "cryptic" and "complex" with the occasional "arcane" thrown in for good measure.

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I have a confession: I began using Linux because I thought it would be hard to learn. Yes, I was tired of the pointless re-installations of Windows, and yes, I was tired of rebooting and had heard the stories of year-long uptimes with Linux boxes, but that was only half the attraction. I had also heard Linux was "cryptic" and "complex" with the occasional "arcane" thrown in for good measure. And the prospect of a serious intellectual challenge excited me as much as the prospect of never again performing the three finger salute of ctrl+alt+del.

You see, I come from a family of tinkerers. My father, when I was a kid, decided the family house needed a bigger kitchen. So he built one. By hand. With a full basement. From diagrams in a series of Popular Mechanics books. While he was at it he re-sided the entire house with vinyl siding. The running joke in my family is my father did all of this himself because he was too cheap to hire a contractor.

Which might be true. But he also did it for the Mallory-esque reason that it was there, and it was a challenge.

I'm lucky in this regard: I come from a family that values learning for it's own sake. It made little sense to my father to, for instance, pay a plumber to install new fixtures. What would he do when the faucet dripped? He'd have to make an appointment with the plumber, and listen to the drip-drip-drip for a week until it was fixed. Far better to learn how a faucet works and install it himself, so that when it inevitably dripped he could install a new washer and be done with it.

That's why Open Source Software, and GNU/Linux, appealled to me in the beginning. If something didn't work, I could find out why and fix it myself, instead of waiting for a "service pack" to come down from the secretive gurus in Redmond. If such a fix arrived at all. Imagine calling a plumber because your faucet was dripping, only to be told it was a feature. "The faucet is supposed to drip. Several other parts of your plumbing depend upon the drip from that faucet."

You'd find a new plumber fast. Or take a class on home repair.

And so, tired of being told the drip was a feature, not a bug, I plunged into GNU/Linux, relishing the opportunity to try and conquer the "arcane command line." Only I discovered it wasn't all that arcane. Nor was it that difficult to use, once I had gained sufficient knowledge. And because I wasn't spending a majority of my time trying to fix my system so that it didn't crash, I could devote more of my time to learning how it worked, which sped my acquisition of that knowledge and drastically flattened my learining curve. After you get the hang of it it's downright easy to learn new skills, especially if you don't have to spend half your time revisiting previous tasks that have mysteriously broken themselves. And I don't know about you, but I'd rather edit a text configuration file than tackle a Windows Registry entry.

The hands on approach isn't for everybody, though. Some people prefer to hire a plumber. That's why it is so important that GNU/Linux is working it's way into the mainstream pre-installed desktop market. Yes, it's fantastic that Best Buy now sells Caldera 2.3 and Redhat 6.0, et.al. on their shelves. But it's equally if not more important to the growth of GNU/Linux that Best Buy and it's counterparts sell pre-configured PCs with GNU/Linux already installed. Why do so many people use Windows? It's on their PC when they buy it. It's my contention that it's not a conscious choice, based on preference, merely an acceptance of the status quo. The biggest hurdle for GNU/Linux in changing that status quo, and stop me if you've heard this, is OEM installation. Yes, it's getting easier to install, even for a dual boot, but most average users aren't interested in tinkering with the Operating System, they just want a computer that works. My wife is a perfect example.

She protested the switch to GNU/Linux loudly when I finally wiped the Windows partition from the hard drive. "I'm not a guru," she said, "I just want to use the computer." As it turns out, far from requiring her to learn how to be a sys admin, the switch has freed her up to be just a user. No more GPFs, and the BSOD has disappeared, so she is able to concentrate solely on her task. Log in, surf with Netscape, write with WordPerfect, and keep a calender, worry free. No more crashes. Period.

Even if Netscape crashes, it doesn't take down the system.

I set up another system for a friend of mine, mostly from old parts I had sitting under my desk. It's nothing special, just an old Pentium classic, beefed up with 32 M of RAM. The case didn't even have a mounting kit for a floppy drive, so I installed one in a 5.25" bay. It isn't pretty, but it works. Brian doesn't know how it works, but he doesn't have to. Since I completed the installation he has only had one problem with the system - a power outage.

So while I enjoy using GNU/Linux because it presents a challenge and a learning opportunity, others I know use it for just the opposite reason - it's reliability and stability make it easy to use without constantly fiddling with the setup.

So if you really want to convert your friends and neighbors, don't tell them how easy it has become to install - volunteer to install it for them. Not only will you gain converts, you just might learn something in the process.

David J. Kuntz Kunda@linux.com





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