Originally Published: Tuesday, 10 August 1999 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The Journey from Newbie to Guru

So far, the best part of writing for Linux.com is all the super e-mail I get after each article. Some of my favorites have been from folks that are just getting started with Linux. Every day the Linux community is being joined by new members and they want their voices to be heard. In this piece I'll discuss some of the themes I am hearing from them, and how this will shape the future of GNU/Linux.

Becoming a Guru ain't easy....

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So far, the best part of writing for Linux.com is all the super e-mail I get after each article. Some of my favorites have been from folks that are just getting started with Linux. Every day the Linux community is being joined by new members and they want their voices to be heard. In this piece I'll discuss some of the themes I am hearing from them, and how this will shape the future of GNU/Linux.

Becoming a Guru ain't easy.

I have been using Linux for close to four years now. I consider myself reasonably competent in using it, but I also strive to keep in mind what it was like to just be starting down the path. The Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki said, "in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." To me, there is much truth in this. Often, once you have put a lot of time in effort in becoming an expert you close your mind to alternatives. The community needs new users with fresh perspectives on solving problems.

Unfortunately, there is a vocal contingent that derides any attempt to make Linux easier for the new user. I think this attitude stems from the fact that when they first started using Unix or Linux it was very difficult and the commands were extremely arcane at first. They made a large investment learning how to use these complex and sometimes expensive computers. These are the ones that will put down user-friendly tools, because it puts Linux into the reach of more people.

I look upon this attitude as being cognitive dissonance, which is:

The stressful mental state people are in when they are doing things they normally do not do or are having opinions that are not consistent with their other opinions.

-- Cognitive Dissonance

In this case, those that are often vocal in wanting Linux "World Domination," helping one's neighbor, freedom, and sharing source code hold the opinion that Linux shouldn't be made too easy. These opinions really don't jive with each other, causing those that hold them to become hostile with new users.

An example of this is fraternity or military hazing. In these circumstances, new recruits are put into situations that are difficult and often demeaning. After going through harsh pain and agony, these recruits become extremely devoted members (they have to rationalize to themselves that if it was so difficult and painful it must be very valuable and worthy). However, when they are on the opposite side of the hazing, instead of remembering how hard it was for them, they are just as harsh on the newbie, and resist any attempt at reforming the rituals to make it easier for new members to join.

Luckily, with the diversity that Linux provides we can have an environment that both the old-style command line Guru and the GUI-happy Newbie can thrive in. Distributions such as Slackware and Debian can keep the Gurus happy while Caldera and Red Hat have the financial incentive to bring new users into the Linux camp.

One of the key strategies in moving a user from one system to another is preserving the system interfaces that they are used to. Microsoft used this technique to move users from the dominant word processor WordPerfect to their product. We should do the same thing with legacy Microsoft products.

The vast majority of people in the Windows world use windows for four things:

  1. Office Productivity (Microsoft Office)
  2. Games
  3. Financial Software (Quicken, MS Money)
  4. Internet (Web Browsing, E-mail)

In order for a new user to switch over to Linux they need to be able to complete these same tasks with a minimum of re-learning and with the same or greater amount of functionality. Ideally, they should be able to import and export to their legacy data files.

Inertia Creeps

Right now, the office suites that are available under Linux don't meet these goals 100%, although I consider Star Office to be pretty close. However, I am excitedly following the work of KOffice. Of all the projects going on in the Linux world, this one catches my attention more than anything. Looking at the screenshots, one can see that it will turn out to be a powerful application of open source that should will let users easily transition from their legacy Office suite.

While games are certainly not missioncritical, they are one of the main reasons why even die hard Linux users keep a Windows partition around. This is an area that has seen an explosion in the past couple of months with Loki Entertainment Software porting some of the more popular Windows and Mac games to the Linux platform. If they succeed, they not only will encourage more users to wipe their Windows partition, but will give rise to improvements in the graphics and sound subsystems in the kernel and user space. They seem to be active in improving the open source Simple DirectMedia Layer which is, "a free cross-platform multi-media development API" that is somewhat analogous to DirectX.

Financial software is a weak point right now on the Linux platform, although there are several efforts that should be prime-time soon. The biggest one right now is GnuCash. Although the fundamental underlying application is well within the reach of open source programming, it will be hard to match the industry connections that Quicken has. For instance, bill pay, online banking and such are all still largely proprietary. One can imagine that once Linux's desktop market-share increases, there will be incentive for broader industry support in this regard.

The final major category Linux must provide to the casual computer user is: Internet access with easy to setup PPP, Web browsing and e-mail. Even though Linux has an industrial strength TCP/IP stack, setting up PPP still can be hit-or-miss depending on the distribution. KDE's dialer is so far the easiest to setup that I have seen. Web browsing is being handled by Netscape, which is still more or less industry-standard and familiar to a wide range of users. Hopefully Mozilla should fix many of the bugs and bring the browser to 100% standards compliance. E-mail is still a fairly weak area on the Linux desktop. Most users want to see a Eudora-type application. Even though tools like mutt are powerful, they can take a long time to customize and learn. As far as I can tell, the GNOME project is working on a Microsoft Outlook clone, which should satisfy the majority of the users.

The only other weak spot that I can find in pushing Linux onto the desktop is in the state of documentation. One user e-mailed me and said that he had spent twice as much buying dead tree documentation as he had spent on Linux software. This is one area open source lags behind in. Most programmers detest writing documentation. Maybe Red Hat or some other company will simply hire a bunch of technical writers and get everything up to date and easy to find.

Notice that I didn't mention anything about an integrated desktop? Although I feel that the KDE and GNOME projects are important to Linux in the long-term, my observation of casual users shows that they aren't even aware of what an integrated desktop can provide to them. Most just use the shell to launch and switch between their key programs. Usually they aren't even aware of drag and drop without a fair amount of training. In fact, at my work we setup a Linux box running Window Maker for use by a group of computer novices. They login at the prompt, are immediately taken into X, and have nice big icons to launch Netscape. We actually have them load an xterm and telnet to the University mail server to run pine. This system works far better than the previous Windows 95 box we had performing the same tasks. Each user has their own login, their own customized Window Maker themes, and it has been crash free since inception. Oh, and the cost of the software was free.

Conclusions

Hopefully, the Linux community will continue to welcome new users and teach them the importance of software freedom and open source. They should learn who Richard Stallman is and why he is important. They need to be taught the Unix philosophy as well as how to help out their neighbor. I know that I have been helped by countless people around the Internet until I got to the point where I can run on my own. I consider it payback to the people that helped me to help out someone that's having problems now. I make it a point to help people get Linux installed and to point them in directions where they can find answers and help. If everyone that comes into Linux has this attitude we can make keep the feeling of a helpful community self sustaining in the long term.

New users will initially be converted over with an easy to use graphical interface that they can interact with using familiar concepts. At their own pace, they can discover the power of some of the command line tools that will increase their productivity. They just won't have to get over that huge initial curve to begin using Linux effectively. With the pluggable architecture of Linux, the Gurus won't have to be burdened with the easy interface, they can continue using Linux just as they always have. Customization makes the customer happy :) Once the masses begin to switch over to Linux, we'll see more hardware companies finding it economical to include Linux drivers with their products as well as more software houses putting shrink wrapped linux ports on store shelves and then there won't be much holding us back from World Domination (TM).

Matt Michie is a Linux Guru wannabe and student living in New Mexico. He loves to get e-mail at mmichie@linux.com and maintians a web site at http://web.nmsu.edu/~mmichie.




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