Originally Published: Monday, 25 October 1999 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Slam Linux: Part Two

Linux use is growing faster than a penguin in a herring fishery. However, I felt there were many issues that needed to be fixed before a wider audience could effectively use our beloved operating system. With this in mind, I asked for some input from those just starting to make the transition into our community....

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Linux use is growing faster than a penguin in a herring fishery. However, I felt there were many issues that needed to be fixed before a wider audience could effectively use our beloved operating system. With this in mind, I asked for some input from those just starting to make the transition into our community.

The feedback I received was phenomenal! There were over 20 comments posted here on Linux.com, 20 more when the story was picked up at Linux Today, as well as more than 30 e-mails! Rest assured that even if you haven't gotten a response, that I read them all.

It was rewarding to see Linux from a perspective I had nearly forgotten. There were many good ideas and suggestions from these new users. A couple themes appeared throughout many of these e-mails.

Linux's Shortcomings on the Desktop:

  • Difficult installation
  • Lack of clear documentation
  • Unsupported hardware
  • Obscure configuration files
  • No stable Quicken replacement
  • Buggy web browser
  • Connecting to the 'net is hard

Difficult Installation

The major problem many people still have when they want to get started with Linux is getting it installed. Since I started using Linux back in 1996, the improvements that have been made in this area have been incredible. In fact, many would argue that distributions like Caldera, Red Hat, and Mandrake are already on par with Windows 9X with respect to installation. However, installation is still not easy enough for a casual user. I suspect a lot of the venture capital flowing into Linux companies will be directed at improving installation programs and getting Linux pre-installed on new computers.

Prediction: This should be a non-issue for new users in less than a year.

Lack of Clear Documentation

Most programmers don't like to write documentation. The commercial world either forces their coders to do so, or hires someone else to do it for them. Until recently, most free software documentation was either non-existent or outdated and hard to find. Man pages and HOWTOs are great if you already have an idea of which tool you need to use to solve a task, but for a new user the language is often obscure and filled with unintelligible technical jargon. Furthermore, many GNU utilities choose not to have a man page in favor of an info file. Having two separate help systems simply increases confusion and wastes time for a novice user trying to get work done. This is another area where Linux is benefiting from corporate support. Red Hat's David Mason described part of his job at the Red Hat Advanced Development Labs as, "finishing up the user documentation which will be presented on the web and in the Gnome Help Browser." Ultimately, Linux may struggle for awhile to get consistent, easy-to-find information to the people that need it the most.

Prediction: Free software will struggle with this issue for awhile. Corporate entities may be forced to clean up after programmers in order to make their distributions easier for a novice user.

Unsupported Hardware

I received many complaints about Linux not detecting the latest Foobar X 3000 video card or the Plug and Play Whiz-bang Sound Card 3D. New users want their hardware to be auto-detected and setup properly. They'd rather not waste their time recompiling kernels or playing with video card mode-lines. This is one area that Linux is getting better. Hardware companies are increasingly aware that not only do they need to support Linux, but they need to release open source drivers.

Prediction: Now that one or two hardware companies have jumped on the bandwagon, their competitors will be forced to as well. This should increasingly become a non-issue.

Obscure Configuration Files

Even for a seasoned Unix guru, it is nearly impossible to remember exactly what every file in /etc does or what syntax to use. There have been some rumblings on converting some of these files into some sort of unified XML syntax, but even if it is adopted, it is a long way off. Hopefully, tools like Linuxconf and SAMBA's SWAT will continue to improve in ease of use. We should be able to accommodate those that want to go in and hand edit a text file and those that feel more comfortable with point-and-click.

Prediction: The first distribution to deliver an intuitive, powerful, comprehensive, graphical configuration tool will be eaten up en masse by new users.

No Stable Quicken Replacement

Not much more needs to be said here. We've got an influx of Office Suites coming into Linux, but we are still missing out on personal finance software. Hopefully, we can throw some support into some of the open source projects such as GNUCash.

Prediction: This is one of the killer apps needed to bring Linux to the desktop. GNUCash seems to have the head start on this task. That combined with the fact that it is free software will make it quite a contender even if Quicken decides to do a port someday.

Buggy Web Browser

There is little contention that Netscape is an ugly, bloated, crash-prone application. Unfortunately, no matter how stable Linux is, having Netscape crash makes Linux look bad. Having played with some of the latest Mozilla builds, I can see this won't be a problem in the future. We'll have a world class, standards based browser with theme support. Take a gander at these screen-shots of a new mozilla theme: One, Two.

Prediction: This problem is being rapidly fixed. Once Mozilla is feature-complete and stable, we'll start to see more of the magic of open source.

Connecting to the 'net is hard

Most of us are still stuck on the slow lane, with an old-fashioned phone line and a modem. PPP has always been notoriously difficult to setup and there are now a multitude of tools such as KPPP which make this easier. However, each distribution is different and it is hard for a novice user to even know where to begin or what tool they should use.

Prediction: Eventually, one tool will emerge from the competition and become standard across all distributions. Once this happens the process will be better documented and easier to find. More so, it will eventually be easier to setup PPP on Linux than on any other operating system.


Linux will become easier to use, as well as making even the novice user productive. Companies should take notes on how Microsoft converted users over to Word from WordPerfect. During installation, new features were touted, and a dialog box inquired if the user wanted help transitioning from Word Perfect. If so, their WordPerfect hotkeys were mapped to their equivalent Word functions. Microsoft Word also would pop up a help box highlighting how to do things the "Microsoft way" whenever it saw the user struggling.

We should offer this functionality as well. I would love to have "meta-themes" on my desktop. I should be able to select a default look for all of my programs. If I wanted to look like a Mac, Windows, or a NeXT machine, all my GNOME and KDE programs should change their GUI and hotkeys to conform to my wishes. Ideally, Linux would also help the user transition to X when it saw the user struggling. From what I understand, KDE already has plans to implement part of this meta-themes idea. In the future, KDE may be able to use GNOME themes, killing some of the criticism about Linux's mix-and-match looks. My final prediction is that both desktop projects will flourish, but will become more integrated with each other over time. We'll be able to meta-theme all of our programs to have a consistent look and feel as well as a choice in how our desktop works.

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

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