Originally Published: Sunday, 11 June 2000 Author: Rob Bos
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Std View]

Why Linux Makes Sense To The End User

To the end user, the regular person on the street who doesn't know or particularly want to know much about computers in general, Linux isn't that big a deal. It's just another way of doing a task, and not all that good at the tasks that the normal user needs to do on a regular basis.

To the end user, the regular person on the street who doesn't know or particularly want to know much about computers in general, Linux isn't that big a deal. It's just another way of doing a task, and not all that good at the tasks that the normal user needs to do on a regular basis. Even things that are perceived as very, very basic, such as reading e-mail and browsing through Web pages, are fraught with problems.

From an end user perspective, Linux is very unwieldy: Web pages with question marks where quotes should be, ugly Web browsers, inconsistent interface (no two applications are alike). And what's worse, all of the Linux users you ask for help start their instructions with a "get to a root prompt." This is typically very unfamiliar territory for someone who's never really touched a non-graphical computer system.

Installing programs is counterintuitive (why are they in so many tiny little packages?), configuring them even more so (why does every tiny little program keep its configuration in /etc and why do I need to be root to change them?), and updating programs is inconvenient (why should I update because of a stupid little security patch? I don't have anything important on my computer!).

Using Linux requires that a user delve more deeply into their computer than most people ever want to know. On a single-user machine, a person becomes both a system administrator and a user.

Using Windows, on the other hand, is much different. For all its faults, Windows deals with this problem by making the blatant assumption that it is a single-user system. While this assumption makes Windows almost useless for anything beyond single-user use, this makes it relatively easy and straightforward for users to administrate. While its single-user assumption makes it also extremely easy to break, and Windows users typically end up constantly fixing it and doing maintenance on it, it is at least fairly structurally simple and flexible.

So why, then, should regular people switch to using Linux? (Side note: As I type this up on an NT machine in a computer lab, the woman sitting at the computer in front of me is reading Linux.com -- neat coincidence) What could possibly motivate regular people to use it? Why should someone like my mother put in the effort to install Linux and learn a new environment?

There are the usual answers: stability, safe files, making data easier to back up, a prettier interface, more choices, better programs (though certain types of programs don't exist yet, the ones that Linux does have are of far higher quality and far more flexible than the Windows equivalents, as a general rule) and the ability to go for years without having to change things. The sheer power that Linux gives you in terms of flexibility (try to find some equivalent to the "wget" program or the "dd" program under Windows) is something that most advanced users would never give up.

The most important reason, however, to use Linux isn't any of these things, although they have enormous practical value. The real advantage that Linux gives you is freedom. Linux is free software -- free as in libre, free speech, liberty. A lot of people don't like to talk about that, and it quickly becomes a taboo subject for people looking to forward Linux' market position.

Yet the fact of the matter is, Linux is free: free to change and hack, free to give to your friends, and free to do with as you like. You don't have to ask permission, and you don't have to jump through legal hoops.

No version of Windows, no matter how advanced, will ever be able to offer you this freedom. It will always be, in some form or another, owned by someone who wants to use it to extract as much from you as possible.

Linux is, in a very deep sense, community property. By using it, you become a member of that community and become the owner of Linux, a de facto member of the companies that make it. It belongs to you, and you can do as you like with it. No one will ever come at you with lawyers unjustly accusing you of pirating it. You'll never have to break the law to help out a friend by making a boot disk or lending you your OS CD.

Freedom is why Linux is preferable to most other OSes. Its power, continual improvement, ease of use, and such are only side benefits. Many people may not care about it, but it is also why the regular user should be using it -- to be free.

Rob Bos, rbos@linux.com