Five crucial things the Linux community doesn't understand about the average computer user

Summary:Question: Why is it that the average computer user still chooses to spend hundreds of dollars on Windows or Mac when there are countless Linux alternatives that they could download, install and make use of completely free of charge?

[Updated: May 23, 2007 @ 7.25 am] Part 2 of this article can be found here. 

Question: Why is it that the average computer user still chooses to spend hundreds of dollars on Windows or Mac when there are countless Linux alternatives that they could download, install and make use of completely free of charge?

The PC market is extremely cut-throat.  It has to be because consumers will go to great lengths to save a few bucks when buying their latest system.  But it seems that this thriftiness hasn't resulted in hordes of users choosing to buy PCs without Windows installed and instead choosing to install Linux instead.  In fact, there are plenty of users who would rather break the law and install pirated copies of Windows than go the legal route and install a Linux distro.  On the whole, most people would rather spend the money on Windows (or Mac) than take the time to experiment with Linux. 

It's pretty sad, but beyond a certain small segment of computer users, you can't give Linux awayWhy?

It seems that a lot of people are wondering this.  Since starting to dabble in the world of Linux I've seen this question posed on innumerable websites, forums and blogs.  Why is it that when consumer satisfaction with Windows is at a low (at least according to many in the pro-Linux community it is) is the Linux market share so low?  It's pretty sad, but beyond a certain small segment of computer users, you can't give Linux away.

Over the past decade I've had the opportunity (through my websites, blogs and the online classes I've run) of coming into contact with tens of thousands of computer users from all walks of life and this experience has been extremely valuable to me in getting a glimpse into how individuals view the relationship they have with their computer.  Based on this, along with my recent experience with Linux distros and communities, I've come to the conclusion that there are five crucial things the Linux community doesn't understand about the average computer user, and that these five things are slowing down the adoption of Linux onto desktop systems in the home and office.

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1 - On the whole, users aren't all that dissatisfied with Windows Despite what you read on websites and blogs, newspapers and magazines, people on the whole aren't all that dissatisfied with Windows.  There are millions of users out there who just get on and use their PCs without any real difficulty. 

After a decade of watching various trends and listening to people claim that there's going to be a mass exodus from Windows "any day now," I've just not seen it happen.  Sure, the number of Linux users is now up a few percentage points on what it was a decade ago, but there's no sign of a huge migration from Windows to Linux.  In fact, add Mac gains into the equation and the argument that people want open source seems to fall down.  Rather than moving from Windows to a free Linux distro, it seems that people are happier moving from one paid for, closed source OS to another.

The other flaw with hoping that dissatisfaction would drive users to another OS is that people just don't think that way.  When facing a problem with their PC, people don't automatically start thinking "oh, a problem, I'd better go look for another operating system."  No, these people just want the problem solved so that they can carry on with the work or leisure activities they were previously engaged in.  Switching OS is not a simple solution to a problem.

2 - Too many distros Want to know why more people don't choose Linux?  Here's a clue for you:

Too many distros!
Put simply, there are just too many darn distros to choose from.  Sure, put in some time and effort into research and experimentation and you'll find a distro that works for you, but let’s face it Windows users are having a hard enough time now figuring out whether they should go for Vista Home Basic or Home Premium.  Try and sum up the pros and cons of all the Linux distros and it just becomes far too complicated for users.  Look at the Mac user numbers and ask what Mac got that Windows and Linux don't - one choice.

You might be wondering why people like choice when it comes to browsers (Internet Explorer vs. Firefox) but not when it comes to their OS.  Simple, experimenting with a browser is safe, while messing about with Live CDs and virtual machines is beyond most people.  Tell most people that you spent the weekend running a variety of Linux distros thorough VMware and they wonder if you rounded off the entertainment by sticking pins in your eyes. 

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3 - People want certainty that hardware and software will work Name me five bits of hardware that lists Linux as a supported system on the box.  I've just had a look around the office and I can't find a single thing that lists Linux explicitly (I think I got a USB key some time ago that mentioned Linux but I can't be sure).  Until we see hardware vendors shipping Linux drivers for hardware as standard, this will remain a nightmare for anyone who doesn't have a sense of adventure.

It's worse for software.  Anyone making the leap from Windows to Linux has to start from scratch with regards to applications.  That's a much bigger undertaking than the Linux community gives credit for.  Having to come up with an alternative for every application you use is a big job.

Even with Dell's plan to ship PCs with Linux pre-installed, it's likely that the only people who will buy these will be people with enough experience using Linux to know what will work and what won't (or who will know where to find the answers).  I'm also left wondering how many people will buy an Ubuntu-powered Dell only to find out that there's more to running a Linux distro than getting an OS for nothing.  And how many will eventually give up and install Windows onto them? 

4 - As far as most people are concerned, the command line has gone the way of the dinosaur Linux users rave about the fact that under Linux you can dispense with the GUI and go back to the command line (even I like the power offered by the command line).  But let's face it, we "command line fans" are in the minority.  For those old enough to remember DOS, most are glad than those days are over, for others bought up on Windows, it's hard to explain the benefits of a command driven interface. 

In an age where people find it hard to keep a few control key keyboard commands in their head for any length of time, the idea of switching to a command line system just doesn't appeal to many people.

5 - Linux is still too geeky Over the last few years there's been a huge push to make some Linux distros easier to use, and when you look at a distro like Ubuntu, you realize that they've done a pretty good job.  Problem is, there are some areas of the OS that are still overwhelmingly geeky (for example, updates).  Here's what I wrote about this problem a few weeks ago:

Ubuntu is nice, it's solid, it's fast and it's robust (so far anyway), but it's also way too geeky in spots.  Don't get me wrong, overall Ubuntu is nice, friendly and convivial.  But there are dark corners that absolutely reek of Linux geekdom cliquiness that average users aren't going to feel at home in (I don't feel at home there).  Ubuntu updates are one such area where you need a high level of know-how to understand what's going on.What the Ubuntu dev team need to do is find, I don't know, 100 people who aren't Linux geeks and stick them in front of the OS.  Use these people to get feedback on different aspects of the OS.  As soon as users start to look confused, scared or go bug-eyed then something needs tweaking.  If your average home user is going to look at Ubuntu as an alternative to Windows or Mac, all these geeky corners have to be smoothed out. 

Thoughts?

[Updated: May 23, 2007 @ 7.25 am] Part 2 of this article can be found here. 

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Topics: Linux, Hardware, Open Source, Windows

About

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is an internationally published technology author who has devoted over a decade to helping users get the most from technology -- whether that be by learning to program, building a PC from a pile of parts, or helping them get the most from their new MP3 player or digital camera.Adrian has authored/co-authored technic... Full Bio

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