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

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. 


[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

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  • The lure of adventure

    Adventure is the key word, I think. Linux puts the fun back into computing. Using Linux means stopping with just plodding on with boring everyday tasks. Instead you take absolute control over your machine and start to explore new frontiers. Go Linux, young man! :-)

    That is why Linux is hip and Windows is so yesterday. Indeed only a small minority adopts Linux today, but that minority is setting a trend for the masses. Everybody wants to be cool, right? And as Linux becomes more user friendly every day, it becomes a *safe* adventure as well.

    Greetz, Pjotr.
    • tRu dat

      • Missed the MAIN REASON

        The interface, though its gotten better, still provides those ragged fonts when you resize a window, TTF is not implicit or default standard. And there is hardly a way to use small or very small fonts with out a lot of tweaking, something always fails.

        I love Linux, use it daily and wish most would see its benefit. But people are lazy, and they want instant satisfaction. Linux does not provide this. Yes, there is Open Office, You can also get an Autocad, and some development language. But until something better than Kylix, Mono or the KDeveloper comes along, something like Visual Studio, a complete integrated enviroment that doesn't cost much. Most user apps developed for Linux will never fully challenge the MS World.

        One of your points, Too many distributions, is very true. MS has nothing to fear until these distributions start working together. As it stands now, every one reinvents the wheel in Linux every so often, which is a lot of wasted effort, though it also provides its flare, allowing many more ideas to creep into the market, providing its continuous presence.
        • Linux Is Alawys Behind

          Even with OpenOffice, as soon as Linux users finally got that MS released the latest version of their Office software which pretty much runs circles around OpenOffice in a whole variety of ways (like the line limits in Excel for example).

          It's behind in other ways too. I mean look at how long Linux was behind on Flash? It took them YEARS to finally sum up enough bother to even release a newer version of Flash for Linux and even then it was only a beta (and they sure don't seem interested in taking it any farther). When they wind up releasing Flash X do you HONESTLY think they'll even BOTHER releasing a version for Linux at the same time? Cause ten to one says Linux users have to wait at LEAST 6 months to 2 years (and possibly another release version) before they even bother with it.

          PS - I liked your comment about reinventing the wheel, anyone remember Star Office? LOL
          • Forgot To Add

            There are plenty of other examples where support for Linux is more of an idle after thought than it is a serious priority. If you TRY and use Linux as a desktop environment you'll ALWAYS be behind everyone else, that's a fact.

            Linux is GREAT for a LOT of things, but a desktop environment simply is NOT one of them. I myself use it for my web server and for symmetric multiprocessing applications. It's also a great OS for running your toaster oven cause it can be stripped down to almost nothing and loads in a split second. Beyond that though Linux is largely deficient.
          • I don't agree with you on this

            I use Linux as my main OS, it's been years since I last booted to Windows on my box. So clearly Linux is GREAT for MY desktop environment.

            It may not be for everyone... A Mac for instance is nothing for me. :)
          • I don't agree either...

            I've been using Linux for years also, but I do still use Windows for gaming for those games that will only run on Windows, many can be emulated, in my case some run better, besides more and more games are supporting linux nthesedays (Vendetta online as an example), but otherwise Windows has as much use with me as Freezer does to a penguin, Mac's also. I am a developer, but that aside, Linux is still a very good desktop.
            People often quote the fact that OOo is some way behind MS Office and as soon as one version is released MS release a more advanced version of office, but what they must remember is that in the case of OOo, it is trying to support MS technologies into it's products ie the BASIC used for macros. This inherently means that it has to behind Office.
            Linux IS harder to grasp in some areas, and in others it is more sense, ie there's no sense in pressing a start button to stop your computer is there?
            Maybe instead of critising something that some people clearly either don't want to understand or can't be bothered to try properly, support it. Free OSS is in everyones benefit. There is no one who wouldn't benefit from this wonderful collaboration of developer and consumer and ethusiast.
            I have to say, thought, that I find it amusing how some die hard Windows sers run off sniggering after slating Linux Users and how windows is better... If only they knew, the last laugh is on them.
          • Well Then You HAVE To Be Retarded

            ...I mean, I said Linux was behind...I gave SPECIFIC examples, IRREFUTABLE PROOF that PROVES that Linux is unless you're retarded or completely the hell out of your gourd...I don't see how you can not agree.

            Further, NOTHING you said had ANY relevance AT ALL regarding what I talked about. Again, the SUBJECT of my post was about Linux being BEHIND...whether or not the only thing you do with your computer is use it as a table centerpiece really doesn't change that fact in any way.
          • Onideus_Mad_Hatter runned out of arguments...

            I aggree, Onideus_Mad_Hatter has no clue, and couldn't have been trying Linux the last 5 years.
            Instead of getting some info by actually trying it out a month, he desperatly grabs on to his lovely MS Windows Vista (presumebly pirated, as most MS users) and get down to throwing abuses on anyone who don't "see" his (shabby) light to OS AND applications.
            MS Windows is behind Linux, as it doesn't support as many applications like any Linux distribution does.
            To support it has to have an infrastructure to easy upgrade when any security is on any software is available. Like Debian/Ubuntus upgrade from gui for ALL it's packages, like three word processors, five webb browsers, games etc.
          • I am too

            I have tried to use Vista on my work laptop PIV with 1 gb of RAM :( (I have experimented for a day)- when I ran all the tools I need (RDP mmc and so on. performance simply were going down..)
            Very poor performance - even I disabled themes serves and other staff.

            But on OpenSuse and F6 I use (krd, many rdesktops at ones,compiz(just to test :)))VmWARE , one BOINC project with 40% load, and ... all this staff takes only 512mb of RAM.
            OR I need to go and by need Core Duo laptop?

            MCP/MCSA/MCSE+Secutity 2003
          • Jxn Babbles Incoherently

            Hey Jxn, durr ur, tell us all how long it was that Flash was TWO VERSIONS behind Windows? LOL, you notice these doorknobs like Jxn can run at the mouth real good but so far not ONE of them has been able to actually refute anything I've said.
          • do not agree either.

            Sorry i do not agree with this statement either. I use linux
            and linux applications for all my engineering work at school.
            I have about 30 games on computer, so many i don't even know
            which ones i have anymore (and no i am not a 2d scrolling game
            lover, i go for the meat, 3d games). I solve mathematical
            equations, simulate electronic circuits, do 3d CAD, simulate
            control systems and design amazing looking 3d scenes that can
            be used in games. I do all of my documentation on linux and
            everyone i ever send the documents too can read them, with my
            original formatting (except in the case of some unsupported
            fonts on windows side)... and all of the above for FREE!!!??

            I do however have to agree with the author. Finding
            applications can seriously be a *****, however once you know
            where to look, finding applications is no longer that hard.

            I have had 3 different motherboards in my computer, 5
            different graphics card, 3 different sound cards, 2 different
            joysticks, a digital camera, mp3 player, a usb scanner, a usb
            printer and an external senao usb wireless network dingle. Not
            once did i ask someone if they knew wether they were supported
            by linux, granted after buying them i had to sometimes search
            for info on how to get it working, like the wireless dingle,
            but they are all working and i am a happy linux user.

            Just like someone else that posted here, i have a windows
            partition, but it has now been 6 months since i last booted
            it, and that was for a project that i had to design in

            I seriously do not understand people like you that throw
            stones at projects like gnu/linux. wtf is your problem! The
            developers of these projects deserve more respect and credit
            than they are currently getting. They are providing the tools
            to learn, understand, design and make a better life for free.

            GRRR i think i will stop here, i feel a well of anger
            streaming through my veins right now.
          • Yea I disagree too,

            i use linux as my primary desktop at work, my company has a few things that are IE dependent so I have a windows machine too, but I hardly use it except to clock in when I arrive in the morning, but as far as being "an idle afterthought" you are sadly mistaken, I can do more with my linux box than I ever thought about doing with windows, at least with what I do. besides the fact that when someone sees a non windows machine, they are too scared to even touch it, so I don't end up getting all of the classic windows practical jokes played on me.
          • You Do Know Windows Is Fully Skinable...Right?

            I'm sure being the "Linux guy" at work has all sorts of social perks from a wannabe nerd perspective and all, but the fact is, you have FAILED (as have all the others before you) to address ANY of the points I mentioned, most notably the one about Flash so in conclusion it seems yer just another...nothing...babbling seem to be pretty good at that though. Is that what you're employed to do by any chance? If not, you might want to consider a career change, I think you'd enjoy it a lot more.

            Do be sure and let me know when you actually manage to formulate a specific, NAMED point that counters one of my arguments...and no, babbling incoherently about "doing things" with Linux that Windows supposedly can't (at least not to *your* limited knowledge) doesn't count, Sunshine.
          • What can you do that you can't with Windows?

            I am not sure what extra powers Linux has, but please list them and help Linux's cause.

            The hard thing to beat about Windows are: the similiar program layouts (File, Edit...) which make it very easy to use all programs, the popularity and the general knowledge everyone has and communicate to eachother.

            Now I have used Linux and found that there was more work involved in installing and using it. Linux has to make their OS do more than Windows (or do it better than Windows does) to gain popular support. Then it will have to withstand Microsoft's attack to maintain its position or grow.

            I would like to see a distro of Linux that independently runs Windows software (XP is enough) as well as its own. As long as I don't have to purchase Windows as well, it would do more. If it was also very easy to install the switch is totally painless.

            It will be interesting to see whether someone or some group puts these pieces together. I have no major problems with Windows, other than the elevated price (no competition) and a lack of confidence in
          • @ Onideus_Mad_Hatter

            ummm.. how about reading the ource code and changing it to
            your advantage!! duh!

            another thing, dont forget that alot of the drivers and such
            have been reversed engineered because others have refused to
            support linux!
          • Deficient?

            I use Linux for all my web surfing, photo management, music, videos (even WMV), office (we still haven't found anything in our legacy office files which OO couldn't deal with), development, database (MySQL), email and archiving (my external disk is formatted with ext3).

            The fact is, that people who really give it a try and are not closed-minded from the start, realize that Linux (with the Gnome Desktop in this case), is a very powerful contender. Sure there are some things I find better with Windows and somethings I find better with Linux. In the end, though, the few things MS does better don't outweight the security, stability and freedom I get with Linux.
          • It's Not Just A Fun Word To Say Slowly And Feel Your Lips Jiggle!

            See Junior, you DON'T use Linux for all your web surfing needs...I mean, how could you, at best it has a sloppy, bitched together piece of junk BETA version of Flash 9 that took em like, what was it, TWO YEARS to finally even take the BOTHER to throw together?'s like all you have to eat is fish and you've never tried anything else and you're trying to say that it's meeting all your needs...yeah, DEFICIENT needs. If you were actually AWARE of what you could do desktop wise WITHOUT the SHACKLES of Linux holding you's all about basis of comparison man. For a deficient like yourself all your problems look like nails cause the only tool you've got is a freakin hammer. Linux is NOT the right tool for the job when it comes to a viable desktop environment. It is ALWAYS behind and unless one you of continually bumbling, hapless doorknobs can manage to actually refute one of the already mentioned points...yeah...just keep that mouse pointer off the reply button, Kiddo, cause you ALREADY LOST the argument.
          • Move your lips rapidly?

            And mutter incoherent noise as you
            listen to your brain rattle around like
            a bb in a boxcar? And join the chant as
            the band plays "Microsoft is good,
            Microsoft is great, Hail King Gates,
            long live Microsoft? Down with Linux!
            Is that what "deficient" means to you?

            Wonder what "argument" you refer to?
            Your speech is "deficient" in reason.
            Ole Man
          • Yes

            It is amazing that people who have a regular job and work on Linux in the evenings and off hours just can't seem to keep up with Microsoft and it's 80k+ salary employees, lawyers, marketing, and PR people. I just don't know what is wrong with this picture. I'll get back with you.