However, my situation is somewhat out of the ordinary. I don't expect that most regular end-users have or need more than one personal computer at home or at work. Additionally, as an Information Technology professional and as a writer who covers the industry that I work in, I choose to use multiple systems with different operating systems at home for educational purposes and also because I have a genuine curiosity about what is out there in both the Open Source and Microsoft-centric worlds. That's not necessarily a realistic usage scenario for everyone.
The greater and more important question is, who CAN switch to Linux? It should be noted that when I refer to groups of people here, I am for the most part excluding Information Technology professionals, Techies, digital content creation professionals, UNIX/Linux sysadmins and scientific academia who have much more sophisticated or specialized needs and may even be using Linux, the Mac and Windows and or a combination of these already.
As to WHICH Linux distribution any of these target users should be looking at, I am going to treat all of them equally and say that every single one of them will meet the basic usage requirements for the set of folks detailed below. For more information on Linux distributions, check out my Surviving the Recession with Free Linux Distributions roundup.
These users are 98% Web and email use, with very little else. If they are using anything outside of a web-browser at all, it's probably a rare case (they might use a game, if someone installed it for them). And if they know what a "file" is, its more in the abstract. To them a "file" is like an "inch"-- it's a unit of measurement and a description a lot of people use which doesn't really apply to them. It might as well be made of manila poster board for all they know, or care.
Senior Citizens are an especially big component of this group -- although a surprising percentage of Seniors have become quite savvy in terms of social networking, bulletin boards, and messaging (although note that if in that sub-group, they'd likely be manipulating digital photos or videos, so they'd be in another "grouping" entirely).
These people for the most part don't understand how computers work, and don't really have to. They're probably perfect Linux candidates, without them even necessarily knowing WHAT Linux even is.
The Super-casual Web Surfer is also probably the same type of person who might be perfectly happy with a netbook or entry-level computer as his or her primary computing environment. They also do not use external devices with proprietary device driver and support software that doesn't run on Linux. They have zero dependence on specialized, vertical-market applications. Virtually everything they do is web-oriented.
The Lower-Mid-Range: The "Type a Letter" User
These people do a TINY bit more than the Casual Web Users.
This group may occasionally use basic MS Office apps, but if they do its in a fairly unambitious manner for viewing purposes mostly, and they probably often have to be "babied" through any explanation more complex than "click on this". But many of these people wouldn't know an Excel spreadsheet from a hole in their head. They might dash out the rare letter to someone, but that's about it. They write it and print it. They probably know how to save the file, but rarely if ever do they need to send that file AS electronic data to someone.
These users are Web-wise, but are NOT using services which require "file manipulation", like Facebook (digital photos), iTunes (music files) or Blackberry (special hardware and software configuration).
These are the people who even this many years into the computer revolution still probably won't understand how a hard drive works, what a "directory" is and how they are laid out and accessed, etc. They use and manipulate files, but if those files weren't conveniently stored in areas labeled "My Music", "My Pictures" etc. they'd never be able to locate them.
Hardware-wise, these are probably the people who use whatever comes with a PC they buy and rarely if ever expand a system.
These would be good candidates for Linux, as long as they can manage to find where their documents are on a Linux system, and if they TRULY don't exchange documents with anyone else (most people actually DON'T).
The Middle of the Middle: The "Just Work, Dammit" User
These people usually don't want to be troubled. They just want it to work. Most of them could get away without any custom apps, although they DO want to be able to manipulate their photos, videos, etc. So something easy has to exist to do that.
I know of a CEO of a major corporation valued in the 100 billion dollars and above range who fits in this category and uses Linux exclusively on his desktop with no Windows software whatsoever. He has five icons on it: Email, Web Browser, Word Processing, Spreadsheet, Presentation. He isn't concerned about interoperability with Windows users.
In order of priority of what is critical to him, he sends email, he browses the web and he opens up and prints occasional productivity documents, which places him in this category of users that happens to be significant in size. There's absolutely no reason why these types of users cannot use Linux instead of Windows.
End-users like this have pieces of understanding of what's behind the computer they use. They'll know what a file is and probably have a decent idea of how to manipulate through directories and drives, but its kind of a "soft" understanding which shouldn't be challenged. This stuff gives them headaches for the most part and the computer really IS just a tool for these folks.
They definitely use Office, and probably work in professions where they manipulate documents and might need them at home. "True" Office probably still won't be a concern for most of them (how many people REALLY work for Law Firms, Ad agencies or the Government?) but note that there would be a subset of them where that might apply.
Like my CEO example, these people may generate "soft" work products (word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations, PDFs) that are going to be printed hardcopy, are usually not of a complex nature and/or do not need to be exchanged or originate from Windows/MS Office environments. The majority of home users fit into this category, as do high school and college students.
Note that to keep things easy to categorize, we're not including iTunes users here. We're considering that a "custom app" and so putting people who use it into the next category.
If they buy additional hardware they'd tend to try and consult someone more technical first.
This group sometimes owns digital cameras and my need to edit or upload photos to services such as Flickr or Picasa Web Galleries, and they also own digital media players and other mobile devices which are not dependent on proprietary software or specialized device drivers that are unsupported in Linux by the originating vendor or by the Linux community.
These people CAN be good Linux candidates, but only if whoever is setting it up for them does a lot of checking in advance to make sure their usage is as casual as it seems (and also that they aren't in the sub-group needing "True" Office).
The Upper-Mid-Range: The "Set It and Forget It" User
A slightly bigger jump.
These people probably DO install their own apps, although most of these folks still aren't technical. They just want things to WORK. In years past, they probably bought programs in software stores, but today they likely grab software off the web, and not always wisely.
The "True Office" divide probably still exists. Some will need it but most won't. The real issue with people like this would be something like iTunes. They want it, they want it to work, and they don't want to think about workarounds or alternatives. If they depend on iTunes to buy their music, it may be a deal-breaker for Linux.
At work, beyond mere Office, they might also use BlackBerries or another mobile device they expect to be able to integrate at home, and they might even be handed a Citrix Remote Access install disk or a VPN client by their IT department and be expected to install it and use it at home. They'll tear their hair out if this doesn't all work for them.
They'd tend to buy printers right from Costco or Staples and expect them to consistently work right out of the box.
These are often bad candidates for Linux, because they can be casual AND demanding in different ways as users. They want things to be easy, and yet always work. They should probably stick with Windows and Mac.
The Upper Range: The "Power User"
They aren't the experts by any means, but they are usually clever enough (or stubborn enough) to figure things out. They're likely to use any number of software and hardware devices, but by the same token might accept compromises.
If iTunes doesn't work, they might accept that if they can kludge another solution but have everything else work better. If they occasionally need "True" Office, they might be able to puzzle through something like CrossOver or VirtualBox, although not being techies they might need assistance. If a specific piece of hardware doesn't work on Linux, they'd have the savvy (and patience) to ask what comparable hardware would instead.
These people are good candidates for Linux in many cases, but might do better with Windows or even the Mac in others. The benefits of the Linux config would have to outweigh the ones of the Windows or Mac config, although they'd be flexible and adjust either way.
Do you or someone you know fit into any of these categories? Talk Back and Let Me Know.
Jonathan Lurie (email@example.com) contributed to this article.