No Country for Linux Newbies?

To know Linux is to love Linux, aficionados would surely agree, but does one *have* to know Linux just to be able to use it at all?

That’s the question that was posed in a post over at Computerworld recently, and it’s made quite a splash in the blogosphere.

“Lately, I’ve been noticing stories about how to use Linux you need to know half-a-hundred Linux shell commands and the like,” began Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, author of the post.

“Ah, what century are you from? Today, if you can see a window and handle a mouse, you’re ready to use Linux,” he asserted.

Bloggers swarmed the topic like so many mice after a hunk of cheese.

‘Always Some Dumb F—ing Thing’

“Very well said,” wrote one anonymous reader in the Computerworld comments, which by Wednesday had reached 18 pages. “With 2009/2010 Linux distributions it is entirely possible, depending on how you use your system, to never visit the command line for as long as you use the system.”

On the other hand: “Sure, you probably don’t need to know anything special to USE it,” countered ms. “But to set it up, in my experience, there’s always some dumb f—ing thing that prevents a smooth experience.”

‘Pointless Blather’

Then again: “This is all pointless blather,” chimed in TNOT. “I just read 13 pages of arguments about why or why you don’t need to know Linux to run Linux.

“Linux can be run without the Command Line and knowing Linux very well. Yes, it can be done,” TNOT added. “However, that doesn’t mean Linux is a truly useful OS on the desktop. To make it useful requires appropriate user software.”

To those comments the gang on Digg added 300-plus more, making it crystal clear to Linux Girl that the topic demanded a closer look.

‘You Point, Click and Gawk’

“Of course, you don’t need to ‘know’ Linux to use it,” blogger and educator Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider. “It’s a graphical user interface. You point, click and gawk.”

Using Linux is “almost natural, but you still need to poke around to be really fluent — just as in any OS with a lot of features,” Pogson added.

“I have exposed Grade 1 kids to GNU /Linux GNOME desktops, and after they learned to click a mouse they were off to the races,” he recounted. “They were the only humans able to max out that terminal server.”

‘Less Likely to Develop a Spurious Problem’

Linux requires no more knowledge than any other operating system does, blogger Martin Espinoza agreed.

“If you have a problem with OSX you can find yourself needing single user mode to fix it,” Espinoza told LinuxInsider. “When I last did this, it was NOT at all a straightforward process, requiring the user to manually start daemons to change a password — I do hear it’s better, now.”

Similarly, “if you have a significant problem with Windows you’ll need to know all kinds of Kung-Fu to get it solved without a reinstall,” he added.

“Linux does not differ at all in this way, but it is substantially less likely than either to develop a spurious problem,” Espinoza concluded.


On the other hand: “You don’t need to know Linux to use Linux? BWA HA HA HA HA HA HA!” countered Slashdot blogger hairyfeet. “Thanks for the laugh, that was a good one. Should have known it was that Linux troll Nichols — that boy has drunk the koolaid too often.”

If a computer is used simply as an Internet kiosk, “sure, Linux is fine,” hairyfeet told LinuxInsider. “But I have always had at least one ‘gotcha,’ be it sound, wireless (really bad) networking, something. And that gotcha is gonna cost you several hours to several days trawling forums and putting in miles of CLI crud in vain attempts to get it to work before finally tripping over the correct ‘fix.'”

‘By Geeks, for Geeks’

What’s needed is “an easy way for customers to tell *in the store* — not two days later, after trawling forums — if that device in Staples works or not,” hairyfeet asserted. “We need certified lists of hardware, from the latest motherboards to WiFi cards, that are guaranteed to ‘just work’ and, more importantly, will continue to work even after updates.

“We also need solid, easy-to-use GUIs so users can do basic tasks without CLI,” he added.

In short, “Linux is by geeks, for geeks and built by geeks,” he concluded. For that to change, “it will take a ‘users first’ attitude that Linux simply doesn’t have.”

‘These Days the Installer Does It All’

That, however, may be changing, Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider.

“Back when I started using Linux, you had to have a good command of bash and the ability to write scripts, as well as hand-configure the GUI with the monitor timing codes,” he explained. “These days, the installer does it all for you, and for most home users you never actually need to touch a shell prompt, since everything has a wizard to configure it.”

In addition, “the nice thing is that if you really want to learn your machine deeply, you can use Linux From Scratch,” he added.

‘Not Harder, Just Different’

“On the whole, you don’t have to know Linux to use Linux,” said Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site.

“I would just add that it’s no different than going to a country where they drive on the other side of the road — it’s not harder, just ‘different,'” she told LinuxInsider.

Switching to Linux is no harder than switching to OS X, for example — “just without the black turtlenecks and the cool ‘I’m a Mac, I’m a PC’ commercials,” she said.

A Matter of Confidence

“If you’ve ever seen someone who’s never used a mouse before … they drag the mouse around and see the pointer move on the screen,” Hudson added. “When they get to the edge of the mouse pad, they say, ‘I can’t go any further!’

In short, she concluded, “anything new and different can be confusing.”

Indeed, it’s not a matter of knowledge per se, Linux Girl would suggest. It does, however, take an open mind, an enterprising spirit and a certain level of confidence. Fear the technology, and Redmond will show you the way; make it your own, and make Linux a way of life!


  • "it will take a ‘users first’ attitude that Linux simply doesn’t have"

    That is a joke, right? I was just reading the EULA yesterday. What does the EULA mean when it says I AM permitted to permit up to ten machines to use the file services in XP? I have 40 machines on the LAN. Am I out of compliance with all of them having file and print services enabled? When I read the GPL my blood pressure drops to normal again. I can run the software, period. No ands, ifs or buts and no lawyers required.

    How about users of that other OS not being able to find their files? It’s in "My Documents", right? Which My Documents would that be? Their display name is different from the path… How’s that for a user-friendly multiuser OS?

    Or, taking two minutes to login when GNU/Linux using the same hardware takes 5s?

    Or, slooowwwwwwiiiiinnnnng dooowwwwnnn? Or re-re-rebooting? WGdisA? Or needing to install software to keep the damn thing running? How is any of that user-friendly?

    Sheesh! I point a user at GNU/Linux and he is good to go. Everything works. Now. Fast. Forever.

    I have some of the most spoiled and demanding users on the planet. When they see GNU/Linux for the first time, they say, "That’s FAST!" and "Why haven’t we used this before?"

    GNU/Linux is easy for newbies and it has been for several years. That’s why they put it on the OLPC and the eeePC, silly.

    • Can I have some of that magic pixie you are spreading on your PCs? And then maybe you can send some to Ubuntu while you are at it! "Everything works. Now. Fast. Forever." Yeah, if you never bother to actually update or patch it? Sure I’ll believe that. if you do a distro upgrade or even a patch update? Not a chance in Hades pal. You will get "update foo broke my sound" or "update foo messed up my video" or "wireless that worked is now broken" and so on and so on and so on.

      Every time a new Ubuntu comes out I try it on several machines to see if it is "ready for the masses" and every. single. time it fails miserably. The last 4? First one…sound would not work without two pages of CLI (Fail, as home user will NOT do CLI and I’m not gonna be free tech support for life) Second one? Conflict between onboard and ATI card ended locking the desktop smooth up. The only solution? 4 pages of CLI (Fail, see one) The third? wireless toast…well you can see where this is going, can’t you?

      A wise man once said "Linux is free if you’re time is worthless" and as of 9.04 no truer words have been spoken. I can install windows 7, all the drivers take care of themselves, add a nice free AV and Firefox and I’m done. After market support costs? $0.00 as I don’t see "update foo broke sound" or paperweight roulette because there is NO way to tell what is being sold at retail will work or not.

      Linux? A good hour or two of trawling forums looking for "fixes" of pages of CLI, some of which work and some don’t, and that is just to get it up and running. After that? First update to the Os is liable to put you right back in the same boat, when the poorly tested updates break what used to work thanks to ZERO backwards compatibility. After market support costs? Through the roof, not counting having to deal with screaming customers who got burnt playing paperweight roulette.

      If you want to spend the rest of your days working for nothing, please go right ahead. I get $$ for each hour I work, which with Linux equals hour after hour which I can not bill for, or Linux will be MORE expensive than Windows! Sorry, NO SALE.

      • That’s why I use Debian. Releasing on schedule releases bugs on schedule. I also use Debian stable, not testing. I do not need bleeding edge features in my productions systems.

        That is not to say that Debian does not have bugs. I have met a few but there is always a fairly simple work-around and they do not seem to pop up at me at upgrades.

        Still, Ubuntu is not bad. I set up a system in a school three years ago which was recently dist-upgraded. There were two tiny glitches with RAID and openLDAP but the newbie operator was able to fix them easily. He has hundreds of satisfied users and the system just keeps running on 153 seats. That is a pretty low rate of annoyances per user per year. Where I work now, I get annoyances per user per day with that other OS.

        With Debian I installed a desktop system that doubled as terminal server with RAID in 2005. This year I apt-get dist-upgraded it and had zero problems even after moving the RAID to a new motherboard/CPU/RAM configuration. The scary thing about having a system for years is that you keep adding stuff and configuring it. To be able to dist-upgrade with few problems is a great blessing. I count that as EXTREME user-friendliness. If it is not friendly, to what are you comparing it?

        I have not much experience with wireless until this year. I took a card off the shelf and put it in a Linux box and it ran immediately. I did install a GUI thing to set it up. I was quite pleased. I think the whole process took ten minutes, with one taken to pry open the shrink-wrap. The device happened to have Atheros chipset.

        I have worked in diverse places and only have found one or two machines that could not do what I wanted them to do with GNU/Linux. One refused to boot via etherboot from a NIC years ago. Another did not have a driver for a Sharp multifunction thing. Another had a BIOS bug that required booting from Disk 3 if I installed 4. That apparently was a problem beneath any OS.

        The ultimate user-friendliness is being able to do anything. GNU/Linux is pretty well perfect, at least within my budget.

  • This is not a comment, it’s just my experience.

    I’m 63 and I start using a computer 6 years ago. And the reason was a digital camera. A friend did give me his old computer a Pentium III with 128 of ram and I think a Windows Millennium (exist? or existed) I don’t remember anymore. But do you really think that Windows is easy? Habit is easy, it was taught to you at school, has been part of your daily life for ever. Which one is more difficult? I don’t know, I found myself more at home with Linux, maybe because I’m an old guy and I found myself better whit a stick shift car then with an automatic. And there is Linux and Linux, there are distros and distros. I hate sudo, I hate KDE, I don’t like distros that don’t want me to work as root.

    I’m using a small Slackware distro and I don’t know nothing about CL, and if there is a critic to make to the Linux community is this Habit to use the commands as parrots repeat words. Commands that could be done in a GUI and a maybe just using drug and drop. Orthodoxy, tradition are a need, simplicity is the hardest to obtain in all arts and could be obtain only if do not fear ridiculous.

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