Friday, October 10, 2008

Linux Distro to Newbies: Adapt or Leave!

Linux Distro to Newbies: Adapt or Leave!
By Matt Hartley

More often than not, new users find themselves drawn to KDE while those who prefer to free themselves from a Windows-like UI tend to lean with the straightforward simplicity of GNOME. The problem with these selections is that most news users are going to find themselves wanting to use programs from both camps. And even worse, they wish that some of the functionality from each desktop manager were available in one choice. Granted, anyone can run a KDE application in GNOME or vice versa.

However it requires a ton of extra library files that can translate into a real buzz kill when you look at the time needed to download this many files on a slower Internet connection. In addition, crossing desktop environments often leaves the desired application behaving in a problematic manner: Failing to start or just crashing in the worst case scenarios.

This leads many new users to choose a Linux distribution that makes all of their installation choices for them. On the surface, it seems like a great idea. But perhaps rather than creating an easier experience, we need to concentrate on a consistent one.
Easier is not always better.

Generally speaking, if I am installing an application that I know the name of, I will do so from the command line. In my case, this means using either apt-get install or aptitude install because of my selected distro (Ubuntu).
But this is not always all that clear when going from one distribution to another. With a RPM-based distribution, for instance, if using the command line remains the "simplest" method, then the user must adapt to the new commands. Yum-install is an example of changing out from apt-get. So clearly, while using a command line for day-to-day use may be perceived as easier, it is certainly not more consistent.
What I find interesting is if the same user, who happens to use both PCLinuxOS (a RPM-based installation) and Ubuntu (Debian package installation), can use Synaptic to install software without needing to change methods of the software installation.
This is not to say that using Synaptic is better than using another method of installing software, rather a way of providing a clear line of consistency for the desktop user regardless of distribution.

Think about that for a minute. Clearly this is not the fastest solution. But if I am running Fedora on one desktop and Debian on another, being able to use a single app on both desktops means I can be more productive. This is because I don’t need to know how to install software in a different manner than I might otherwise have based on past experience with another distro.

Despite the obvious advantage of aiming for this kind of consistency, almost every Linux tutorial out there highlights the CLI (command line interface) method for software management as the way to go. Why? Because it’s faster. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it this faster mentality that landed Windows in the malware mess it was in with XP (and all the way back to previous releases of the OS)?

Path of Least Resistance.

People creating help files and tutorials always fail to grasp that the casual user is looking for the path of least resistance.
Take wireless with Linux for instance. Ubuntu documentation creators often jump right into NDISWrapper as being the best way to get wireless devices working.
Why? Rather than presenting NDISWrapper as the logical solution to one's wireless woes, why not make a stronger push for wireless devices supported out of the box? They not only exist, they’re fairly well documented in non-distro specific projects such as wireless.kernel.org, which provide more wireless chipsets than you could possibly wrap your mind around.

Even with this great effort, big-wig Linux distros continue to take the easy way out, asking users to conform to using NDISWrapper and Windows wireless drivers for their existing chipsets.
The same mentality applies to configuring the various buttons on your typical mouse. For example, assuming you have a supported Logitech mouse, using HIDPoint rather than this X11 nightmare means less wasted time.
The fact is, new users come to the Linux platform in dire need of a reality check. Many of them come aboard expecting all of their built-for-Windows equipment to work as it always had, but this time with a new operating system.

This is complete nonsense. I would like to see Linux distribution documentation designed to heavily embrace supported products with links as to where to buy them. And with so many new users wishing to adapt – as experienced users are often telling new users they need to – there really should be no problem at all making this happen.
Other areas that need to see greater adoption from the perspective of the distro maintainer include:

• Providing immediate access to ready-to-work hardware both from the Linux distribution's website and even in the documentation provided by the distribution's creator from day one. Again, this means linking to places of purchase.
• Finding a way to bring home the best of each of the top desktop environments.

GNOME, KDE and others each have their strengths. Now let's concentrate on finding a way to bring concepts like the Portland Project to fruition. Despite being aimed at developers, I believe this project will one day be a real benefit to end-users as well.
And then, have software. Honestly, if projects such as Adobe Air continue to progress forward, I see a number of otherwise proprietary-OS-only applications being doable for Linux users, thanks to the work put forth by Adobe.

Like Flash for video, Air provides the user with the ability to develop and use applications that are truly cross platform without the need for extra toolkits when branching into non-Linux desktop environments.
Adapt or forget it, say advanced Linux users? Perhaps, but it seems that it will be the distribution maintainers needing to adapt if they wish to see any shot at a sustainable business model from a desktop distribution.

In the end, tackling the challenges outlined above serves both new and experienced users alike. This in turn translates into a stronger market share. Considering the shaky world economy these days, there is something to be said about providing as much ammunition to the Linux movement as possible. And these days, satisfied new Linux users is that ammunition.
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