I was reading this article earlier this week and thought that it was interesting. It announced the Windows Vista release as being delayed. I thought that this was just par for the course and something Microsoft always has done and will always do…delay. However, what does this mean for the Linux desktop? Does it mean anything at all? Probably not on the scale most are hoping.
It’s Opportunity, Albeit, a Small One
Does anyone else here smell that? It’s opportunity. Perhaps an opportunity to push Linux just a little while longer and to develop it into what it needs to be before Microsoft once again proliferates itself onto every PC in America and sets the standard to which all things are compared. I can just see it when Vista finally does release…all of the comparison articles that will sprout across the web between Vista and desktops such as Ubuntu and SuSe 10.X. Linux can gain ground only one way; if it can become about user experience versus user function. If it can do that, I think Linux just might gain some ground. Babysteps…that’s what it is all about.
Microsoft’s OS has always been a rip-off of the work others do. OS/2 did things before Microsoft…Macs did things before Microsoft. They’ve been playing constant catch up since Windows began. If developers and users seize this opportunity in Linux to develop their distros in new ways, it can give Linux a slight foothold onto the desktop. Notice I said slight foothold. That’s because Linux will never storm onto the desktop. It will chip away slowly at the desktop until it gains acceptance. Linux has been granted a small door to the desktop and there is a set criteria for those distros that want to go through it. Will your favorite distro be able to go through the door? Can it provide the user experience needed to win people on the desktop over?
User Experience versus User Function
Most Linux distros just don’t get it. Everyone touts Ubuntu. They don’t get it. They say Linux for human beings but then make it so only human beings that are technologically savvy can use it. SimplyMEPIS touts being simple yet you have to enter into your sources.list and edit it before you can update it the first time. All of these distros have forgotten why people create operating systems and software. They’re trying really hard but missing the mark ever so slightly.
Why do people create operating systems and software? To help people with computing right? Perhaps to become notorious? Imagine that you have no operating system or an OS with no software to use on you PC. How would you accomplish anything at all? It would be rather difficult. The interesting part about this is that if you ask any software developer or programmer why they program/develop software they do it for 3 reasons:
- Very good Pay and notoriety
- Because they Can
- To assist themselves or others with Computing Functions
There is nothing wrong with these approaches (I’m sure I’ve left out a couple of approaches)…but something is lost in the transfer between programmer/developer and the end user. What is it? It’s knowledge and experience…or lack thereof.
Anyone can make a program function. I have a C program I wrote waaaay back in the day that can operate as accounting software. Yet, people use QuickBooks, Kmymoney, and Appgen. Why is that? Why don’t they use the bare bones functional program they could get for free from me? It works pretty darn good…helps them file their taxes, and keeps track of all finances…why don’t they use this functional program? Because the knowledge it takes to use and support it is greater than those other programs I mentioned AND because it plainly doesn’t provide the same user experience as the aforementioned programs. It’s all of these reasons we can roll up into something called the “User Experience.”
The Experienced User and User Experience
One of my friends on the web is the webmaster of Lobby4Linux.com. He’s done some small usability studies in the best place you could possibly do it…a suburban shopping mall. You do studies like that and you can really tell where you stand. Sad to say that current desktops for Linux don’t stand a chance the way they are currently because most developers aren’t developing in the right mindset and focus. They’re developing for each other and for props from the community.
Imagine for a second if Apple decided they didn’t want to make Ipod easy to use anymore…they just wanted to develop software for their buddies and they wanted to make Ipod’s have the latest bells and whistles all the while ignoring pleas from those who cry out for change. That’s what Linux is doing. Ignoring the most important part of their community. New users and their opinions should hold the most weight with Linux developers and application programmers…because these people are providing the most pure look at the software. They aren’t polluted with elitism, they haven’t adopted a stance with the GPL or FLOSS yet…they’re just here to check out the software.
Say you are a developer or programmer. The minute a new user doesn’t understand how to do something, there is a problem with your product. No you can’t fix everything for everyone, but as a developer you should be trying to do so…we cannot reach perfection but we can chase it.
The odd part about this user centric philosophy is…if a developer or company or even a distro adopts a ‘user experience’ centric development process…they succeed. Two examples show us how clear this is.
- Apple Ipod. Nuff said…they aren’t about functions and features…they don’t claim to be the best video/audio tool out there. They offer the best user experience. Hence, why they are number one and sell more product worldwide than anyone period. Also this is why they are the largest brand recognized on the planet…even more recognized than Microsoft.
- Novell and SuSe 10 – You may think you know what SuSe is about…you may be discounting Novell because you think their ship has set sail many years ago when Microsoft took over. Then you need to watch this video on Brainshare and pay specific attention to why the two desktop developers are developing the way they are. You’ll hear about user experience and ‘won’t attract new users’ and other key phrases. This is terminology and focus that ALL Linux distros should be focused on if they want their distro to succeed.
Don’t get me wrong…I’m all for having a new user Google a solution or RTFM. However, has anyone ever stopped to think that a new user might not know how to search for information? How many new users out there know Boolean logic? It’s relatively hard for new users to Linux in general to find information on how to do things in Linux. Why do many community members throw these new users an anchor when they ask for a life raft? Remember, if Linux is to succeed, it needs to be about the entire user experience which starts the minute the user thinks to him/herself “I think I’ll give that Linux thing a try.” The spotlight is unfortunately on Linux and community from the beginning.
Taking the time to teach a new user the correct way of searching for answers is a good step in the right direction. However, taking stock in what area of the OS/software that new user is questioning is a better step in the right direction. Listen to the new users, their eyes are open where others are closed. They don’t look at the same scene everyday…they see things anew. Remember:
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. ~Marcel Proust
It’s about togetherness, not elitism
Linux is about a large collection of people working toward a common goal. This common goal is to proliferate Linux to all corners of the globe as an alternative way of computing to the status quo that Microsoft gives us. It absolutely is not about being smarter than everyone or being able to look down one’s nose at people. Unfortunately, due mainly to a rise in popularity of Linux, an influx of interest has resulted in an outflow of community. Elitism runs rampant through many forums and newbies are sometimes chastised for asking questions instead of being shown the proper way of asking.
So what are we to do? How do we continue making The Linux Experience about togetherness vs. elitism? The Linux community on a whole must take a stand against those who have no desire to help someone based solely on their experience level. Sure, I know there are those that say RTFM (read the friendly manual) or ‘google it’ but you and I both know that information isn’t organized how it should be with Linux. Remember that some of these people that are trying Linux for the first time don’t even know about boolean logic with search engines nor about http://google.com/linux so how do we expect them to find information unless it is organized logically (say…in a wiki)?
The Door is Open, Only a Few can Pass
The door to the desktop is open. I truly believe that Linux can take innroads to success for personal computing. However, I believe that if more distros do not take the approach of SuSe or PCLinuxOS, being about user experience versus whiz bang nifty old tools and bells and whistles…Linux will not gain desktop adoption.
My grandfather used to be a handy-man at a retirement home when I was a little kid. I remember going to work with him during the summer when school was out (mainly because we couldn’t afford daycare) and working with him. One thing sticks out in my memory now that I write this article about user experience. I remember that one year my grandmother bought him new tools to use on the job. They were supposed to be the best thing on the market and carry a lifetime guarantee. Those tools were used a total of 3 days…they didn’t have the feel of the old ones.
Linux will need to feel like those old tools to everyone before it can succeed. It needs to give people a warm and fuzzy feeling and it needs to cater to the most technically challenged person on the planet in order to gain ultimate acceptance.
Perhaps developers and programmers will read this article and choose the red pill instead of the blue one. Then again, they may not. Whatever they decide, their user-base is changing toward one with less Linux knowledge and one that thrives on user experience. If one does not adapt, one will be left behind.
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