Of Vista, Linux, and the User Experience

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:

  1. Very good Pay and notoriety
  2. Because they Can
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

This content is published under the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

  • Heather

    I installed PCLinuxOS in December 2005. I tried several other live cd’s such as Slax, Knoppix and Ubuntu and settled on PCLinuxOS because it felt the most familiar and easiest to begin learning linux on. I have a dual boot system and for awhile my family and I flipped back and forth between Windows Me and Linux. Now my family and I spend most of our time in Linux.

    I am an experienced computer user (since 1997) so am comfortable taking risks. I am not afraid to pick up a manual (recently purchased Moving to Linux by Marcel Gagne) or search the internet. I am very satisfied with the Linux experience and have shared the live cds with others to show them how easy it is to use. I definetly will totally convert to Linux soon.

    My problems with Linux are finding out how to do things. It took me several unsuccessful attempt to unzip files. I did not have a book yet (local stores did not carry a great selection) and didn’t know which one to get. Even searchs on how to unzip did not produce clear and complete instructions. I finally accidently figured it out. However, I am pulling my hair out trying to get everything in Flightgear working.

    As a new user I feel your article correctly explanes the problems with Linux. I think the operating system is great–it doesn’t crash, no viruses, no hardware problems, all the programs I need–but it is not user friendly enough for anyone in my family but me to do anything but run the programs. Some people embrace new experiences but others like the comfortable and familiar and until Linux becomes as familiar as the Windows experience most of my friends will stick with Windows.

  • promeneur

    1. I agree with you
    this is the customer who must define what product any company must sell. It is a general rule.

    2. You forget that Mandriva since 1998 has a sole object an easy to install and use Linux desktop, and more recently Fedora, Ubuntu, Novell.

    Linux (Mandriva) is easier to install than Windows XP
    Linux install :
    - 30 mn and one reboot
    - an OS
    - an internet station
    - an office station
    - a multimedia station
    Windows XP install :
    - 50 mn and numerous reboot
    - an OS
    - an uncomplete internet station
    - an uncomplete multimedia station
    - no office tools

    3. linux MDV is easy to update,maintain
    whith its numerous wizard.

    4. I do not agree when you seem to say Linux and linux desktop applications in general needs more knowledge.

    Internet tools :
    - konqueror(IE) : no more knowledge
    - kmail : no more knowledge
    - kopete(IM) : no more knowledge

    Office tools :
    - Open Office Org : no more knowledge

    Multimedia :
    - kmplayer or kaffeine : no more knowledge
    - K3b(CD,DVD writing): no more knowledge

    4. Bells and whistles
    - It was necessary because Linux was behind Windows during this years about desktop functionalities
    - You forget that hackers and geeks
    develop also because of a lack of a function they need(This is the source of the open source movement). They are also users!

    5. The true pb is hardware compatibility
    - you must buy a PC with Linux already installed as a windows PC
    or
    you must be careful if you plan to buy hardware to use with Linux.

    6. Go to the south america.
    In this contries the standard is Linux in the shop which sells PC not Windows!

  • http://www.servertude.co.uk Apostasy

    “5. The true pb is hardware compatibility
    - you must buy a PC with Linux already installed as a windows PC
    or
    you must be careful if you plan to buy hardware to use with Linux.”

    I disagree with this statement. At work we have many machine which don’t have all their drivers after a vanilla install of Windows (usually ethernet, audio and video drivers). Stick a Linux Live CD in them and everything works.

    Often, even if Windows does detect the video card correctly and uses it’s own drivers, scrolling anything in an explorer window is painful as the page refreshes far too slowly.

    I think the only hardware you really need to watch with Linux is wireless cards and printers, I’ve not experienced problems with any other hardware (except maybe under debian based distros)

    Another thing I’ve noticed is that on old laptops, Windows doesn’t fill the screen throughout install, and often after install right up until the login screen. Linux always manages to use the whole screen.

  • davecs

    My experience of computer users (not Linux users, but in general) is that many of them are scared of their own shadows, frightened to press a button in case it starts a World War.

    Many of the questions about PCLinuxOS at the site are not really about PCLOS. They are about KDE/Konqueror. That is the visible side of the OS. That is what you see when you boot up. A lot of it is how to rearrange the menus, how to change the decorations, how to change file associations.

    A lot of people criticise KDE as bloat, I see it as an immensely powerful visual shell for running graphic applications. It’s only bloat if you don’t know how to use this power because it all seems to be there for nothing.

    You can also tell those who aren’t afraid. The people who are in there answering that sort of non-technical question after using Linux for about 5 minutes. They were probably the same people who got the best out of Windows!

    One thing though, much of the knowledge about how to get the GUI working for you, instead of the other way around, is not technical, just needs a hands-on approach and to cut through that nervousness. You’ll find that life’s experimenters have no such problem.

  • http://www.lobby4linux.com helios

    Dave, your statement about fear is profound and I think others should take this into consideration and not dismiss it as just another statement to bridge to another statement. I see it in the kids and the senior citizens…alot. They have at one time or another hosed something without knowing what they did to hose it…that is where the fear comes from. You peg the kde/bloat thing well too. It is not bloat, it is poorly placed features. I wish I could post a screenshot here because one I took recently illustrates this well. In order to get to look and feel and then change windecs and such, the menu is expanded 4 tiers across the desktop…who would be able to figure that out…some do by just stabbing around to find it, but there it is again! If you are afraid in a new environment, you are going to stay close to what you recognize.

    The good fellow who compares Mandriva with Windows has a point about ease of install, but we have completely stopped recommending Mandriva to our new users. It must be hacked to a large extent to get the multimedia stuff working and the menus are layed out so that my senior citizen users were completely stopped.

    NOW HERE is where it starts falling apart for us. As Devnet experienced with his wifes experiment and the Ubuntu _Exposed article, too many of us are ready to rush in and defend “our” distro. Well folks, I have been guilty of it myself, but a recent revelation of my own has taught me just to stop it. Devnet and I wrote strangly similar articles two days apart without having talked to each other or visiting each others webpages. Those of you who appreciate brilliance will realize that great minds think alike. Unfortunately, devnet and I just happen to be thinking along the same lines. The great minds are the ones who develop these linux distributions. We will see who the great minds are. Great Minds will understand that maybe their distros should include a “distro-lite” edition for those who need only the basic tools to do their day to day work. lobby4linux.com/WordPress talks about this in detail and many, many people disagree…”you can’t dumb down linux>”

    No, but we can unclutter it. That is what we need to do to make linux a viable choice for everyone. We call this project we have begun: L.I.F.E.
    Linux Is For Everyone. Taking the confusing parts out of the distro and leaving it with just the needed apps and some entertainment would take us a long way to the desktop. Our developers have to agree, or the status-quo will rule the day and Microsoft will retaint he crown…and control over your computer.

    We are being laughed at, us who are striving to bring Linux to everyone. MS is quite amused by it. Now, they have a true fear of us ever getting on the desktop…they have much to worry about when that happens. They are simply confident it will not. Why? Because as a community, we do not support each other well enough to pull it all together. Between distro wars and petty arguments, we are our own worst enemies. Also, and I apologize if this sounds too personal, but it is a good example, we need to support our advocates and developers when we can financially.

    Many websites, to include mine have started out with large sums of money and have done very good things to spread the word of Linux…but eventually the funds run out and website membership isn’t always able to support their efforts. What ends up happening is that the work stops because the bandwidth is no longer affordable, the fuel to the schools and the senior citizen centers can not be purchased and equipment gives out and cannot be replaced. One or two committed people who operate a “good works” website usually draw some members who can help provide the assistance needed. Sometimes people just cant do it and thats when we get hurt…we as Linux folks. Important or good work that WAS being done is suddenly stopped. Usually the website then folds and they are forgotten. Is this the future of Linux? I honestly don’t know…it just depends on if there are those brave enough to pick up the banner when it drops from the hands of those who carried it before.

  • Caraibes

    I enjoyed reading the original post and al the comments.

    I am a multi-OS guy, I love using various distros (I am writing this from Puppy Linux), but I fix Windows PC’s for a living…

    The reason why I still boot in winxp are :

    -my TV-card doesn’t work in any Linux (except in PCLinuxOS, but the image quality is really bad…), and I spend long hours at my workshop, so watching some tv is noce too !!!

    -my webcam doesn’t work in ANY distro.

    …and, well, that’s about it…

    Appart from that, I really love Ubuntu, I had Breezy working to perfection, it was great. I only uninstalled it to switch to Slackware 10.2 as a challenge, a way to learn more, and it works great (I am learning a lot with Slackware !).

    But, to go back to the subject, none of my customers want Linux on there PC. They just want a basic winxp system, with Office, the Codecs, and an antivirus (!!!). Good deal for me as I get paid to clean up viruses and spyware !

    But it’s sad, I wish I could install Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS, or Vector on old PC’s…

    My 2 cents…

  • http://my.opera.com/mysurface mysurface

    Linux have a great large community. Some of them improves the security, some of them improves the functionality, some of them improves the usability, some of them keep decrease the size used of a linux to work, some of them continue support for the previous experienced user, some of them looking forward to new user.

    For linux, it is open source and the major benefits of being open source is flexibility. You can turn your linux into what you want to. There are so many distro that each of them focus on different categories. So far, ubuntu dapper usability is worth a try for windows user. But bare in mind, linux is not windows, it works differently. For example manual gear car and auto gear car are differnt….

    its comments … i force myself to stop at here, my point is, learn up linux and use, don’t expect linux to be like windows.

  • http://linux-blog.org/index.php?/archives/209-YALB-A-Look-Back-after-Three-Years.html Yet Another Linux Blog

    Quietly and without fanfare, Yet Another Linux Blog has reached the ripe old age of 3 years. I started it small and
    hosted at home during May of 2004. Back then it was hosted on a domain called fatalfame.org (since expired). In
    December 2004, I switc

  • http://linux-blog.org/index.php?/archives/209-YALB-A-Look-Back-after-Three-Years.html Yet Another Linux Blog

    Quietly and without fanfare, Yet Another Linux Blog has reached the ripe old age of 3 years. I started it small and
    hosted at home during May of 2004. Back then it was hosted on a domain called fatalfame.org (since expired). In
    December 2004, I switc