Linux and the Masses

Commentary by Heather/Squishy

Spring is in the air and life is starting to be apparent again in my backyard. The bush is sprouting new buds, the birds are resettling, and my neighbors dog is back to barking at every little thing. It seems fitting then that this be my first article for this budding magazine! In the future I hope to write somewhat shorter columns. And before I get lost, I want to thank Tim and Neptune for encouraging me to try this column out and I wish to thank any who read these blurbs on a page; yes, you the readership, for even attempting to decipher my incoherent babbling.

I think it only correct to introduce myself a little bit before inflicting upon you my special brand of diatribe.

I am a pink haired Canadian gal who has done a fair bit of writing in the past and has dabbled in various Open Source projects (as a user) over the years. I am not a fangirl of any particular Linux distribution; they all have their merits and demerits, so I will not use this column to espouse any one distro over another. I'd feel it would be vastly unfair to our readers if I took sides in the so-called "Distro Wars". That said, I do have opinions on things and though I will try to be unbiased, I can't promise some bias won't slip through here and there. I'm human after all, am I not? (Well, unless you believe a friend of mine who thinks I'm from a different planet...)

This column, I hope, will not be about any one thing, but hopefully will come to encompass a variety of topics ranging from how Linux is changing the way people do business, to ways that technology has changed because of the development of open source models in the private & public sectors. I'm hopeful that I will be able to fit some how-to information into some future columns and anything else that seems relevant. One aspect I will try to avoid is the inter-relational politics that seem to crop up whenever discussing most things in the Open Source sphere. I'll also try to avoid the flame wars on mailing lists that tend to rage for weeks on end at times.

Now, with that out of the way, I will warn you I am going to show a bias in this next part. This is my take on Linux as it stands today and how the average user will likely see things if presented with our choice of OS. Below I shall try to outline why I think that Linux isn't quite ready for the desktop market, but it is certainly getting there in leaps and bounds.

Too few places will support you if you need help, i.e professional tech support

This is becoming less of an issue for more established distributions like Red Hat & openSUSE/SUSE, but in the main Linux sphere, this is still a thorn in the side of most average users. Most users want tech support to be there, if only as a sort of invisible security blanket in case they "blow it" (bork their OS so badly the family friend who can fix computers will scratch his head when faced with a seg-faulting application being run under any Linux distro).

Installers are easier to use but...

Once installed, most people will have very little idea how to add software to their distro of choice, even with Synaptic. You only have to look at any Linux distro's forums for numerous examples of what have become questions so well-known to developers that they put these things in their FAQs. And yet I still see these same questions over and over on the net. Users need to learn to educate themselves in part, and developers need to make it more obvious to users how to install software that they need. This is becoming less of an issue with some distros as they mature, but it isn't quite there yet. I have a lot of hope this one will be solved soon though and expect within the next three years to see a few distros available that will not challenge even an octogenarian who's used windows 95 since the 1990s.

As one poster in a forum I frequented said, "what is root?"

People are still confused about this "root" issue. I know that most people who read this column will shake their heads and just move on. Don't do that. If we want people to see Linux as an OS that is capable of doing what it is they want to do, we as individuals need to be willing to explain some (what are to us obvious, but to the average user are not) very foreign concepts. I have never used a Mac so I can't speak about them, but I have used Windows and I know that part of this problem stems from Windows insistence that the user run as a "root" user. Most people, if you told them that is how Windows operates, would look at you blankly and think you've just beamed here from Pluto. I'm willing to explain to others these concepts, and to put explanations into whatever their native language is, if I can. Are you?


This is still a big mess and until that is sorted we are going to have to fight to use simple stuff like codecs and document formats. I am thankful for people like Moglen Eben from the FSF, Bruce Perens and Richard Stallman, to name a few. I may not always agree with their stances on the Open Source movement or how things should proceed, but they have stood up for our rights as people to use the software and other things most of us take for granted within the Open Source movement.

Package Formats

Until there is a more unified or transparent installation method for software than the existing and confusing package formats (.debs, .rpms, .srcs, etc) users will, on average, just give up & delete Linux.


Windows got one thing right: a cohesive and fairly straightforward interface (GUI) that changes little from win95 to Vista. Try using 3 or 4 different distros. Suddenly you might have to re-learn everything because your new distro doesn't use KDE. Choice is great but the average user wants things to bloody well work.


These still don't auto-update the installed packages to their menu system after installing them, at least a quarter of the time, on most distros I have tried. Debian gets around this with "update-menu" but that is hardly an all inclusive solution for all distros as yet.

Hardware Issues

Microsoft has an advantage here that Linux is only beginning to catch up to and this goes back to patents and vendor support. I won't go into this much, but I will say that we need this sorted out the fastest. Users aren't willing to go search the web for six hours to figure out how to get a wifi card to work or a video card to show them a GUI. Too many hardware issues still exist that require much more knowledge than the average person has to use Linux. This is sad but true. Even though more and more of our lives are becoming automated and we are being required to learn more things to do with computers, many people today still only know how to use the on/off switch. I won't get into the debate of whether this is because of OS's like Windows dumbing down things or if it is because people are inherently lazy or because aliens from Tau Ceti have taken over half the world's brains and are using some form of mind-control to keep us stupid.

Until the tier 1 and 2 vendors start to take Linux seriously we will be playing catch-up

Sadly this particular point has the most crucial relevancy to Linux in general. Until we have the top vendors working with our Open Source community, and until they actually put their money where their mouths are, we all face an uphill battle to get Linux recognized as a desktop-worthy OS. This means vendors need to give the developers the source code to their products so that drivers, software, and hardware can work correctly on any Linux platform regardless of the distribution. This last point may seem obvious to developers and power-users. The average person, however, won't necessarily be aware that this is why his new printer will not function with his chosen distribution. Consider this your wake-up call.


I can keep going but I think this is enough food for thought for now. I am not saying Windows is a perfect OS, but for better or worse, Windows is what the average person is accustomed to using. Some Window Managers try to make things look Windowsy, but it doesn't help with the other underlying issues I mention. Unionfs is a great stride towards some of these issues being addressed or fixed. The work to get the kernel to use Udev and auto detect/mount things on boot up (like SD cards or USB keys) is also a significant move towards solving some of these issues. Till 3 years ago, most nublets I knew would say to me or people I knew on a mail-list I was a part of, "Mount!? Mount what!? WTF?! Why do I have to issue a command telling my hard drive to hump my cpu?" I kid you not. So yes, things are improving, albeit slowly.

So, dear readers, do you want to comment? Roast me over a fire? Buy me a beer? I'd welcome your feedback and/or suggestions for future columns.