Why I Won't be Recommending Linux to Family this Holiday Season

Ubuntu is the easiest, best set-up Linux distro currently available. But for many home users, migrating a Windows system over to Linux would be a huge disaster.
For the Linux community, 2007 has been a fantastically successful year. Who would have thought that we’d see big name OEMs shipping machines with Linux pre-installed onto them, and people are actually buy those machines in the tens of thousands? Incredible.

But all this success isn’t enough for me to start recommending that family and friends abandon the Microsoft-imposed shackles and head off into a world of Linux freedom.

Most of Linux’s commercial success is down to one distro – Ubuntu. Ubuntu is, without a doubt, the easiest, most accessible, best set-up and nicest Linux distro currently available. Ubuntu has enjoyed this success where other distros haven’t by being more like the enemy – Windows.

Sure, Ubuntu’s no Windows clone, but the similarities are there. In fact, there are aspects of Ubuntu that make it easier to use than Windows (for example, the way that it handles different types of multimedia). I’m confident that 2008 will see Linux enjoy greater commercial success and massive increases in user base. By the end of 2008 I wouldn’t be surprised if Linux will have beaten the Mac OS to the No. 2 spot on the operating systems charts.

But despite all the success that Linux has enjoyed this year, I’m not yet ready to start recommending Linux to family and friends as a pathway to computing utopia. I’m certainly not ready to start recommending Linux to family over the holiday dinner table, because while a friend or acquaintance might forget that it was me that told them to switch to Linux, I don’t have the same wriggle room with a family member.

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The incident is going to be remembered clearly, there’s likely to be witnesses and possibly even incontrovertible proof such as a photo or a video of the occasion. I’m not taking that chance.

The reason that I’ll be keeping my mouth shut about Linux is not because Linux is bad or that the OS is buggy, flaky, or unreliable, it’s because of something far more fundamental than that – it’s not Windows and because of that doesn’t enjoy the supporting ecosystem that has developed around Microsoft’s OS.

Trying to condense the advantage, and – more importantly – the disadvantages, of Linux into a conversation short enough not to send a non-geek into a coma, is impossible. I know, I’ve tried it. This information-induced unconsciousness means that you can never manage to get across all the cautions that are necessary, and most of the information that I do manage to get across will be misinterpreted.

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The other problem is that people are never honest about how they use their computers and always underestimate what they use their PC for. They may tell you that they just do a bit of surfing, email and a little Facebook (or MySpace) but they don’t tell you about that digital camera that needs that proprietary driver to work, or about those occasional sessions playing The Sims and Oblivion. Or about that scanner. Or that all their music is locked into iTunes.

For a high proportion of home users, migrating a Windows system over to Linux would be a huge disaster and would more likely put them off ever wanting to change platforms. To you and me, finding a driver or searching for a fix to a problem isn’t a big deal because we do it all the time, but for the average home user, any problem, even a relatively small one, can be a major show stopper. Applications such as Wine are a useful bridge between the operating systems in the hands of those of us which are tech-literate, but if you don’t speak geek, it’s as much use as an instruction manual written in hieroglyphics.

My belief is that two of the best ways for Linux newbies to experience the wonders of the world of Linux is through the use of a Live CD (just warn them against installing the OS unless they’re absolutely sure they want to do it) and on a new PC. Many families now have more than one PC, and being in a position where there’s one Windows PC and one Linux box offers a safety net. Next year we’ll be seeing more examples of budget, sub-$200 systems. This is the segment of the consumer market where Linux is likely to make the deepest inroads into over the next few years.

So, this year I’ll be doing the same as usual. I’ll be listening to other people’s PC and Windows gripes, muttering a few suggestions and maybe offering to help troubleshoot the trickier problems, but I won’t be suggesting people switch to Linux. The people who can handle such a switch already know about Linux and don’t need to be told about it. People who haven’t heard of Linux and who are surprised to discover that there’s an alternative to Windows won’t find a Linux distro any better or easier to use than what they’re already used to.

And anyway, I’m not up to taking the blame when things go wrong.

Tags: Linux, Facebook, Microsoft, Dell, Leopard

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