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For several years now, I've watched in amazement as two different groups of technology fans have exchanged blows back and forth on the mainstream readiness of the Linux desktop.
On the one hand, we have the crowd that has managed to find countless reasons why switching to Linux remains difficult or impossible, despite expressing desire to do so. On the other side of the coin, we have people who've managed to migrate to the Linux desktop full-time without too many troubles. (I’m in this second group.)
Now I find myself asking the question: why is there a rift between the two groups? Both groups say they want to use Linux, yet only some of them have managed to take the leap of faith needed.
In this article, I will look closely at common objections, workplace software lock-in, and personal preferences for possible answers. I will also be acknowledging not only the strengths of the Linux desktop, but many of its weaknesses as well.
Taking your work home with you
Access to the Linux desktop is incredibly simple to run with modern distributions. Yet many naysayers have grasped at a difficult to dispel excuse for not switching. They say that their workplaces require them to use Windows along with a number of other specific-to-Windows programs.
For someone who is simply interested in experimenting with Linux on their desktop, their employer's wishes win this round. A more motivated new user to Linux would explore the possibility of running a virtual machine or dual-booting their computer before giving up.
Unfortunately, the reasoning for not successfully making the switch isn't always as black and white. Sometimes, it's a matter of not getting the computer to cooperate with Linux in the first place.
Many new Linux users struggle with devices that don't work out of the box. To be ultimately clear, sometimes hardware designed for Windows doesn't play well with the Linux desktop. This problem has become increasingly rare over the past few years, but some devices simply don't work out of the box in Linux.
This experience can be frustrating for new users. While HP and Epson printers work just fine without any extra help, some of the advanced functionality we're used to using in Windows software might still be missed. Not everyone realizes that you can find solutions to these issues from sites like HPLIP and AVASYS.
Both printer types offer software and driver solutions for most of their devices that don’t work out of the box on the Linux desktop. New users would never know this in a hundred years. Thankfully though, the Linux community does.
Asking the Linux community for help
As a general rule, the Linux community is more than happy to help you out with any configuration questions you might have. Where new users tend to run into issues, however, is in not providing helpful information when asking their questions. Even worse is when these same users fail to use the search box included on the forum that they’re asking for help from. This can lead to problems for everyone involved.
This is where experienced users often find themselves feeling frustrated. They come away from the experience feeling like the new user is being lazy where, in fact, the new user is merely unsure what specific questions they need to be asking.
This is the main area where I see new and experienced users on opposite sides. Experienced users got to the advanced stage with Linux by researching problems for themselves. If the help wasn’t enough, these experienced users would turn to the community forums for selective help.
So does this mean that new users these days are lazy? Perhaps to a limited degree. But it's also fair to point out that, in many instances, these people are not tech-savvy and are unaware how to ask for help successfully.
A great example of this are new user posts that state something vague like "my printer isn't working." Speaking as a person wanting to help, this information is completely useless. However if, the same new user would post something like "my specific printer brand/printer model/connected via USB isn't printing," I imagine the answer they get back would be much more helpful.
Then again, maybe the critical thinking needed to realize this has been dumbed down by operating systems that do the thinking for them?
Proprietary operating systems make us lazy
Please don't misunderstand me. Neither Apple nor Microsoft is responsible for our critical thinking skills or a lack thereof. That is something we must exercise for ourselves. It's worth pointing out, however, that proprietary operating systems have proven to be something of a gateway drug for the lazy-minded.
After all, if your OS can do "everything" for you, why would you need to bother learning anything PC related for yourself?
It seems clear that easier doesn't always mean better. This has been proven to be true with the malware headaches Windows users have experienced over the years. Yet rather than realize that clicking on every forwarded file sent to them via email might be a bad idea, the end-user instead blames the OS or the software that failed to protect them from their own foolishness. Maybe the key here is that it just takes a certain kind of person to use Linux over other operating systems?
Linux on the desktop is for brainiacs
Is it possible that only "genetically engineered super-geeks" have the ability to run a Linux desktop successfully? If the complaints seen with many of the articles out there exclaiming that Linux is too difficult to use are an indicator, then I suppose I must be a super-geek myself.
I happen to believe the truth behind what keeps people from working through Linux desktop challenges stems more from the convenience than necessity. Again, as stated above there are some workplace exceptions. However, for most computer end users, there are three simple reasons not to switch.
--They rely on legacy software unavailable for the Linux desktop. Adobe Photoshop, After Effects, among other titles.
--They were curious about Linux, but baulked at relying heavily on something not familiar to them.
--They own made for Windows laptop/desktop hardware that isn't Linux compatible. Rather than replace the components with something Linux friendly, they opt to stick with the OS that is supported.
Any one of the reasons above are generally perceived as being valid for not switching to Linux. Yet none of them are unavoidable obstacles either. In fact, all the above obstacles can simply be overcome if the end-user so chooses.
Oddly enough, these same people will hold tight to their reasons as if they will die if they try to work around these challenges. To me, this is a really limited way to live one's life. Talk about a boring existence!
Putting aside excuses and finding solutions
Rather than leave this article off on a negative note, I'd like to share some simple ways the typical obstacles can be overcome by anyone willing to take a chance and willing to learn something new.
Obstacle #1- Legacy software for Windows. In many instances, dual-booting or even running a virtual machine is a fix here. Why bother? Because if you're using the Windows installation for non-Internet based software needs, you're greatly reducing your risk for malware exposure. If Linux is good enough for the U.S. Department of Defense, then clearly it's worth giving a second thought for regular users.
Obstacle #2 – Desktop familiarity. Unless you're someone who has a health issue that prevents them from learning something new, I'd suggest getting over yourself. The worst-case scenario is you hate the Linux experience. At least after trying the Linux desktop experience for more than an hour, you will be qualified to dislike Linux-based on an experience rather than acting like someone who fears change. Who knows, perhaps you'll discover a new open source program that's also available for your Windows desktop!
Obstacle #3 – Your PC hardware that isn't Linux compatible. Even an issue such as this one can be overcome. Wireless doesn't work? Ask the Linux community about compatible wireless dongles. Video card and sound card woes? If you're running a desktop PC, buy a new card. If a laptop, consider selling it for one with Linux pre-installed.
Obviously these ideas can be cost prohibitive for some people. However, most of us can choose to let this stop us or instead, put money aside for our next PC that is compatible with Linux. Wrong or right, it's still a choice we all make ourselves.
So what is your holdup?
Are you reading this from a Windows desktop? Do you have a second computer lying around not doing anything worthwhile? Then might I suggest installing Linux and allowing your mind to expand a bit while you learn something new?
Remember, to use Linux or not to is a personal choice. Nothing is stopping you. If it makes you feel any better, consider it a challenge in trying something new, even if only to discard the very idea later on.
Using Linux on your desktop in 2011 isn't rocket science. Anyone claiming it is hasn't spent much time with modern distributions. It has been my long-standing belief that the biggest hurdle facing Linux adoption is interest in switching or the willingness to try something that isn't familiar.
Many of you may disagree, and that is fine. But based on my experience, most of what stops someone who wants to switch to Linux from making the change stems from personal choice.