Without question, the past few years have been huge for the Linux desktop. From Docker containers to Valve's Steam software making additional games available for Linux users, it's been a wild ride. In this article, I want to touch on the sensitive subject of Linux freedom vs. Linux convenience.
Practicality vs. Politics
While there are exceptions to this rule, generally speaking humans today are lazy creatures. Without pointing any fingers, I blame our consumerist mentality for this condition. When given the opportunity, I've found most people will take the easier way out. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, rather a different approach from those who prefer taking an alternative path based on their own views.
For example: Some folks will run Linux because it has great software management, it costs nothing and can be installed on practically any PC. By contrast, there are others who make the number one reason for running Linux based on the idea of avoiding proprietary software. These same individuals are concerned that the proprietary nature violates their personal freedoms.
Can you spot the difference? The first example represents someone who wants to enjoy the features and benefits of Linux. The latter person is seeking the freedom from being locked down by proprietary software on principle. Neither view in the above example is wrong, rather they're simply different from one another.
So now that we understand the difference, the next logical question is: why is this the case? I believe it comes down to personality types. Some people are extremely practicality driven while others are politically driven. I fall into the first camp. For me, using Linux on the desktop is a simple matter of practicality. I'm both thrifty and someone who wants to just get my work done. I loathe running security suites or being told how I must install my software. I enjoy choice and Linux has historically afforded me that luxury.
By the same token, I also have no issue with running proprietary software under Linux. For my needs, if it allows me to get things done faster or easier, I'm all for it. The only time I won't install proprietary software on my Linux PCs is if I have a credible threat of being spied on or if I might be locked into a proprietary file format. An example of this might be running Microsoft Office under WINE. It may be possible, but I refuse to limit myself to Microsoft-only formats for every document I create. Instead, I run LibreOffice.
Appealing to the masses
Getting people to change their habits is difficult. Generally you must either make an experience easier or at least make the opposite experience seem unpalatable. How does this relate to proprietary software? Until the day comes where proprietary software begins "hurting people in their sleep" or "spreading disease," it's going to be a hard road getting folks to break the habit. Sadly, many proprietary software titles are viewed as "easier" by their users.
The argument against using proprietary software hasn't been successfully demonstrated for home users. If it had been, we'd see people dropping proprietary software in droves. In the enterprise space, the argument in favor of using open source is catching on. Not because it's protecting your freedoms, but because it's usually more cost effective. Again, the tangible benefit is what gets attention. My advice to free software advocates is to concentrate less on promoting the negatives of proprietary software issues and just concentrate on promoting the positive aspects of open source.
One of my favorite websites that illustrate this point is WhyLinuxIsBetter.net. As the page loads, you're immediately presented with clear, easy to understand reasons why Linux is better than proprietary operating systems. Now granted, the website is a bit dated. But the overall message is timeless and positive. What this site does well is show its readers exactly why Linux on the desktop is awesome. From its features to its built-in safety, everything is clearly illustrated and easy to understand.
Local support missing
Another area where proprietary operating systems seem to win out with their users is in local support. Mac on the fritz? Just take it to the Apple store. Malware making your Windows PC run slowly? The Geek Squad at Best Buy can help. What about when you're latest kernel update has broken your Linux PC's Internet connection? You better have a second computer handy, because you're going to need to get online for help.
The above example with Linux networking demonstrates a major shortcoming with new users running Linux. If they're unable to connect to the Internet, how are they supposed to get help? If the person in question is an enterprise user, they could just call support. However, for the casual home user, they're going to need access to another computer or Internet device. Hardly convenient by any stretch of the imagination.
The lack of a brick and mortar presence for Linux support continues to be a huge hurdle for Linux desktop adoption. Anyone who argues otherwise has clearly never had to support new Linux users before.
So what is the solution to this? Well, some businesses have begun to offer true offline Linux support to those who seek it. In areas where shops aren't offering this sort of service, free help is sometimes available through local Linux user groups. Despite these options, though, the fact is most people must go online to get help with their Linux challenges. Other operating systems have a serious advantage here, unfortunately.
Convenience and control
At the end of the day, I prefer experiences that offer me both convenience and control. Yet the fact is I'm an experienced Linux advocate. This means I'm able to find these things using my favorite Linux distribution. I'm able to control my updates, desktop environment and the software I run.
At the same time, I enjoy the convenience of being able to choose between rolling release or version specific distributions. Point being, I was able to find convenience because I'm not a newcomer to the Linux space. Back when I was, it would have been impossible for me to stick it out with Linux had I not had additional computers from which to seek out help with.
In 2015, I'd suggest that no computing environment is truly "user friendly" in the truest sense of the word. But it's the ease of which the user can find support and the ability to accomplish expected tasks that make a desktop operating system a success or a bust.
Thanks to a wide variety of remote desktop technologies available, it's easier than ever to offer help when the Internet is up and running. But I still believe we as a community need to do so much more on the local front to better compete on the convenience side of things. Think about it – which do we genuinely believe wins over people? The option to boot into a second computer for troubleshooting help, or dropping off the PC with a local tech. For a non-geeky, casual user, there's no contest. I'm looking forward to the day when we can better support user convenience so the casual user can enjoy Linux freedom.
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