Growing the Linux Community

by Ostatic Staff - Feb. 09, 2014

An unfortunate truth of the Linux community is that sometimes the most enthusiastic proponents of desktop Linux are the biggest hindrance to adoption on a wider scale. Nothing illustrates this point clearer than reading through the comments of posts that are either suggesting change or are simply disparaging the concept. Two such articles were recently published, David Gewirtz, writing for ZDNet lists Five reasons he would rather run Windows 8 than Linux at the end of January, and Jack Wallen suggests talking about Linux in a language we can all understand on TechRepublic, also a ZDNet site. Neither article is that interesting in itself, but the comment stream of each reveals much about the state of the community.

Gewirtz has apparently had his fill of Linux and the community, and lists five reasons he has chosen to return to Windows. The reasons listed seem like obvious flame bait:

  1. As soon as you mention one distro, all the fanboys go insane claiming you've made the wrong choice.
  2. For all of us who have lives, there's Windows.
  3. The aggressively nutball Linux community
  4. Linux doesn't run many serious production applications
  5. Windows is just nicer

The article is meant to be provocative, and since the basis for his argument are subjective opinions, there is no way to win. The argumentative nature of the article worked; as of today there are 182 comments, most of which are comparing histories of vitriolic comments directed from one camp to another. Even the first, and most succinct comment, "I see. That's nice dear." was sarcastic. The truth of arguments like these is that the only way to win, is not to play.

The second article suggested a move away from domain specific terminology when referencing components of the Linux user interface.

The language of Linux is something that needs a bit of revision. You could see this happening with the Ubuntu GUI -- slowly they evolved the Linux desktop into something anyone could understand. Take, for instance, the package manager. Ubuntu switched from Synaptic to the Ubuntu Software Center -- a centralized software management tool that's very similar to the highly regarded Apple App Store. The same thing needs to occur with the language. I don’t propose to do a sweeping change to naming conventions that have been around for decades. What I believe is that, possibly, a second "language" needs to be adopted -- one that is simplified and standardized.

Wallen's suggestions are reasonable, and are actually being worked out as several open source desktop environments evolve. In the comments though, a bit of the community's rough edges start to show through. Commenter "lorendias" states:

Linux is a safe haven for us 1990s and 2000s techies before the average intelligence of the common computer user dropped dramatically.

It's like being part of a club where people value inteligence instead of only football & beer.

Directly below is "mendtodd", who suggests:

If you can't grasp simple UNIX commands or directory structures, stick with Windows or OSX.

Followed shortly by "bobmattfran":

There probably needs tom be two parts to the market place, the ignorant who think a computer is a toy and those who use computers professionally for business.

Engaging in arguments about the superiority of one computing environment over another with individuals who are every bit as convinced of their view as your are of yours is a fruitless endeavor. I used to have lengthy discussions on the relative merits of Linux over Windows or Mac OS X, or BSD, or BeOS, or any combination thereof, none of which turned out to be a productive use of my time, or anyone else's time involved. I like to think that I've grown out of the need to defend my choice of computing platform, and instead focus on what I can do. It is always best to let your work speak for itself.

My suggestion to the people leaving comments in favor of Linux and who wish to help spread its adoption, or to influence the direction of the desktop environment, is simple: do great work. Do great work, and then write about it on your blog. Many of the comments are long enough to be great blog posts. Be so good they can't ignore you.

To briefly address both Gewirtz's and Wallen's articles, yes, Linux can be frustrating, but if we can continue to isolate and improve areas of friction in usability, even the most frustrated user can contribute. Wallen's suggestion to hide the complexity of the underlying filesystem is rooted, if he knows it or not, in solid HCI research. However, simply hiding complexity does not equate to removing the power of the underlying system. Linux will always be there for the power user, waiting just beneath the surface, ready to respond to a shell prompt. My favorite response to the common trope of the "common user" is the old Unix koan, Master Foo and the End User. There are many very intelligent people who would benefit greatly from open source, but simply do not have time or desire to learn the intricacy of Linux. That doesn't mean that we should turn them away, it means we should make Linux more accessible.