Living in the Past: Perceptions of Linux

by Ostatic Staff - Oct. 13, 2008

Free Software Magazine recently took a closer look at the "Linux legacy." The "legacy" -- Linux's reputation precedes it, even in the realm of the "average user." This reputation is, of course, that Linux is (pick one of your choice): hard, incompatible with most hardware, command line only -- the list goes on.

It's a fitting observation, as the operating system hits its seventeenth year, that there are a great many people out there aware of Linux now who have been aware of it for some time. And to some, Linux in 2008 seems identical to Linux in 2001, or 1998.

What do you say to someone who has "used Linux" or seen it in action, who, when giving reasons why it wasn't for them, says something that indicates that they tried it five, seven, ten years earlier? It may not have been something they'd use eight years ago, and it may not be something they'd prefer now, even. Really, that's okay, that's not the issue. What do you say when they are telling someone else about a problem that may have been a real dealbreaker in Linux circa 2001, but today simply no longer applies?

I've encountered this on a few recent occasions. It is a difficult situation. Why? Because though it may be true peripheral support has improved greatly, that Linux package management systems make other operating systems' updaters seem painful, and that installation isn't nearly as complex as it was even three years ago (or even necessary at all, given live distros with persistent home directories or rewriting capabilities), pointing these things out to the party making the outdated claim does little to convince him that things have changed.

The exchanges, in my case, have happened online. It is particularly sticky here, as the person with the out of date viewpoint doesn't have the benefit of vocal inflection or visual cues as to what's being said, and it's far too easy to interpret "that's no longer the case" -- however carefully worded -- as "you're wrong." On the other hand, it doesn't help anyone -- especially in a public forum -- to not say anything.

What I've found works best is to point the folks with the outdated perceptions toward a few general purpose, user-friendly distributions offering liveCDs (Puppy is always a rather nice one to offer, being that it's a quick download but is still quite robust, includes add-ons like Flash, and offers easily configurable persistent file storage through both USB drives and CD-RWs). Do they try them? I don't know for certain. I hope so. Sometimes, though, it is less about changing the original user's perception as much as offering a new user reading the exchange something solid to try -- and thereby reach his own conclusion.

The other effective approach is to drop any feeling of defensiveness (and this can be rough, as you may have stated facts politely and graciously, and still get hit with colorful epiteths or had some blanket assumptions made simply because you use Linux) and acknowledge that even with the steps forward, Linux just might not be for the right fit. It is possible that it just really, truly isn't. It is also possible they aren't that interested in finding out what's changed. In that case, I've discovered it's better all around to offer those still holding to the "legacy view" the option to walk away.

This ultimately saves your sanity. Again, it may not do much for the person with the outdated information. It does give any new users coming across the discussion not only some appropriate options to try, but the feeling that if these shouldn't work out, it is not a personal failing on their part, nor does it mean that they aren't welcome to pick up and try again in six months, or twelve months, or five years.

Have you encountered these "legacy perceptions" in either the real world or online? Why are many people's ideas about "how Linux works" stuck in the past? How can distributions, and current users, not only demonstrate where we are now, but keep Linux from getting "perceptually" frozen in any particular place in time in the future?