A Rebuttal To Mark Golden's Wall Street Journal Article

by Caitlyn Martin

On May 15th Mark Golden wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal titled Out The Window where he posed the question: "Can the ordinary user ditch Windows for Linux?" His conclusion, in most cases, is a resounding no. Sadly Mr. Golden's methodology in trying out Linux for his article bears little resemblance to what an ordinary user trying out Linux would likely do. Indeed, his approach almost guaranteed his results.

Mr. Golden purchased a copy of Linux for Dummies, an excellent book which, as Mr. Golden correctly points out, included a DVD with six outdated versions of Linux distributions. Mr. Golden actually claims these are different "operating systems built around Linux technology" which is incorrect. Linux is Linux. The presentation and tools of different distributions may vary but the same underlying code is in all of them and the same software will work on all. Further, Mr. Golden correctly points out that he could have freely downloaded a current version of five of the included distributions but chose not to do so. Linux development proceeds at a much faster pace than Windows development. If Mr. Golden had worked with current versions some of the issues he ran into might have been avoided, particularly hardware detection of graphics and sound cards.

Mr. Golden asserts that "...getting some of the systems to work required more time and effort than I was willing to exert." This is perfectly reasonable and is an attitude that would be shared by ordinary users. However the ordinary user would likely pick one distribution that was recommended to them rather than divide their time between six. I suspect had Mr. Golden chosen one popular distribution and stuck with it he could have had everything working. He himself conceded that solutions exist for virtually every problem he encountered.

The other flaw with Mr. Golden's methodology was picking up a book and pretty much going it alone. When he did ask for help he called software manufacturers. That's perhaps the correct way to do things in the Windows world and it might also make sense for a newcomer to Linux in a very rural part of Montana or Wyoming. For most of us who live in small, medium, and large cities there are a plethora of Linux Users Groups, or LUGs, that encourage and assist newcomers. Many have "install parties" where an ordinary user could have brought a laptop like the one Mr. Golden used and received knowledgeable assistance that would have gotten everything working in short order.


James Thompson
2006-05-20 16:03:37
I think the point is that Linux still does still not "just work". I have 4 pcs and 3 mac os x boxes. Getting these rebuilt is a fairly straightforward business. On several occasions I have tried installing linux (Suse & Ubuntu) on the pcs and hit loads of problems with drivers; in particular for video cards & wireless networking.

While I appreciate the fact that there are problems with getting maunfacturers to provide source code in these 2 areas, most users will not put up with all the faffing around that is required.

Until this is fixed (i.e. runs out of the box) linux on the desktop will always be a step away.


2006-05-20 16:30:35
James, Windows generally doesn't just run out of the box either. You generally need to download drivers, add applications and hope you don't run into DLL hell, etc... I have seen a number of dyed in the wool Windows people install Linux for the first time and be simply amazed that it does work just right out of the box. Does this happen 100% of the time? No, not nearly. That's true for Windows as well. Mac OSX works on a very limited selection of propreitary hardware so it isn't in the same class.

The fact is that most "ordinary users" are going to have problems installing any PC OS. The only reason Linux might be a step away is the lack of preloaded systems on store shelves.

James Clark
2006-05-21 00:18:23
I believe the main hurdle is not that Linux OSes are hard to use, but that they require a different approach than a Windows OS does. To someone who has not had any prior exposure to a computer, Ubuntu will look and behave very similarly to Windows XP.

So the biggest step is to un-learn the Windows methodology that has been hammered into people through countless pop-up dialog boxes. I find many newcomers are, for instance, not looking for a web browser, but looking for "Internet Explorer", they do not want a spreadsheet program, they want to use an "Excel", they expect to have to run a "setup.exe" to install software, instead of using the package manager.

You would see these same stumbles going with a Linux "native speaker" trying to use Windows XP for the first time.. for example, I might be confused that Add/Remove programs does not list every program I can install, and be frustrated that I have to scour websites and install CDs for all my software packages.

Same applies going from OS X to Linux, or OS X to Windows, or Windows to OS X. It's different. But somehow it is seen as a shortcoming of Linux that it is not identical in every way to Windows XP.

2006-05-21 02:16:26
I tend to agree. 95% of Journalists don't know anything. :-)

The story feels like a person bought a copy of Windows ME, then judged ALL versions of Windows based on his experience with that version.

If he bothered to try OpenSUSE 10.1, he'll see a completely different story.

My experience with OpenSUSE has been uneventful and trouble free. I download, burn, and install. That's it. I like ver 10.1, because it works perfectly with my IBM ThinkPad.

OpenSUSE.org provides all the documentation (free to download, and great for the beginner). I also search on the web for everything else I need. I didn't even need to spend a dime on some "For Dummies" book. In under an hour, I can have a Linux box, ready to go for a newbie. (With all audio/video codecs, DVD playback, VMware Server (free), etc).

...My Linux experience?
I started in late 2004 (sometime in December), and I haven't stop since.

The primary concern is that people believe Linux is hard. Its only hard if you don't know how to approach it. I've guided many newbies, and they love it. We've even formed a group, to share our experiences and such.

2006-05-21 06:48:56
The above rebuttal is kind of flawed. It's a very optimistic point of view on Linux. Let's see why.

Assume the reviewer would have indeed just picked a single Linux distribution. Make this the current Number One distribution, too: Ubuntu Linux. It's been known to be rather easy to use, and to work flawlessly in most cases.

Now, the above rebuttal expects ordinary users to have the time to visit a LUG meeting before getting started on using Ubuntu. How are they supposed to know that they should do so?

The existance of LUG in every "small, medium, and large city" is kind of hard to believe -- I'm not from the US so please bear with me if I'm sceptical. In most cases, these LUGs are probably rather small, and maybe, these LUG members are not able to answer questions about Ubuntu! They may use RedHat or Gentoo. And their answer will probably be the standard answer on all problems: Switch the distribution!

In fact, picking up a book is already a very educated approach when considering that you are starting with a new operating system. It's not the fault of the reviewer when the book comes with 5 (!) distributions.

In fact, it's our fault that the book publisher considered it necessary to pack 5 distributions on the DVD. The resulting confusion is our fault, too.

The core problem is that there's no abstraction layer between the basic Linux system (ie. Ubuntu's first CD, for example) on the one hand, and the applications on the other hand. Due to the missing abstraction, everything is a problem of the distribution and thus no distribution gets it right.

As a result, we terrorize ordinary users by the complexity of the options. This wouldn't be such a major problem if we wouldn't combine this into a number of almost indistiguishable "products" called "distributions".

Thus, we should not tell ordinary users it's easy because it isn't. Not yet, at least.

Caityn Martin
2006-05-21 12:00:27
Some of the commenters so far make some very good points. Linus Torvalds once said that "Changing operating systems is like performing brain surgery on yourself." I disagree with Claus on one fundamental point while agreeing with most everyone else who has written so far: Linux isn't fundamentally any harder than Windows or MacOS. MacOS, which is just FreeBSD with an extremely well crafted proprietary Apple GUI called Aqua, has just as many options as a Linux desktop and yet it doesn't terrorize users. Rather it is considered easy. The only thing that makes Linux hard is bad press, FUD, and people blindly jumping in feet first with no help.

Claus, thank you for admitting you do not live in the States. In little Green Bay, Wisconsin (population 102,000) there is an active LUG. I've traveled quite a bit in the course of my career and I have yet to find a city this size or larger than doesn't have a LUG. By American standards Green Bay is a small city. I stand by my statement. Things may well be different in Europe but I must note I was writing a rebuttal to an American newspaper piece with a target audience that is primarily American. Granted by posting the rebuttal here as well I am reaching a perhaps wider audience. Therefore my statement did need clarification. What I am referring to is the situation in American cities, not elsewhere.

James really did hit the nail on the head. Linux isn't Windows. To someone who knows nothing but Windows it means change and change, by definition, presents difficulty to people who fear it. However, sit someone down who has no prior computer experience and give them a well configured Linux desktop and I believe that Linux isn't any harder than Windows. In fact in many ways it really is easier. No anti-virus to worry about, a preconfigured firewall you can forget about... no problems jumping on the 'net and no malware to worry about, at least in this point of time. That does simplify things, doesn't it?

Leon Brooks
2006-05-21 17:51:06
I use recent versions of Mandriva (nee Mandrake) with PLF repositories as well. I do not have issues playing intact multimedia.

It all works seamlessly "out of the box" and a lot smoother and more safely than similar functions I observe on similar-age non-Linux legacy operating systems (mostly they seem to come with built-in virus fodder, as well).

Also, these systems avoid the perennial tsumani of viruses, spyware et al that I clean (or see cleaned) from legacy operating systems with depressing regularity.

Leon Brooks
2006-05-21 19:15:00
Should add that my wife gets... adventurous about what she clicks on, and I am so glad that I avoid having to reinstall the OS every few days, as I have had to for other people using that virus-prone spyware-inflamed everything-special-cased American horror story that is sold by default with so many other computers.

The typical worst problem I face with SWMBO's machine is finding more than a couple of hundred megabytes of hard disk space to store all of the clicked-on data. That's an excellent party game compared to random shoot-in-the-dark is-there-spyware mis-management games.

Allison Newman
2006-05-23 01:58:37
Linux as easy as Windows or MacOS X??? Come on, you have got to be kidding me! I work in a mixed environment that uses all three, and let me give some examples where Linux leaves me ready to tear my hair out:
- Sharing files on a network - forget about it. The best you can do is set up an FTP server on the Mac or PC, and run an FTP client on Linux to move files around. That's great for those of us that know that FTP even exists, but most users expect to plug their computer into the network, and see little icons appear in their file manager that represent the other computers/devices on the network.
- Mounting a USB key. On a Mac or on a PC, you plug one in, and the icon appears straight away on the desktop or in explorer. No mucking about with mount/umount, an experience that always requires me personally to look up the man pages. What is a user supposed to do if they don't know that 'mount' exits? Good grief, most users don't even know (and don't want to know) that 'man' exists.
- Printing. Personally, I have only successfully configured a Linux distro once to talk to a networked printer, and that at the expense of a near-nervous breakdown. Sure, once it's configured it works just fine, but getting there is way harder than it needs to be. Compare the experience (again) to that on a PC or a Mac.
- Installing software. For a Windows PC, or for a Mac running Mac-native software, you download off the net, and you either run setup.exe, or you copy the app nto your Applications folder. For Linux, you either have to run a package distribution system, like aptd (if you know it exists), or download tar-balls off the net. Then you can have the joy of running through configure/make/make install, hardly the friendly experience that exists elsewhere.

These are all daily examples of headaches experienced when running Linux, that just aren't necessary. For the vast majority of people, computers are tools. They don't WANT to have to pay a visit to their local Users Group to make the system do what they want. Caitlyn, the fact that you even suggested it is a slam-dunk argument for Golden. On a PC or a Mac, you don't need to!!!!

In fact, now that I think about it, I can't think of a single thing that is easier to do on Linux than it is on a Mac. Not one. But it really isn't hard at all to find things that are harder. Even as an experienced computer user, capable of resolving these issues, I just don't want to waste my time doing so. I want to download songs, watch videos, play games, exchange files with others, print documents, and a myriad of other tasks without having to fight against the computer. That is why I consider Linux as still being a long way from being suitable as a consumer device.

Caitlyn Martin
2006-05-23 11:44:51
Allison, whoever is your Linux systems adminsitrator in your mixed environment is either using a very old distribution or else they just don't know what they are doing. Let's take easch of your examples:

With samba file sharing and directory sharing is identical to Windows. It's point and click and a user on a Windows or Mac box can't even tell they are accessing a Linux box. The same is true Linux-to-Linux using NFS. It's all point and click. No thinking involved.

On a recent, modern distribution (i.e.: Red Hat, Fedora, SuSe, Mandriva, Ubuntu, etc...) if you plug in a USB key an icon appears on the desktop and you have access to all that's there. No thinking involved.

Printing? With CUPS? Again, point and click. On many distros the printer is detected and setup for you. No intervention involved.

A LUG is only needed at install time *if* there are problems and honestly, there often aren't any at all. On my Toshiba laptop and on my eMachines desktop everything was detected and worked right out of the box. End of story.

I haven't made Mark Golden's argument. What you have shown is what I argued -- that with an older distribution or with poor administration (as in your workplace) you are going to have issues. Get a current Linux distribution and you won't. It really is as easy as Windows or Mac but because of whatever is done at your workplace you likely will never try it for yourself nor believe me.

I often run into people who tell me they tried Linux and tell me how hard it is. I asked them when they tried it and I get answers like "five or six years ago". In Linux that is an eternity and the entire world has changed. Yet when I worked for Red Hat as a consultant last year I ran into workplaces that were still running Red Hat Linux 6.2 Enterprise Edition (circa 1999) or RHEL 2.1 (circa 2000-01). I suspect your workplace is one like that -- ancient Linux gives you a very poor impression of what Linux is like today.

Caitlyn Martin
2006-05-23 11:57:02
I neglected to answer Allison's objecion to software installation. Sje describes using apt at the command line (so she's on a Debian based distro) or compiling by hand. Again, on a modern distro it's point and click if you want it to be. Even Debian based distros have synaptic. You're presented with a searchable list of sortware broken down into broad categories and you just point, click, and it's installed. pirut on Fedora works essentially the same way. The average user can happily ignore the underlying package management system. Dependencies are added automagically if needed. The same is true on Mandriva, SuSe, Ubuntu, etc...

Once again, I think you are using something very old or something *deliberately* setup to keep users at bay. Spend a few days in my office and your opinion of linux and how easy it is would be 100% different.

M. David Peterson
2006-05-23 21:48:15
All very good follow-up points. I haven't read through every line of every follow-up, so please forgive me if this has already been mentioned.

The key to the success of Windows came not from it's ease of installation, although to upgrade a Window's box is a farely painless process. In fact, this is the key point... Windows is the OS that comes pre-installed on machines in 9x.x% of the cases (when refering to consumer-focused hardware.) Furthermore, the applications that run on Windows are easily available from your local software supplier, and in almost every case, the same store in which you purchased your hardware.

Macintosh has been able to maintain a solid position of ownership of their market share (even though the overall marketshare is small, is a consistant, dedicated, and growing base of enthusiasts.) for the same reason... The OS comes pre-installed and its easy to purchase new software applications from the same place you purchased your hardware.

Except for a few cases where Linspire has come pre-installed on hardware sold at WalMart, Linux doesn't share any of the above qualities. Channel is the single most important piece of the success puzzle. If you can get into the retail channel, you have a a good chance at success. If you can't, its going to be difficult, at best.

There's one last piece to this that the Linux community as a whole has going against them. There is a small, but outspoken group of "Linux Supremacy" folks who look for every opportunity to showcase how stupid, and ignorant, etc... etc... etc... folks who don't "get how superior Linux is, and therefore are obviously idiots, and need to be told this to ensure that they are aware just how stupid they really are."

That doesn't win over very many people, no matter how "superior" Linux is.

2006-05-23 23:26:23
David, several nails hit squarely on the head. As I pointe dout the average user will have problems installing any OS from scratch, including Windows. Most users don't choose Windows. They choose what they have at work or what's in the store by default, and that is, as you point out, usually Windows. Ma users, like Linux users, are generally people who know what they want and go out and get it. Last I heard Linux had something like 5% of the desktop, Mac had 4%, and Windows had 90%. Preloaded systems are exactly why.

OTOH, once you are in Wal Mart you are mainstream, so in that sense Linux has made some headway.

Oh, and yes, the attitudes of zealots and know-it-alls leave a lot to be desired, no matter what the field.

M. David Peterson
2006-05-24 00:30:05
> As I pointed out the average user will have problems installing any OS from scratch, including Windows.

Ah, yes... Scrolling back up I see where you bring this up pretty much out of the gate. And you're absolutely spot on. Just like the rest of you, being one who lives, eats, and breathes technology, hacking at code by day AND by night ;) I am ever so amazed by how much of a pain in the butt it can be to install any Windows OS from scratch. As you mentioned, drivers don't just install themselves automagically. In some cases they do, but I have yet to encounter such a situation.

> OTOH, once you are in Wal Mart you are mainstream, so in that sense Linux has made some headway.

Yep. While I'll admit that I have a bag of mixed feelings in regards to Linspires previous "Lindows" marketing approach, those feelings tend to be overcome when I force myself to realize that in the world of technology, NO ONE is a shining example of ethical marketing tactics, so the fact that the resulting Linspire as helped pave the path to the channel for the rest of the Linux distros is obviously something to commend them for.

> Oh, and yes, the attitudes of zealots and know-it-alls leave a lot to be desired, no matter what the field.

Very true. Of course, given the roots of Windows, and the closed source code base, you obviously aren't going to attract much of the "Script Kiddie" et. Al. (of which tends to be the folks I find to be the most damaging to the Linux communities as a whole... e.g. scroll about a third of the way through the comments to > http://www.oreillynet.com/xml/blog/2006/05/dear_microsoft_thank_you_for_t.html < for a shining example) crowd that tends to flock instead to Linux. Yet theres enough of the "Windows Supremacists" around for any of us to have to deal with on any regular basis, so your point is well taken without a doubt :D