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Three reasons for newbie-centric culture shock

... or: How I Learned to Stop Ignoring Newbie Complaints and Explore Linux's Shortcomings

(LinuxWorld) — I suppose it happens to all of us to some degree, but I know for sure it has to me: the more comfortable I've gotten with Linux, the less attention I pay to the complaints of those who try it but don't like it. I do acknowledge Linux is not the right choice for everyone, but the fact that I've personally gone from point A to point B leads me to pay little attention to reasons I hear about why it can't or shouldn't be done.

For whatever reasons, I've recently started listening more seriously to complaints I hear about Linux from newbies and wannabes. As a result, I've learned that things have changed since the days I made the journey from the Land of Redmond Empire to the Land of Freedom. For one thing, the people on the path are different. It's not just congenital geeks and computer professionals: Joe Sixpack and Aunt Nadine are trying and adopting Linux these days. For another, the loudest whining no longer comes during the install process, but afterwards. What I'm hearing is the wailing of those experiencing culture shock.

It begins with "what is all this stuff," but it's more than just the fact that everything is a little bit different here in Linux land. The three drums I hear being beat most often have to do with an overabundance of choice, cryptographic application names and a notable lack of documentation for life in the brave new world of Linux.

1. Labyrinth Lane

Choice. It's all about choice. That's why there is a Linux in the first place. The dark side prefers one choice on the ballot: upgrade to the next version of Windows. I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise that those crossing over these days may be frightened by the long list of choices they have to make just to surf the Web, write a letter or IM that babe they met at the Seniors Activity Center.

I recently conducted a default installation of Mandrake 9.0. If I need to create a word-processing document or read a document in Microsoft Word format, I can go into the menu system and select a word processor for the job. Which should I use? Open Office? How about Star Office? Or maybe KWord? Don't forget AbiWord. They are all there, and there may be others. The fact that the desktop environment provides a simple and intuitive method of selecting a program to run doesn't help a neophyte decide which one to pick.

Speaking of desktop environments, should a new user pick KDE or Gnome? In Mandrake 9.0, the default is both. Moreover, there are a few lighter-weight window managers too. Making blind choices can be frustrating for the first-time Linux user.

What about editors? Don't get me started on those. According to the new Geneva Convention, "vi versus Emacs" is a topic that cannot be debated again for 50 years (or the half-life of an Emacs initialization, whichever comes first). Of course, there's also joe, ed, vim and many more text editors than I care to list. FreshMeat.net has 371 projects in the "text editors" group.

Mail clients? Ditto. I don't think we have one called Woody yet, but we might. Elm, Pine, Mutt, Balsa, Evolution, Kmail... make me stop. You get the idea. Or if you don't get it, go to FreshMeat.net and check for mail clients. There are more than 230 MUA projects listed.

And browsers? More of the same. Will it be Mozilla, Netscape, Galeon, or Opera? Or KDE's Explorer? How about Lynx? Speaking of text-based browsers, don't forget Links. While these may seem like riches to those accustomed to Linux, abundance is not always perceived that way by newbies. It's hard enough learning your way around a new OS, let alone having to pick from Door 1 to Door 3 or 4 or 5 for every tool you want to use.

2. The art of naming things

Shakespeare — and an entire segment of the marketing industry that practices the black art of "branding" — claims that naming is not that important. Wild Bill wrote in Romeo and Juliet that "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Trust me on this, he didn't believe it for a second. He was merely exercising his poetic EULA.

I've heard a number of neophyte Linux users lament that their initial Linux experience has been made less enjoyable/productive by the fact that so many application names don't convey a clue as to their function or purpose. Perhaps if Shakespeare had been plucked from a tavern in Avon and dropped into a Starbucks in L.A., he would have had a finer appreciation for the art of naming things.

I have to admit that of the applications I run most often — Evolution, gedit, Galeon, the GIMP, gPhoto and X-Chat — only fifty percent of their names convey any hint of what they do. Clearly, a first time user is not going to know intuitively what Galeon does or know to click on Evolution if he or she wants to check or send e-mail.

Is it important? From my own personal history, I can cite two examples of how fine naming has increased both the accessibility and my appreciation for two pieces of art.

One day, I was turning through a book on the art and sculpture of the Allan Houser, who happens to have been born only a few months and a few miles from my mother's birthplace. I came across a sculpture of three Indian women standing almost in a semi-circle, none quite facing another. They had strange, furtive, and secretive looks on their faces, and their hands were held as if anticipating something about to happen. It was a great sculpture with respect to the lines and realism, but I didn't quite "get it."

However, when I read the title of the piece, it all came clear to me. I understood the sidelong glances, the anticipation, and the secrecy. The name of the piece was "Three Women Gossiping."

Here's another example, this one a bit more bizarre. The great surrealist painter Salvador Dali named his works as precisely as anyone ever has. That's a good thing, because glimpses of one's subconscious are not always easily understood.

One of his paintings depicts his wife, Gala, reclining nude. Off to her side, two tigers are hurtling her way in mid-leap. The blade of a bayoneted rifle is perched only inches from her side. In the background, a fantastically long-legged elephant strides from right to left. At first impression, this is one of those pieces of modern art that nobody is supposed to get. It's just too far removed from reality.

Until you learn the name of the piece, that is. The exact title is "Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bumblebee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening." Now even an engineering student can make sense of it. The bayonet is the bee's stinger. The rest of the painting looks like a dreamscape because it is a dreamscape.

Now step back from dreamland to reality. We have a new user in our midst. She wants to run something like Photoshop. What clue is embedded in The GIMP that might give its purpose away, unless you know that GIMP stands for Gnu Image Manipulation Program? As far as I know, that's not required knowledge in the Land of Redmond. Ditto for an ls -l of other applications and tools.

3. Document this way

The third complaint caused me to do a double take. Documentation? We have tons of documentation! My initial reaction was "RTF man pages, newbie!" The Linux Documentation Project is a wonderful thing and an invaluable resource and the need for it isn't going away anytime soon. Same for the man and info commands. Nevertheless, for first-time users exploring Linux, those resources are not all that.

When I finally listened well enough, I heard the real complaint. It's not the absence of documentation but rather its slant. What a new convert from Windows wants to know — and right now, thank you very much — is how to do something in Linux that he or she already knows how to do in Windows, and in terms that a Windows user can readily understand.

Someone suggested a title like "How Do I ______ in Linux." I think it's a good one. I also think it's a good idea for a book. If any of you ex- or experimenting Windows users out there have suggestions for things that you want to know how to do in Linux, please post them in the forum or send them by e-mail. I'll start collecting them for a best-seller.

So what about those first two newbie complaints: choices and naming? I don't know. Freedom is the driving force in free/open-source software. Freedom to take a stack of code and, using a digital pitchfork, pitch it to a new location with a new name. It happens all the time. If you stop that process, you'll end up killing free software.

At the distribution level, some work can be done to dumb-down, minimize and even rename applications. I think if anything is ever to come of these complaints about nerdy naming and the confusion of choices seen in Linux today, it can only come about on a broad scale because one distribution or another decides to meet that need.

On an individual basis, — and I believe some distributions have made some steps towards this already — the alias command can be used to accomplish what's wanted. The catch to that, of course, is that if you know enough to use alias to fix the problem, you probably don't need it fixed.

Ah, but the third complaint: Linux documentation from a Windows point of view. That's a keeper. Instant riches and fame for the authors and publishers. To put it in terms that free and open-source people can understand, it's an itch just begging to be scratched.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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