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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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Most Recent Comments
Jim J 03/12/04 09:57:41 AM EST

One thing I'd like to add to my last post was that I also tried Gentoo Linux as an alternative to Madrake Linux 9.2 after reading a post on another Linux website. They suggested installing a slimmed down version of Linux to improve the load time but it was just as slow. I did enjoy spending the 8 hours it took to get Gentoo installed (not being sarcastic here) and I learned a lot about Linux using it. I downloaded and made a copy of the install instructions first so I didn't have to keep switching over to the manual that was included on the disks. I would recommend this to anyone doing a Gentoo install for the first time.

Jim J 03/12/04 09:40:06 AM EST

As a "newbie" to Linux I was very dissapointed when I installed Mandrake Linux 9.2 on a second box I own. My experience with computers goes back 14 years to using Unix in college, FORTRAN 77, having Apple desktops and all version of DOS and Windows. What I wanted from Linux was a machine that would boot to a usuable desktop in 35-seconds from the moment I push the power button like my Windows XP Home machine does. The reason for the slow boot time is because I have Norton Internet Security loading which slows it down by 20 seconds. A fresh install with no programs loading at startup boots to the desktop in 15-seconds.

Unfortunately my install of Mandrake 9.2 took over 5 minutes to boot up and I have to be there at the keyboard when it comes time to load the OS. Reminds me of running the early versions of Windows when you actually loaded DOS first and booted Windows from there. While the install was easy, but just as slow as Windows XP, it did not load all the correct drivers and I couldn't for the life of me get the correct drivers to load. So I gave up and installed Windows XP Pro on this box. Windows XP Pro had the same problem with the drivers when I first installed it but chaging to the correct drivers was easy. I wish Linux was just as easy to install drivers, a simple upgrade drivers selection. Or is it and I'm just too unfamilar with it to know any better. I'm thinking of trying the Linux install again as a dual boot because I don't want to give up just yet on this and I do like its openness. I'm thinking of using this box as a server and this is where Linux really shines. I my opinion, as a desktop OS it needs a lot of work.

One other point I would like to make is that a lot of people talk about how much cheaper Linux is than Windows. I tell you $150 is expensive for an operating system. I've never had to pay for a full version of Windows as I am one of those people who has bought every version. Without complaining by the way. And no one has to buy a full version. The upgrade for Windows XP is only $99 and only requires the Windows ME CD be checked to ensure you can upgrade. A lot of people I know were passing around a copy of the Windows Me CD to do the install. For myself the only way Linux was cheaper than Windows was to spend 4 hours downloading it from the internet. Then another 2 trying to figure out how to get the ISO images writtten to a bootable CD. I used a trial version of CDRWin that only writes at 1x speed and that took another hour doing all 3 disks. By the way I did all this with my Windows XP machine so it still has some use. So if 6 hours of my time is "free" then I guess I made out. Of course I suppose all future upgrades will be "free" so I would save a lot there.

luke 12/03/03 01:29:01 PM EST

help....i have windows xp and mandrake linux installed on seperate partition, windows xp starts up fine when i select it from lilo or grub but when i start linux it appears to load up fine until i get a big fat black screen with nothing on it no curser no blinking command prompt nothing

im running on a packard bell iconnect 1250
320mb ram
radeon 9000 pci
can any1 help plz this is messing with my head...thx

Walt R. 09/13/03 02:34:20 PM EDT

I have used MS crap periodically since 1982, and have yet to see anything worth paying for. My first computer was an Amiga 1000. Five years ago I needed another computer for college, Yet MS Windows was NOT an option. I did a lot of reading, purchased redhat 6.0, and built a computer that would support it. The install was flawless. In less than four minutes I was up and running in linux. I have never seen a MSWindows install that was that fast or easy. The key is preperation, buy a Linux/Unix manual, read and study to understand, make sure your hardware will support linux, and be ready for a steep learning curve. "There is a price to be paid for success, that price is non negotiable. You either pay the for success or pay the price for failure, and that price is usually higher..." I have taken some shell scripting classes, and now I appreciate the power in the Bourne shell. I read the following in a unix tutorial at ibiblio.org, "Unix is the last operating system will need to learn..."

S. Derochick 08/08/03 08:07:27 PM EDT

Let me give you the Newby side of the story from someone who refuses to give M$ any more money. I'm not a geek, but I don't consider myself a computer dummy either. (Probably two steps above dummy.) :-)

There is no one I know who uses Linux, so I've never gotten the "attitude" from an experienced user. Unfortunately, I'm sure some of the problems I've had might have been fixed very simply with a bit of help, rather than having to wipe the disk and start over.

I think there is a real need for a Windows-to-Linux book for folks such as me who have used M$ for years and are just now getting into Linux. For example, how do I defrag the hard drive? Is it even required? When I first loaded Linux, I couldn't save a file to the "A" drive, oops, I mean floppy. I hate it when I click on Help and be told the help file is not yet written.

I have two computers networked together. (Mandrake 9.1 and Win ME.) How do I install a firewall on the Linux box and still have access to the windows box? So far, everything I've read on firewalls is about a separate computer acting as a stand alone firewall. When I start the firewall on the Linux box, Win ME no longer sees the Linux box.

The amount of software was overwhelming when I first loaded Linux. I had this strange thought that each program was required because no-one program was capable of doing it all. I mean, why else would there be three different word processing programs in the menu? Sounds dumb now, but when you don't know any better ...

Linux names do drive me a little nuts. BitchX? Why in the world would I want to load a program that yells at me? I have a wife that does that quite nicely already, thank you.

I have an ABIT NF7-S MoBo. When Linux starts, it searches for new hardware and at times tries to load my Nvidia chipset as a video card. (Although some NF7 boards have onboard video, my board does not.) When this happens, I get a completely black screen. How do I turn off the "new hardware" search? Unless I've added new hardware, there's no reason to search every boot up. One thing I've learned is that I cannot turn the computer on and walk away while it boots.

Bottom line? I like Linux. I've been using it for about 6 months and I think I have most of the basic stuff down. I might be doing some things the "long" way, but I can get it done. I didn't learn windows overnight and I won't learn Linux overnight either. But if I can just figure out the firewall and how to get my semi-network printer working, I'd be happy.


PK Carlisle 08/08/03 12:09:29 PM EDT

The naming of programs is not in itself an issue, rather that issue is a result of the lack of clear documentation for new users. I can get me head around any name as long as I don't need to guess about what the name stands for.

I am dabbling in Linux these days. I started using a PC when DOS 3.21 was state of the art, so I'm not a new user by any means. Since Lnux relies so heavily on a command line (a plus, not a minus to an old DOS geek) I looked for comparisons in the documentation of the two systems. DOS had a manual. A simple foot-in-the-door manual that listed each command, what it did and its switches (COPY [source] [destination] )and it explained each option in such a way that someone without 10 years of experience in the OS could figure it out. It gave the user something to work with, enough to get started.

As for the abundance of choices, I think that's wonderful. I would move away from Windows specifically because I want the system to be able to do more, fine tuned to my own tastes. No one is criticizing choices, and heaven forbid that Linux should become Windows-like and remove choices in the interest of simplicity, just document the choices so I know what's out there.

Which leads to the overall dumbing down concept. To make the OS idiot proof would be to remove all choices and have Microsoft style click boxes (Yes or No). This is absolutely not what I as a new user want to see. I never asked for Linux to be simple or simplistic.

The point is that as someone who has used PCs for 20 years, by now I know what questions to ask, what to look for regarding expected output, but in a system not documented for new users, I have no clue where to look, what conventions are used, or how to fine tune according to the general data concepts that I understand and could well apply. This is annoying. This is insulting. This is frustrating. This is doubly so because of the experience I do bring, because one of the things that that experience teaches me is that after you write a program, you grit your teeth and document the thing.

In my opinion, Linux will continue to have single digit market share until it's properly documented. The absolutely incorrect approach would be to dumb it down and take away choices a la Windows.

Jeroen Wenting 08/06/03 01:07:01 AM EDT

I wonder why noone ever commented on this story, but likely it is because Joe is completely correct about the often hostile nature of experienced Linux users towards people trying to start out.

The term hostile I use quite on purpose. Many experienced users seem to consider helping inexperienced users to be a Bad Thing.
When you´re starting out, coming from Windows (for example, I´m sure there are people coming from other OSs as well such as MacOS and OS/2), and you can´t even get it installed because you´re baffled by the options you need to enter (this is improving, but I experienced it myself earlier this year when attempting to install on a machine where the graphical fancy installer wouldn´t work...) you´re either ignored or more typically told that the information is available without being told where (and even if you find it if you´re less than a computer guru you´re unlikely to find it of much use. "horizontal scanlines", I know what it means but for my computer illiterate mother it´s mumbo jumbo. At least tell WHERE to typically find such information and what it applies to. And that´s only a single example.

Then, once you get it installed the trouble really starts because as Joe states the programs at your disposal are completely unknown and often give no clue as to their functioning.
Helpfiles? That´s a Microsoft thing which is Bad.
Check the manpage they say, without saying how to get to it.
Documentation? Nah, we´d rather spend the time coding... We are so brilliant that everyone instantly understands a commandline like "g -g 3djj2 +d24s ´fdsgt´". Just a random one, but it gets the point across. While for the person who made the program it might be instantly clear for the uninitiated it´s just a mass of random characters.

User interface design was invented for a reason. Like it or not, Microsoft are masters at it. Their applications (whichever their faults, which are less than many Linux zealots would like to believe) they ARE easy to use for the non-technical person which is exactly why Microsoft made a killer with Windows.
Some Linux applications (and then mainly the ones released or sponsored by companies with a financial interest in the application) are getting there, but there´s still a long way to go.

And yes, better documentation aimed specifically at the non-technical end-user would help a lot as well.
I have enough experience that I can get to a commandprompt and find my way around the filesystem.
The average person switching to Linux nowadays has never used a commandprompt in his or her life and doesn´t want to start now.

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