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Meeting Windows User Expectations With Linux

There has been a lot of talk in the past month over the looming doom of Windows XP. Microsoft will be pulling the life support plug on XP on April 8th this year. There are plenty of folks a bit jittery about this and those jitters are justifiable.

Microsoft Windows XP has undoubtedly been the longest running Windows operating system to date. Microsoft has extended the deadline for killing XP a couple of times. Now it appears there will be no stay of execution for the aging OS.

Even with all the publicity and news about the demise of XP, it’s gonna be a problem. A big problem.

Here’s why.

“Decision day is rapidly approaching for the owners of millions of computers, automated teller machines (ATMs) and cash registers still running the Windows XP operating system. With less than 20 days to go before Microsoft ends support for the 13-year-old platform on April 8, millions of machines including 95 per cent of the world’s ATMs are still running on it.”

Sydney Morning Herald — March 19, 2014

I spend a lot of time going in and out of hospitals. As I walk the halls, I see the well-known Windows XP professional screen saver floating around at every nurses’ station. I’ve talked to several nurses and staff that man those stations about the upcoming change. Every one of them shrugs as if they don’t understand the probable ramifications of running an outdated system.

tracks_don't_meetHaving said that, I understand that the majority of these hospital machines are part of an in-house intranet. I also understand that the software needed for these purposes is expensive and complex. Upgrading the OS and the software ain’t gonna be cheap. But even in the fairly safe confines of an intranet, all it takes is one careless user to insert an infected flash drive. You think that doesn’t happen? Take a few minutes and google “Stuxnet.”

Banks however, are another story altogether. An assistant bank manager here in Taylor is extremely nervous about the coming upgrade. He is well aware of the immense task in front of them. “Doesn’t Microsoft understand what we have to go through here? A system upgrade for us will be a nightmare. Why can’t it just stay the way it is?”

Because, Mr. Assistant Bank Manager, the two most important aspects of our lives are at stake. The keepers of our health and wealth are running an operating system that will give in faster than a drunk debutante on prom night, that’s why.

This perfectly illustrates the disconnect that many end users display when dealing with the underlying technology that buoys their business or job. As long as it works, they don’t think about it. Living in a small town, I have the opportunity to talk to a lot of people during the course of the day. I’m not really surprised at how many of them are still using Windows XP. Few of them are using Windows 7. Many are still using Vista.

And Windows 8?

Most seniors here have no idea that it even exists. Remember, my small town is defined and driven by us older folks. The average age in our town is 46.8 years of age. Most folks in my demographic seldom seek out tech news. If Brian Williams or Diane Sawyer aren’t talking about it on the 6 o’clock news, then it’s nothing to worry about. They rely upon their adult kids, nieces, nephews or friends to keep their computers current. Most of them are oblivious to the upcoming danger. Unfortunately, in the private sector it’s the senior set that will be hit hardest by the approaching malware onslaught.

Those of us who use Linux as our main operating system are insulated from this problem. A smaller number of us may be trying to help others wean themselves from Microsoft Windows entirely. The first thing some of us do is search for one of the more user friendly distros. A few of these distros claim to mimic one or more of the Microsoft operating systems. And yeah, there are some visual similarities, but that’s where it ends.

Distro projects like Zorin and LXLE tout their Windows-like appearance and ease of use in order to draw Windows users who are resistant to change. It does sound good in concept, but I don’t care how you dress up the user interface, it’s the inner workings that define the environment.

Zorin LinuxFor the record, Reglue uses Zorin 6.4 educational LTS release for many of our kids. it’s a fantastic system and it runs on just about any hardware I’ve used. It’s also one of the most professionally presented systems available. But underneath the desktop, Linux is Linux is Linux.

I will do 50 to 60 more Linux installs for our Reglue kids this year. Often, we return to the home when the system breaks down or they are due for an upgrade. When we give one of our Reglue kids a computer, we support it for as long as that kid is in school.

I cannot accurately tell you how many of these Linux machines I turn on and see some-windows-program.exe on the desktop. Maybe the kids understand their systems, we teach them how to use them before we leave the home, but when dad, mom, brother or sister sit down, they have no clue. They’ve tried to install a Windows program on a Linux computer and it didn’t work. In there minds and there on in, Linux sucks. A live-in boyfriend of a kid’s mom recently voiced his displeasure:

“I can’t do a *** ****** thing on this POS. Bring us something we can use.”

I told him that, first off, the computer wasn’t for him, it was for Amie and 14 year old Amie was thrilled with it. I then told him that Linux was for people who are serious about computing — beyond browsing Internet porn sites all day. The space between us was getting uncomfortably warm when mom pulled into the carport. Boyfriend departed for places unknown into the back of the house.

So yeah, at first the new user might feel more at home with Zorin or LXLE, but don’t sell the system as a Windows replacement. That’s an injustice to the user and it sets up false expectations. They are not going to be happy when they can’t find the Documents and Settings folder. I’m not saying that Zorin sells themselves as such, but well-meaning friends or family members often do. I’ve had to clean up behind some of them on too many occasions. Once you get past the desktop, Zorin nor any Linux distro is going to fool most people, especially when software installation and management comes into play.

In my experience, many of today’s computer users rarely go beyond their browser when using the computer at all. Due to the vast improvement in the top browsers, Linus Torvalds’ goal that the OS shouldn’t get in the way of the user appears to be coming true. But for those who delve deeper into the workings of their computers, Linux should be highlighted, not side-stepped. In my experience, users just want things to work. Period. If you make that happen for them, then the underlying OS isn’t going to be a big deal.

So do Windows look-alike distros fail to meet expectations? Not if presented correctly. But if you know your friend or family member is going to want a complete Windows-like experience all around, don’t sabotage your own efforts, or mine for that matter. Because after all, Linux is Linux is Linux.

Later this month or early next month, we are looking at doing one or more articles on software you might miss from your Windows days. Some of you know we’ve kicked the subject around on Google Plus and I think you have some interesting things to say on the matter. As always, it’s your comments that make this a great free open source software site.

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Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project that refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area.

Latest posts by Ken Starks (see all)

22 comments to Meeting Windows User Expectations With Linux

  • W. Anderson

    Time is too short for the introduction, education and convincing of many Windows XP users – whether individuals, small or medium businesses or organizations to mode to suitable Linux distribution, no matter how wonderful.

    One of the challenges is that large desktop Linux adopters, like The Gap, Oracle and others are not willing to endorse the positive and beneficial linux experience, and project like ReGlue do not have enough clout or stature to convince most Windows XP users.

    I am not advocating abandonment of Zorin, Ubuntu or other Linux push to the lost soles, just realistic pragmatism in an effort.

  • Abdel

    Thank you for this pertinent article. I live in a country (Tunisia) where windows is the sole player when talking about state or private institutions, businesses, ministries, etc. I personally work in the education field. Our jobs (mine and my colleagues) include lots of document dealings: reading and writing reports, presentations, etc. We suffer from the vulnerabilities of the windows system all the time. We know that Linux is the best alternative but..Yeah, that’s the problem, this ‘but’. I’ve tried installing Linux on some of my colleagues machines. They like the speed, the safety even the beauty of the system at first, but when they start opening their previously word-processed document to get some work done, they stumble into this biggest hurdle: format compatibility. What makes things even worse, we’re not talking about one or two documents…we’re talking about tons and tons of them. This obstacle is further accentuated by the fact that, in my job, we’re using three edinting languages: French, English and Arabic. The latter language poses a huge problem for libreoffice (for instance) because it reads and writes from right to left, and when opening an Arabic doc/docx file in libreoffice, you get a shock, especially when it is an official and very important document that shouldn’t be tampered with.. We really love Linux and we really love to use it, but in a country where all the documents you need to work with are edited by microsoft office, it’s a huge set-back.
    If anybody knows how to get around this problem, please let me know.

  • I always explain to people (and make sure they understand) that Windows programs don’t work on Linux, so it’s no point downloading stuff off the internet to install, and that the only part of the computer they need to be interested in is the home folder – I show them the rest of the file system to make sure they stay away from it, on look for most people is all that is needed.

    I usually make sure I’ve installed all the software they are likely to use, I rarely get call backs on application issues. Mostly those are resolved by me installing something from the Software Centre.

  • @Able

    This problem may have been fixed in the very latest releases of LibreOffice. If not you could submit an urgent bug report to the LibreOffice Developers.

    https://wiki.documentfoundation.org/QA/BugReport

  • Sorry Abdel, damned Lysdexia

  • Tracyanne, Chrome Remote Desktop is my friend. We used to have an entire column of licenses for Teamviewer…they were donated to us but after a game of musical chairs at the executive level, those licenses were voided with no explanation at all. They didn’t bother to answer my emails or phone calls either.

    And that’s fine. Chrome Remote Desktop is a pretty good way to control a machine remotely…and it’s getting better all the time.

  • I’m just now trying to get my brother’s wife to “let go” of her Windows machine and embrace Linux, (I guess it’s working…she’s agreed to install it on another laptop she has….sort of a trial run!) Her hubby…(my brother) is already hooked on it. And as for the LibreOffice thing Abdel?….you would always install Linux and run a VM for Windows…so that you get the benefit of using Linux daily…and when you need the Microsoft Office applications you can run it inside it’s own environment…with no problems! Check out https://www.virtualbox.org and see what you can do!!

  • Ron

    I agree with Abdel.

    Here in Israel, too, the gov’t likes to use Windows formats, and require IE to access sites etc.

    Still, things are improving slowly; the latest LibreOffice is better than prior versions (at least for Hebrew if not Arabic), and more sites are abandoning IE requirements.

  • Randy Fry

    I Get the trying to make windows users comfortable on Linux. But what I’ve noticed from my Windows friends using my Linux box, is they are at a loss for what programs do what. They don’t want to have to figure it out either. So one thing I have done is to make a menu for them. I put entries in it like “Create/Edit a word document”. Or “Take selfies”. I se the LXDE desktop, so it’s easy to make a menu where these entries are top level and the main Linux menu is second level. Since I use Fehlstart or synapse, to access my programs, This menu doesn’t get in my way.
    My Windows friends love it. I think we all would have a better chance of converting Windows users, by simply making it more user friendly than trying to make it look like windows. Like you said Linux Is Linux is Linux! And it is highly customizable!

  • Cliff Jones

    I’ve had mixed success moving people to Linux, (which I have been doing for years) but I’d say 60% just start using it and they get everything done they need to.

    The biggest stumbling block has been quickbooks. There’s ‘good enough’ replacements for just about everything else you use a computer for, but Linux just doesn’t have a FOSS quickbooks replacement. (none of the accounting suites I’ve seen can calculate taxes)

    There’s also proprietary software that isn’t ported to Linux. I just updated an office replacing 11 XP machines with win 7 pro boxes, and installed and run their one (big) app in XP compatibility mode.

    For most people, alas, Linux isn’t the answer. I’ve been urging people to get win7 while you still can, I believe it’ll be the XP of it’s time, I have a feeling enough big customers have switched to 7 that it’ll get the kind of long term support XP has had.

    But I always try Linux first. Matter of fact, I have 5 XP laptops on the bench right now, all from the same office, but all different makes and models. I’m finding I have to use different distributions, no one distro handles all the hardware.

    But not a problem: I’ll just go with cinnamon, mate or whatever desktop they like the best and make all of them appear/behave the same, even though one is sabayon, another fedora, etc.

  • Abdel

    Thank you for all the replies and suggestions. I’ve been using virtualbox with xp installed inside Linux mint Petra. This set up solves all my compatibitlity issues including a 16 bit dictionary that was made for windows, and ironically, no longer runs on windows 7. But some people do not have the patience and sometimes the skill to start their linux box and from it run another windows system. it seems too complicated for them. Anyway, I have already set a goal to convert as many users to linux as I could in my country. And, you know, success begins with small tentative steps.

  • My parents are well in their 70s. Used Windows XP and been frustrated with random freezes, or “blue screens of death”. Their main use of the computer is Internet (web surfing, webmail) and Skype. I installed them Ubuntu 8.04, put Firefox and Skype shortcuts on their desktops and they have been a happy Linux users since 2008. Skype which was freezing on Windows, never froze in a video call on Linux, and Firefox works like a charm. I later did an upgrade to 10.04 (not a clean install) and it went through OK. They still have it and they are happy.
    We sometimes underestimate elderly and young users, and others. Anyone can get used to Ubuntu, Linux Mint, or any other modern distro. Main challenge is adoption of ODF (Open Document Format), which would allow us all to use LibreOffice or OpenOffice as alternative to MS Office. Even MS Office users should use ODF, simply because of the fact that even DOC or DOCX files come in format variations, and we as users are not aware of that. It makes more sense to use standardized file formats like ODF, which will guarantee that you will be able to open your files 10 years from now. Has anyone tried to open Office files that are 10-15 years old? Please try! My recent attempts to open DOC files from 1999 resulted in program crash. LibreOffice opened it OK.

  • linwinsuser

    Choice is quite simple to make

    If you use your PC for fun activities/browsing ==Then choose LInux

    If you want to do serious work then windows 7/8 is only choice.

  • tp0x45

    Define “serious work”!? Some serious work would require you to use Linux or at least will make your life easier if you use Linux. Some serious work may benefit from use of Mac systems. Some Windows, maybe.
    Main reasons why I see people sticking with Windows for the purpose of “serious work” was either situation of “vendor lock” so they have to, but not necessarily for the reasons of Windows 7 or especially Windows 8 being more suitable for the job. Another reason is when people are developing Windows applications and they need Windows, although in that case it makes more sense to use Linux and then run various Windows versions under separate virtual machines. It is funny how most Windows users think that MS Office is “serious work”. BTW, MS Office (up to 2010) run on Linux under Wine (PlayOnLinux), although I would recommend use of LibreOffice/OpenOffice over it. Anyhow, I do not intent to engage in what is better. Everyone should stick with what they are comfortable with. My comment here was that Linux is mature and attractive option for Win XP users or for anyone who wants to try it. Most of “generic” reasons why Linux should not be used on desktops or laptops are obsolete. Give it a try.

  • @linwinsuser

    I’ve used Linux since 2000 for pretty much all my serious work, the only exception being programming in Visual Basic and C#, for a whilewhich required Windows, which I ran dual boot for a while, then as a Virtual Machine, everything else from Document creation, image editing, and other programming languages, Data base development, website building I was able to do on Linux.

    So yeah, I’d like to know what you define as serious work.

  • Every comment or forum with these discussions have trolls from time to time. From Wall Street to NASA, Linux on the desktop and the server room has been used for “serious” work for years. Not to mention entire governments. Nice try though, and thanks for playing.

  • Mike

    LOL : Windows 8 for serious work.

    Yeah, you’ll need lots of serious work to keep the thing running!

  • Abdel

    Many thanks for all the replies and suggestions.

  • Good to see your efforts in promoting/sharing Linux in Tunisia, Abdel! Using 3 languages must be a high hurdle?
    How easy is it to change/switch the language localization when needing to edit a document in that language? Glad to know you are using Linux Mint 16.
    TracyAnne, thanks for sharing knowledge in your comments. Ken, any new news on users using Lumpis Linux? Referencing your older article helping your friends father browse the web with Linux. (replacing a windows XP)

    For everyone:
    In sharing Linux with Windows users, How often is the booting from a USB Flash Drive method implemented in your favorite distro and you insert this USB flash drive in the Windows computer to boot from. This method allows booting from a Flash drive to minimize changes (partitioning, setting/selecting the boot partition, modify other items.) on the Windows computer, This method leaves no files behind, when booting in Windows again. The linux programs installed, the documents created and modified all stay on the USB Flash Drive. This gives a user privacy and portability. So what linux distro have you booted from a USB Flash Drive recently? Comments? I enjoy using PuppyLinux and Linux Mint distros on USB Flash drives. I will try LXLE distro on a USB flash drive soon.

    I have used two tools running under Windows 7 to install a linux distro onto a USB Flash drive, linuxliveusb.com and unetbootin.

    My own blog on 4 Gui tools to install Linux to a USB flash drive.
    voting-in-rural-america.blogspot.com/2013/07/4-gui-tools-to-use-under-windows-to.html

  • Tuxworx

    Ken, I have a suggestion for cases in which you put a Linux computer into a home where some outsider may get frustrated trying to run Windows applications on it. Install both a login screen background and wallpaper that have a prominent notice on them that you’re running Linux, not Windows, and that Windows applications won’t work. (For any readers who aren’t familiar with it, you don’t need to struggle with GIMP to add text to a graphic. Try Fotoxx – Transform, Annotate Image.)