The user base for Linux has changed dramatically over the past five years or so, which is yet another sign that the OS is gaining traction on the desktop.
Twelve years ago, when I first started using Linux, about the only people firing up the penguin to accomplish day to day chores were hard core technological geeks. The command line ruled, so much so that many Linux users knew more bash commands than words in their native languages.
Back then, most Linux users were drawn to the operating system precisely because it wasn’t dumbed down and because it put incredible power and stability at their fingertips. Linux was first and foremost a command line operating system. Even a newbie friendly distro such as Mandrake was going to require the occasional opening of a terminal to do some down and dirty work on a text screen.
This wasn’t the case in the Windows world where, beginning with Windows 95, the command line became increasingly less relevant. Both Apple and Microsoft did their best to hide the underlying operating system from the user. Tinkering under the hood was discouraged and made difficult if not meaningless. Those weaned on Windows or Macs often had trouble understanding the appeal of the command line, where the user is much more tightly integrated with the machine.
In those days, the Linux community was pretty much a private club for uber geeks. Newbies from the Windows world were not always made to feel welcome on the forums, especially if they were foolish enough to wonder aloud why Linux was so different from Windows. To get help, a newbie often had to grovel, praise Tux and acknowledge the superiority of those offering help. Dyed-in-the-wool Linux users were a pretty smug lot back then.
That’s all changed.
The uber geeks are still there, of course, in bigger numbers than ever before. Indeed, because these are the users who understand the inner workings of Linux best, they’re still the people who’re most likely offering help on the forums. But they’re not nearly as snarky towards the unwashed and unclean newbie, the Windows refugee, as they once were.
There’s a reason for that.
In 2014 there are probably as many newbies from Windows using Linux as there are traditional Linux power users. This new breed of Linux users often don’t particularly care that they can make their computers more secure by futzing with iptables or that they can increase performance by creating a swap partition and making a few adjustments to their swap parameters. They just want to open LibreOffice to write a paper or to work with a spreadsheet; fire up a browser to look something up, pay some bills, send a Tweet or play on Facebook; or perhaps load a financial app to balance a checkbook.
The user friendly distros have done a great job of accommodating this new set of Linux users. It’s now entirely possible for a new Linux user running something like Ubuntu or one of its derivatives to never once open a terminal and still have a pretty decent experience. Some of these new users, who might have initially come to Linux only to breath new life into an old computer until they can afford a new Windows box, might be curious enough to delve under the hood enough to discover that what they’re using isn’t merely a free OS that works on obsolete hardware, but a powerful and highly configurable operating system that puts Windows to shame on almost every level.
Don’t be fooled by a distro’s “user friendly” label. It’s all Linux under the hood.
Many of the users who come to Linux today with eyes wide open will move on to become the Linux geeks of tomorrow. Some of them will even find their way to the forums, helping an even newer generation of newcomers avoid the pitfalls that all newbies at first face. Today they might not even know that this is what the future holds in store for them. Right now, they’re just looking for something that works better than Windows.