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May 31st, 2016

The Anatomy of a Linux User

Some new GNU/Linux users understand right away that Linux isn’t Windows. Others never quite get it. The best distro designers strive to keep both in mind.

The Heart of Linux

Nicky isn’t outwardly remarkable in any way. She’s a thirtysomething who decided to go back to school later in life than most. She spent six years in the Navy until she decided a job offer from an old friend would be a better bet than a career in the armed forces. That happens a lot in any of the post-war military service branches. It was at that job where I met her. She was the regional manager for an eight state trucking broker and I was driving for a meat packing outfit in Dallas.

Linux

We became good friends in 2006, Nicky and me. She’s an outgoing spirit, curious about almost anyone whose path she crosses. We had an ongoing Friday night date to go fight in an indoor laser combat arena. It wasn’t rare for us to burn through three 30 minute sessions in a row. Maybe it wasn’t as cheap as a paint ball arena, but it was climate controlled and had a horror game feel to it. It was during one of those outings that she asked me if I could fix her computer.

She knew about my efforts to get computers into the homes of disadvantaged kids and I kidded her about paying into Bill Gates’ 401K plan when she complained about her computer becoming too slow. Nicky figured this was as good a time as any to see what Linux was all about.

Her computer was a decent machine, a mid 2005 Asus desktop with a Dell 19″ monitor. Unfortunately, it had all the obligatory toolbars and popups that a Windows computer can collect when not properly tended. After getting all of the files from the computer, we began the process of installing Linux. We sat together during the install process and I made sure she understood the partitioning process. Inside of an hour, she had a bright new and shiny PCLinuxOS desktop.

She remarked often, as she navigated her way through her new system, at how beautiful the system looked. She wasn’t mentioning this as an aside; she was almost hypnotized by the sleek beauty in front of her. She remarked that her screen “shimmered” with beauty. That’s something I took away from our install session and have made sure to deploy on every Linux computer I’ve installed since. I want the screen to shimmer for everyone.

The first week or so, she called or emailed me with the usual questions, but the one that was probably the most important was wanting to know how to save her OpenOffice documents so colleagues could read them. This is key when teaching anyone Linux or Open/LibreOffice. Most people just obey the first popup, allow the document to be saved in Open Document Format and get their fingers bit in the process.

There was a story going around a year or so ago about a high school kid who claimed he flunked an exam when his professor couldn’t open the file containing his paper. It made for some blustery comments from readers who couldn’t decide who was more of a moron, the kid for not having a clue or his professor for not having a ummm… clue of his own.

I know some college professors and each and every one of them could figure out how to open an ODF file. Heck, even as much as Microsoft can be grade A, blue-ribbon proprietary jerks, I think Microsoft Office has been able to open an ODT or ODF file for a while now. I can’t say for sure since I haven’t used Microsoft Office much since 2005.

Even in the bad ol’ days, when Microsoft was openly and flagrantly shoving their way onto enterprise desktops via their vendor lock-in, I never had a problem when conducting business or collaborating with users of Microsoft Office, because I became pro-active and never assumed. I would email the person or people I was to work with and ask what version of Office they were using. From that information, I could make sure to save my documents in a format they could readily open and read.

But back to Nicky, who put a lot of time into learning about her Linux computer. I was surprised by her enthusiasm.

Learning how to use Linux on the desktop is made much simpler when the person doing the learning realizes that all habits and tools for using Windows are to be left at the door. Even after telling our Reglue kids this, more often than not when I come back to do a check-up with them there is some_dodgy_file.exe on the desktop or in the download folder.

While we are in the general vicinity of discussing files, let’s talk about doing updates. For a long time I was dead set against having multiple program installers or updaters on the same computer. In the case of Mint, it was decided to disable the update ability completely within Synaptic and that frosted my flakes. But while for us older folks dpkg and apt are our friends, wise heads have prevailed and have come to understand that the command line doesn’t often seem warm and welcoming to new users.

I frothed at the mouth and raged against the machine over the crippling of Synaptic until it was ‘splained to me. Do you remember when you were just starting out and had full admin rights to your brand new Linux install? Remember when you combed through the massive amounts of software listed in Synaptic? Remember how you began check marking every cool program you found? Do you remember how many of those cool programs started with the letters “lib”?

Yeah, me too. I installed and broke a few brand new installations until I found out that those LIB files were the nuts and bolts of the application and not the application itself. That’s why the genius’ behind Linux Mint and Ubuntu have created smart, pretty-to-look-at and easy-to-use application installers. Synaptic is still there for us old heads, but for the people coming up behind us, there are just too many ways to leave a system open to major borks by installing lib files and the like. In the new installers, those files are tucked away and not even shown to the user. And really, that’s the way it should be.

Unless you are charging for support calls that is.

There are a lot of smarts built into today’s Linux distros and I applaud those folks because they make my job easier. Not every new user is a Nicky. She was pretty much an install and forget project for me, and she is in the minority. The majority of new Linux users can be needy at times.

That’s okay. They are the ones who will be teaching their kids how to use Linux.

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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, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

17 comments to The Anatomy of a Linux User

  • Duncan

    I actually left way less in the way of knowledge and habits on the ol’ MS proprietaryware ship when I jumped off than I expected to. I had been a VB programmer, and was actually surprised at how many of the same concepts, radio-button vs. checkbox for choose-one-of vs. all-the-ones-you-want dialog options, for instance, carried over just fine. =:^)

    And I remember choosing custom install on Mandrake and spending over an hour choosing what to install, but I knew what libraries were, that being yet another thing that carried over from MS (they’re just *.so files, shared objects, not *.dlls, dynamic linked libraries), so I never had a problem there.

    In fact, while I had sort of wanted to switch to Linux for some time, I was reluctant to leave a decade of MS experience at the door. However, when MS started doing remote authorizations with eXPrivacy, I knew very well where /that/ was headed (Windows 10 being effectively shoved … somewhere … with no lube is simply another step down that road, I left with eXPrivacy because I knew where it was headed and wasn’t about to be a part of it), and ended up, thanks to MS, extremely highly motivated to switch. =:^)

    I actually posted a request for Linux book recommendations on my ISP’s newsgroup (at the time it was pretty heavy with *ix people, including someone with commit rights to one of the BSDs, so I had some pretty good human resources to fall back on when I needed them =:^), and bought the two books recommended by multiple people. They were Oreilly’s Running Linux, which I read, 600+ pages, nearly cover-to-cover, and Linux in a Nutshell, which I kept as a reference for years.

    Did I mention MS had kindly provided extreme motivation to get off of them, in the form of eXPrivacy?

    Anyway, I had tried Linux before but it just hadn’t worked, because I didn’t know how to /use/ it. Well, with those books and MS providing the motivation, /this/ time I knew going back wasn’t an option, so I /learned/ Linux.

    My biggest problem turned out to be with nVidia graphics, because in my two years of preparing for the switch, I checked that nVidia had Linux drivers (while still on MS) before I upgraded my graphics card, but I thought all Linux drivers were native freedomware and didn’t know proprietary Linux drivers were even a thing, so ended up caught off guard by nVidia’s hokey proprietary drivers. I learned the difference /real/ fast once I was on Linux and having to deal with them, tho, and while I had to suffer the proprietary drivers until I could buy a new video card, which I made sure was a Radeon, with their _freedomware_ (!!) drivers, I’ve never made /that/ mistake again! =:^)

  • jymm

    I had the same problem early on. I inadverntly sent a resume’ in the ODF format and the “business manager” couldn’t open it. I resent it as a .doc and all was well. I don’t think the professor or buisness manager were to stupid to figure it out, I think they were to lazy. When Corel and Lotus where still popular MS could handle those formats. It was just lack of effort or MS arrogance (very prevelant in the education enviroment) that kept them from opening the document.

  • Mike S.

    @Ken Starks,
    In 2005 I was on a job hunt, and at the time the Open Office ODF to DOC conversion process was buggy. I lost a few opportunities because the recruiter called me back and said my resume was all but unreadable with terrible formatting. A friend with Windows and Office 2003 reviewed my resume and sent me a screenshot, and it looked terrible.
    After that, I bought a copy of Windows and Word just for the purpose of job-hunting. I had to do that until about 2010. After that, the Open Office and later Libre Office conversion to DOC and DOCX seemed to be consistent.

    @Duncan,
    There are proprietary and open source device drivers for both the Nvidia and AMD video cards on Linux. The Nvidia “nouveau” open source drivers tend to be of lower quality – lower performance, fewer features – than the AMD “radeon” open source drivers, but they still work for most things other than graphics-intensive games.

    Intel actually has excellent open source graphics drivers on Linux. So depending upon what you plan to do with your computer, an Intel CPU with integrated graphics might work best for Linux.

  • CFWhitman

    Probably because I started with Slackware, I picked up on the difference between an application and a library in Debian right away. When I started, the best new user distribution I was aware of was Linux Mandrake. I didn’t really try to get too many people to use Linux a lot back then because I knew it was a bit too technical and different (as in, wouldn’t run the software they were using).

    These days I’m quite surprised by how little I need to help the people I’ve set up Linux for. Some don’t have Windows at all, and some have Linux on a secondary computer (though it’s not that unusual for the Linux computer to be the one that still works among those that use Linux).

    It’s funny, but the most success I have had in setting up useful Linux boxes for people has been with the less computer literate ones, or those that weren’t bothering with a desktop or laptop at the time. The ones who buy new desktops/laptops and can keep Windows running reasonably well aren’t as interested in a Linux machine.

  • Anthony P.

    @Mike S.,
    I always convert job-seeking document to pdfs first. Recipients have never had a problem reading them, and the appearance/formatting tends to be impacted much less by the document-opener’s personal software and configuration choices.

  • Mike S.

    @Anthony P.,
    Thanks. At least in 2005, some of the potential employers I dealt with insisted on Microsoft DOC format.

    Of course, a company with that kind of strict rules for the application process probably isn’t a place where you want to work anyway. But when you’re almost out of savings and still unemployed, the potential employer has all the power in negotiations.

    But by the greatest of all capitalist virtues, blind luck, I am now in a position where I can respond to a demand for DOC format with a refusal. If they want me, they’ll acquiesce.

  • tracyanne

    The main reason I offer people Ubuntu (Unity) is because it obviously isn’t Windows. It forces the new user to rethink how they interact with their computer. If I then install all the software they are most likely to need, it’s rare that I’ll get questions about how do I do “this”, because it “just works”.

    The people I get nervous around are those that play lots of locally installed games, and those that have some proprietary application that seems unlikely will have a Linux replacement with the sorts of pretty “toys” the proprietary “solution” has built in.

    The people I’ve been most successful with are those that want/need a computer to get common stuff done, and who aren’t into/can’t afford buying the latest shiny computer gadget. That actually leaves a lot of people as potential Linux users.

  • carl

    I have always tried to push knowledge of the file system, as an abstraction, to users, regardless of OS, Windows, Linux, OS/X, whatever.
    The idea that their data exists on disk, independent of the application they used to create it always surprises them. The only way they can locate their data is on the LRU lists in the application.
    So backup, file transfer, copying to portable media, etc. is outside of their understanding. Getting their data off the old system, to the new system, even if they run the same OS is always a challenge.

  • Albin

    The writer has a laudable mission in reviving old hardware, especially for disadvantaged users. But frankly it’s a disservice to students who are going into a Windows-based course curriculum to let them think it won’t be a pain to use LibreOffice or alternatives – same as it would be counterproductive and career-limiting to try to make co-workers deal with format and collaboration issues by using different software. I was involved in a lengthy exchange a few years ago with a young woman trying to “make LO work” for schoolwork on an old PC, it was weeks of grief, and it ended with Windows XP (and the registry mod permitting security updates for it) and a used copy of MS Office. The fact is the format compatibility of anything and everything else with MS Office is far too primitive for editing or collaboration beyond elementary school level and crude documents.

  • Mike S.

    @Albin,
    I work at a small business and the executives use Microsoft Office. I use Google Docs and Libre Office, and we sent and receive Word, Excel, and Powerpoint to each other and they have never complained about my documents in the two years I’ve been here.
    I can’t speak the specific case you handled. But I think this approach is often feasible.
    And it’s a terrible crime that Microsoft, Apple, or Google get their hooks into kids in schools. They graduate with the worldview that whatever proprietary software they used in school is a norm, and approach all future software use with that as a baseline.

  • Mike

    Again:

    Let kids use FOSS if you wish them to learn.

    Train them to use proprietary garbage like Windows, MS Office, Mac/iOS, or Chrome if you want them to be mindless office drones.

  • Albin

    Mike S: I probably should have made clear that a) I think LibreOffice is brilliant software and I like using it, and b) I run Linux Mint about 70% of time and have LO on both my Linux and Windows PCs. (By comparison, even after years, cloud services like Google Docs are at about the level that the free MS Works was 15 years ago.) I don’t have any doubt that so long as users are exchanging basic documents or PDFs it makes little or no difference what software is used.

    But the minute you format a footnote, endnote, table of contents or subject index in a word processor, or any macro or pivot table or other spreadsheet function unique to that software, you become a PITA to yourself and to anyone required to work with you collaboratively. MS Office is a fact of life, not a choice, in many work and study situations. That was the problem the young student I was trying to help had to face in a college environment – when in Rome use the office suite the Romans use (unless you’re willing to be fed to the lions.)

  • Mike S.

    @Albin,
    Okay, I grant your situation. I use Word for simple documentation – internal, with different fonts and coloring and embedded images, but nothing fancy with footnotes. And our spreadsheets use formulas but not charts and pivots.

  • CFWhitman

    @Albin
    It would be really unusual in my experience at this point for being stuck on Windows XP not to be a bigger problem than trying to use LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office. If for some reason you really couldn’t work with LibreOffice, you’d generally be better off using Wine to run an old copy of MS Office than using Windows XP.

    However, LibreOffice generally works fine these days unless you are trying to collaborate using the tracking changes feature between MS Office and LibreOffice. That’s a situation you might encounter for example with an author and his editor. This isn’t usually an issue for students. Students usually just turn in their assignment once.

    Ken has been doing this for years, so he knows how well it works out for the kids that he helps, which is a lot better than without his help.

  • CFWhitman

    @Albin
    I hadn’t seen you second post when I posted the last one. Ken deals more with younger students than university students. In case you are using more interactive features with other students collaboratively, especially not in a word processor, then you will encounter more issues. My comments were related to word processing rather than spreadsheets, and about generally getting good results when documents were simply turned in (and even footnotes usually work fine there).

  • John

    Yeah MS with their Whack-a-mole format shifts over the years has been a frustration. I use Mint and LibreOffice.
    I keep a document of my resume that I occasionally edit and update.
    If I want to send it I just make sure I like the formatting, then export as pdf. That way anyone can read it and it looks good.
    that feature should be easy to teach a new user.
    I went to college in the 70s so never had the problems of today’s students

  • Eddie G.

    As a long time Linux user (started in 2003 / ’04) I have seen the evolution of the office suites available and while OpenOffice was the eye-opener for me, it wasn’t until LibreOffice that I realized just how powerful and easy using it could be. I have helped quite a few people make the transition over to Linux and in doing so I have seen the ones who were in college or headed for college sweat bullets when they say one of the “requirements” was to have a working version of Microsoft Office (2003/2007/2010/2013 etc.) And I have helped not only my mother to get through her college courses using just LibreOffice abut most of my nieces and nephews as well. There’s only very few things you can’t do with LibreOffice. Granted there are some things that will only “look” right on someone else’s MS office based PC, but for the majority of things that a college student needs to get done (thesis, with proper annotation, footnotes, APA/MLA format, using Times New Roman font etc.) then LibreOffice just works. Its only in specialized circumstances that things might go sideways, and collaboration might not always be stable, but that’s a slight on MS’s end and not LibreOffice which is open. I myself am purporting to write a book, possibly a running series type deal or just a collection of short stories, but for just getting everything down on “paper” LibreOffice writer works just fine.