Without having a basic knowledge of the inner workings of the internal combustion engine, people drive cars to work every day. Some, in fact, are excellent drivers. Likewise, people watch television and successfully listen to the radio without having a clear understanding of the science behind “over the air” broadcasting. To benefit from wearing corrective lenses it’s not necessary to be an optometrist. It doesn’t take a master electrician to change a light bulb.
But nobody should use a computer without being a master programmer, which is the gospel-according-to-many, especially those who post on Linux forums.
Some people don’t like any changes made to Linux user space which makes the operating system easier to use or configure for casual users. They would rather the user be befuddled and helpless, because according to them, people who don’t know how to open a terminal and edit a configuration file in Emacs have no business sitting at a computer keyboard for any purpose.
These people moan about Linux being taken over by everyday computer users who know little or nothing about FOSS and who mainly want a computer to get work done, exchange emails, watch videos and visit with friends on social sites. OMG, we’re talking ordinary folks who figure they don’t need to know how sausage is made in order to have some for breakfast, and they’re now using Linux without a clue as to how it’s made either.
As Paul McCartney said, “What’s wrong with that? I want to know.”
The notion that this new breed is dumbing down Linux is an empty complaint, of course. Nothing is lost by making Linux easier for everybody to use. Proud and fearless geeks are still free to go through a terminal or directly through an old fashioned runlevel 3 to fine tune an install to make a system run as if it were a 1968 GTO burning leaded gas, which was a car designed with tinkerers in mind but which didn’t require any mechanical knowledge to make it fly — only a driver.
Just like Linux.
Anyone who’s mastered point and click can sit at practically any vanilla, out-of-the-box Linux install and get work done. For the most part, going under the hood to the command line has been made unnecessary, but it’s still there for those who know how and want to use it. And yes, that is a good skill to have. The command line offers more exacting control of a machine, and will for the foreseeable future.
Android has opened up the desktop market for Linux in ways we’re only starting to see. Right now, Android users are coming to the Linux desktop primarily by way of Google’s other operating system, Chrome OS, which accounted for the three top selling laptops on Amazon over the holidays — not Windows. And now that the door has been opened for Chrome, GNU/Linux distros are certain to soon find a place at the table, bringing even more new users to Linux space.
But even without the mainstream distros having a toehold in the preinstalled market, new users are coming to Linux in record numbers from myriad directions. Some are coming because they’ve been exposed to Linux at a local library. Phil Shapiro has told us about Linux use at the Takoma Park Maryland Library. There, patrons sit at Linux boxes without being told they’re not using Windows. Most don’t even notice, as Firefox is still Firefox and Gmail is still Gmail. This is not unique to Takoma Park, but is also happening at many other libraries across the country.
There are other avenues as well.
In October, Charlie Reisinger told a FOSS audience in Raleigh about efforts in Pennsylvania by the Penn Manor School District to get laptops loaded with Linux in the hands of students. Or how about Buenos Aires, where the city’s CTO, Daniel Abadie, is working to bring openness to the city’s tech presence, in part by utilizing Linux and open standards, as well as by giving away code.
Practically none of Linux’s new users are arriving with Bash skills, nor do they want or necessarily need them. Often however, they do come as proficient computer users, with most already familiar with LibreOffice, Firefox and other FOSS applications. The only thing they’re really going to have to figure out on Linux is how to use a package manager. That, and wondering why the antivirus on their new Linux machines never seems to update.
For the most part, they won’t know a whit about the philosophies behind free software, nor will they care at first. In time, some will bother to educate themselves and a smaller number will eventually become outspoken FOSS advocates. For better or worse, many of FOSS’s future movers and shakers will come from the ranks of this new kind of Linux users, who are moving free software away from being the exclusive domain of geeks to include the ranks of what used to be called the working class.
These new users should be made welcome. If they need help learning how to do stuff the “easy way” through the GUI, help should be forthcoming. If they want to get their knuckles dirty doing stuff the “hard way,” on the command line, help should also be available. And if they want to mix free and proprietary software on their machines, let them. It’s their right and it’s nobody’s business if they do. Sure, educate them about FOSS, but let them make up their own minds about what to do with that knowledge.
And to all of those who think these new users are a blight on the Linux landscape: get over it. They’re our future.