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.
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.
Ken Starks is the founder of the Helios Project and Reglue, which for 20 years provided refurbished older computers running Linux to disadvantaged school kids, as well as providing digital help for senior citizens, in the Austin, Texas area. He was a columnist for FOSS Force from 2013-2016, and remains part of our family. Follow him on Twitter: @Reglue