I noticed an interesting article on ifacethoughts stating “Linux Education Is The Key To Popularity.” I agree to an extent, but there are some caveats. This started off as a comment on his blog, but I decided it was long enough to merit its own post here.
I agree that Linux should be sold on being different than Windows, but I disagree that it’s entirely an education problem. I think there are 2 large issues that make things difficult for new users, and they’re quasi-related. First is that 99.9% of user’s tasks (even complicated ones) need to be GUI-fied for a Windows migrant to feel comfortable. This is quickly gaining momentum (for example, xorg.conf is all but eliminated in Ubuntu Intrepid Ibex), but it’s still not quite there.
The second, and even more important, piece of the puzzle is the need for a central, well-maintained, well-written set of instructions for how to do anything and everything imaginable in Linux. I think one of the hardest things for new users is when they don’t know how to do something, they don’t know where to go next. They can do a quick Google search or a forum search, but these are often filled with outdated information and they can be hard to sift through, especially when you don’t know what you’re doing. Plus, when you don’t really know what you’re doing, you might just go with the first thing you read, which many times is not a good idea. I also think it’s important for the OS itself to be integrated with these instructions and “Help” should point directly toward them.
I say the 2 issues of GUI and documentation are quasi-related because many times there are GUI options available for something, but instructions are given by old-school experts who find terminal commands quicker and easier. While that may be, to most Windows and Mac users, it’s intimidating. A good example would be adding Medibuntu repositories in Ubuntu. The wiki guide is all command-line, despite the fact that things are basically just as easy in the GUI to complete the same task. Even better might be to just supply repository and GPG key links and then link to a fuller article about how to install external repositories and what their advantages and disadvantages are.
I also feel like proper documentation could help users learn a lot more while they’re doing this stuff. Interspersed with the instructions could be brief descriptions about some of the inner-workings and why things are the way they are. In the previous example, maybe mentioning GPG keys and why they’re used or a link to learn more about external repositories. Some of this has been done with Ubuntu, but it needs to be more comprehensive, clear, and up-to-date. It also needs to be written for lay people and not by developers unless they’re very effective communicators.
It’s one thing to say that people need to “learn Linux” if they’re going to use it. It’s another to expect them to do it without the proper tools and guidance, especially since many aspects are non-intuitive to non-native users.