Thursday, April 26, 2007

Mossberg's Mailbox -

Let's get the facts right shall we?...
"I aim my columns at mainstream users doing typical tasks who have little or no technical knowledge, no help from experts, and no appetite for becoming techies. These folks want the computer to do things for them. They don't want to have to do much, if any, configuring of, or maintaining of, their computers. They have no patience for geeky procedures. For instance, when they buy a peripheral device, they expect to plug it in and find that it works, often without even installing the CD from the box."
So far so good. Typical PC users are not geeks and don't want to be. They are as lazy when it comes to maintaining their computers as I am when it comes to doing my own plumbing. And yes, the Apple computer and OS provide a pretty good end-user experience. I recently helped a new Apple user who had use the old OS, but never OS X. I helped them via e-mail. No phone call or personal visits were necessary. They seem to be doing just fine.

But by what measurement does Windows come out ahead of Linux in this regard? I recently installed the latest version of Debian (which does not have the best reputation for ease of installation). Just as I started the process the phone rang and it was a friend who happened to be telling me about his travails installing a new machine with XP (he wisely avoided Vista). The Debian installer (that I use) asks a few questions and then downloads the components of the OS that you have requested. This can take some time so I went over to the couch to talk on the phone while the download took place. An hour later my downloads were done, and I think I had to tell the install program what country I was in and what language I wanted to use, but in every case my "answer" was to hit enter because USA and American English are I think the defaults for just about everything. I had to set my timezone. I had to pick a userid for myself and set two passwords, one for normal use and one for administrative activities.

That was it! The system rebooted and presented me with a graphical login screen. I logged in and was soon doing normal userland activities.

I did some tests. I plugged my camera in. It just worked! I had a scanner, two external disk drives, all of which normally are plugged in as USB devices. They just worked! I also have a USB printer, but it is a Samsung, not an HP. I had to install a driver for that (5-10 minutes). There are some "applications" that I like to have that are not a part of the standard install process, like a utility to set the correct time on my computers clock at boot time. I install these things with a GUI interface whenever I feel the need, and usually the entire process takes a couple of minutes (and almost never requires a re-boot).

I spend FAR more time helping people fix their Windows machines than I spend working on my several Linux (and an OS X) systems. When their demands become too frequent, I start stalling in hopes they will find some other geeky friend or relative to pick on.

I'm not about too install Linux on one of these people's machines unless they ask me to, but of course they aren't going to ask me to if they have never heard of it, and if they are going to hear of it, it's much more likely that they will hear of it from a journalist such as yourself, since most such people aren't browsing "Linux Journal" on a regular basis.

I'm glad you at least mention it from time to time. Maybe in the future you could not refer to it as harder to use than Windows, which rightfully scares the bejeesus out of most people, for whom installing ANY operating system is thought to be something just south of brain surgery in order of complexity.

ps: Now to be honest, most of the "it just works" claims about Linux (particularly Debian) were not true until relatively recently. But most of that has been true about Suse for a while and Ubuntu (and possibly others, but those are the ones I've tried) for at least a couple of years. As far as I know, from my own experiences and those of others I talk to, "it just works" is not a phrase that frequently applies to Windows. More importantly, with Windows the phrase "It worked yesterday" is quite common. Even on those occasions when a new toy can be "just plugged in" and work, there is a good chance that some future update to Windows, or a subsequent new toy, or a virus, or spyware, and so on, will cause things to stop working. Often with disastrous side effects. This is most definitely NOT the case with Linux. It would probably be much more accurate for you to simply say that you talk most about Windows because that is what most of your readers already have, and just leave it at that. Hopefully the future will hold better prospects for the computer as an appliance, and there is a good chance that appliance will be running Linux.

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