Understanding the Common User: Everything should be as simple as it is

[ Monday, 25 June 2007, Keyto ]

Let’s begin with – Linux is simply the best. Open, free of charge, stable, reliable, flexible, and scalable. And God only knows why people do not want to use it. They grumble that it’s difficult, shows hardware problems, and lacks applications. We reply it’s totally untrue – the system is straightforward, similar hardware problems can be found in Windows as well, and there’s an abundance of applications.

For example, let’s consider web browsers; starting with Internet Explorer (blue “e” sign). One will find such browsers like Firefox, Opera, Konqueror, Galeon, Epiphany, SeaMonkey, Flock, IceWeasel, Amaya, Links, and Lynx in Linux. And if one is prepared for a little work, the blue “e” will work as well. There’s a lot of choices. Hundreds of them! So… what is this thing that stops people switching? Well, I’m sure the blocker is right here — it is the choice.

Understanding “CU”

To catch on to this phenomenon one should seek empathy with the Common User’s psyche. I’d like to remind the friendly experts from IT that the User does not know how computers and applications work underneath; and as for what the protocols or ports are… Truism, isn’t it? Of course, but I have an impression that hardly anybody can keep this in consideration in daily life. The Common User does not ponder how things work, whether software is licensed or free, or if a given task might be done in a different way. And (God forbid!) doing it faster and better! Most often they make use of ready solutions. They buy computers with installed operating systems. If not there, they promptly ask us, computer geeks (or computer scientists), to load up their computer with an operating system. Ouch! I beg your pardon…what I’m talking about… the Common User doesn’t know what an operating system is after all! For years I’ve been hearing all possible variants of the same question why doesn’t this work?. It came from my acquaintances, their acquaintances, workmates, their families, and acquaintances of their families.

I think the best answer to this issue in general would be “the daemon driving this junk took a day off” (paraphrasing Terry Pratchet’s language). And it’d be more straightforward than for example “you got no authority to HKLMA key”. I’m trying to be more pragmatic however. Typically one of the first questions I ask is the issue concerning the system’s release. The most frequently received reply in those last years was… “Word”. I’m serious, simple “Word” without version numbers and without further information; is it a part of the Office package or maybe a standalone application which the person has on their computer? And first and foremost it occurred to me that all in all what they need to use is probably a text processor. Such attitudes were prevalent in the 90s, and today I do not see any improvement. Although I’ve fondly thought that with widespread computer education the overall picture would improve. A Common PC user has no clue what he’s using and often even what for.

Well, well – I hear the criticism that I don’t credit people highly enough, or even that I insult their intelligence; that there’s nothing special in keeping the name of “Windows Me” in mind. No way. I’ve simply drawn the real picture as it stands for years. Such is my own experience and those of my friends working for other companies. The question is, for those knowing the contents of the /etc by heart or skilled in Windows Registry structure it is extremely difficult to understand that there are people who do not know what the /etc directory and the Registry keys are. What’s more, those people are completely uninterested in the details, as computer is seen by them only as a tool, like a hammer or a kettle.

To summarize it — the Common User does not make use of the Internet Explorer or Firefox. The CU does not use a “web browser” at all. He uses “the Internet”. The Common User does not run a communications application but “MSN” or “Yahoo”. He doesn’t use a mail client. He facilitates mailing services through the Internet (read: he simply clicks on the mail icons in the web mail interface). He doesn’t use any multimedia players but Winamp, etc. (A small lexicon could be made that way.)

What am I stating this for? I’d like some of us, IT geeks or computer scientists (even if I’d be the only reader), to think over the emerging dilemma — perhaps it is not Linux which is difficult but its users! We know GNU/Linux is sometimes easier than Windows or equally easy to use as OS X. The fact is, that it’s we who are “too difficult” for the Common User. (Similar problem relates to safeguards in IT. Zillion bucks spent for firewalls, filters, experts, scanners, and expertise can be reckoned as thrown away, as nearly always the primary cause for security infringement or violation is an employee. Hackers are equipped with phones mainly and have social-engineering knowledge. As usual, the weakest and most unreliable factor is the human being.)

The Common User will never be convinced to use Linux as long as to a basic question like “how do I get online?” he is receiving lectures on rendering engines or advantages of Gecko over Presto (or vice versa). He won’t understand the details and will take them as a disincentive to use Linux. And the efforts to convince our Common User to use a console could be pictured as the best tidbits from Monthy Python’s Flying Circus. It simply won’t work. And according to my own observations every attempt to passing knowledge to Common User about Bash or file structure ends up with license purchasing for the only “valid” system originated in State of Washington.

How to check the contents of a floppy?

To picture what I described, here it is: a true short story from the office. It just happened I worked for one of our befriended companies in 1999. A friend of mine asked me to help him resolve a few complex problems. We were discussing the issues eagerly sitting at the two Windows 98 computers. Suddenly a female employee entered our room and asked whether we could check if the floppy she kept in her hand contained dbs.doc file. Having DOS session opened I took the floppy from her and then typed dir a:\dbs.doc in session window. The dir command returns not only file list but information about free space as well, what showed us the floppy is empty. I returned the floppy and suggested to use another one as this one was empty. The woman looked at me kind of weird and started to explain with an embarrassed smile that it was not the right way to check a floppy disk. After a while she left the room (I stuck to my method) surely thinking I had no idea about computers. She asked someone else in adjoining room to insert floppy into fdd drive slot, to click My Computer icon, and then Floppy Disk icon. Probably the result was similar :)

A general conclusion I think can be put this way. If we are supposed to encourage people to use GNU/Linux systems, we will have to talk to them in simple terms. Let’s take first decisions for them — what web browser they should use — and let’s boil down the whole “lecture” to something like: “Oh, just here. Hey pal, if you want to get online click this icon.” If a user catches on and gets accustomed to the fact it doesn’t have to be the “blue e” icon, there’s a high chance he will start searching, asking and digging up the true state of the matter. Even if this is not the case, we have to respect his decision. We should accept the fact that some people are not enthusiastic about using computers. Softly speaking, they treat them rather indifferently.

OK, Linux is great. “Linux advocates aren’t.

I know most of you have pigeonholed this text as boring. The point is that it really brings up an important issue. To spread the Linux phenomenon you don’t have to be right away a hacker, like Mr Richard Stallman. It’d suffice sometimes to stick with “small things” and talk to people about Linux in “human language”. (By the way Mr Stallman can speak about difficult matters in simple terms, if he wants to.) A great part of all efforts to get the Common Users to use GNU/Linux ends up with quarrels about these or those system libraries (GTK vs Qt, as an example) and the benefits of ones over the others. And as the Linux geeks have a good time while Common Users walk away thinking — “hey people, come down to Earth”.

Everything should be as simple as it is… or simpler.

And one more thing. I write “Linux” and not GNU/Linux with premeditation – having the phenomenon on my mind, not the kernel. One day I tried to explain one of my acquaintances that naming a whole operating system Linux is wrong. After the conversation it ended up he stopped asking me about computer related topics, began using Vista and gave me a rest. But is this what I’d wanted to achieve?

Translation: P2O2
Proof-read: Karol, michuk, chaddy

About the Author


Keyto is a computer engineer living in Poland. In free time he likes to write longish stories about GNU, Linux and its users :)

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