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

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fold this thread Vincent  Monday, 25 June 2007 o godz. 3:59 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  --1

Linux will never breakthrough. Or any operating system other than the dominant one (Windows) will never break through, for that matter. Having to think of switching operating systems is difficult enough already. Heck, switching browsers was already too difficult for many, even though Fx was clearly much safer than IE. And yet Fx still only has 20% in the most positive measures.

Ah well, it’s their problem if their computer gets infected. It’s their problem if their computer isn’t a joy to use. At least I get to use Linux :D

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fold this thread Hebi-kai  Monday, 25 June 2007 o godz. 6:15 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +1

They grumble that it’s difficult, shows hardware problems, and lacks applications. We reply it’s totally untrue…

You know, it’s funny. Telling users that what they find difficult isn’t really difficult, it’s just THEM that’s wrong. This attitude not only turns people off of Linux but is kind of like forcing your religion on people.

A lot of Linux advocates tend to blame the users, and this statement does just that. Just because Linux works for you, doesn’t means it’s going to work for everybody. You use it, great. So do I. But I wouldn’t expect anyone, whether they’re used to Windows or not, to use Linux if they’re not experienced with computers.

Linux was NEVER designed to be “user friendly” or to appeal to mass users. It was designed to be a high performance OS by Linus for computer users. Don’t try to push it on the masses unless it’s asked for.

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fold this thread Grant Wallace  Tuesday, 26 June 2007 o godz. 6:17 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

with that logic people would never had started using computers, cars, microwaves, or practically any other advancement. Just because its not the dominate OS right now, does not mean it never will be.

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fold this thread Taco Buitenhuis  Tuesday, 26 June 2007 o godz. 4:06 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

You described only half of the comedy.

I have been using GNU/Linux in a minimal configuration for so long that the list of tasks I can perform using ms windows is not much longer than this:
- shut down or reboot
- install or update antivirus, antispyware and firewall
- manage files
- move icons on the desktop around

Now imagine what happens when a common user comes to the computer geek because he has, say, some problem getting on a wireless network.

The common user may be completely clueless about how computers work, but he is more capable of using windows than I am. It’s just a matter of what you’re used to, and unfortunately the common user is used to a system that was designed to make sure you don’t understand what it is really doing.

So be nice to common users, they are not by themselves but they have been made stupid by microsoft. And don’t have too high hopes of “healing” them.

“Why do you say I should use tools that allow me to understand how they work?” asked the windows user while he was ramming a nail into a wall using a kettle. “It works fine this way!”

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fold this thread Mark  Tuesday, 26 June 2007 o godz. 10:32 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

I have been using Ubuntu for over a year now. I have very much enjoyed it. I have tried out Redhat and SuSE(before Novell got it) about 5 or 6 years back. It was hard to use to play games and everything on.

I have found that when users say that they are afraid to use it because it is to hard I turn around and ask them what they know about computer before Windows? They normally says something like, “nothing, and i can’t say that I know a lot now.” I in turn say well good you are ahead of the curve already. You can use a mouse and keyboard.

In reality, and this is a sad truth, users don’t know what they want until someone tells them. Sales people drive the products good or bad, /glares at Microsoft. Also companies that just want the cheap crap software instead of doing real research.

I’m working on getting Ubuntu into our work place one way or another. I already run a FC5 server that has Scalix for enterprise email.

I do what I can to help bring people into the light.

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fold this thread Gerardo Glez. C.  Wednesday, 27 June 2007 o godz. 12:55 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Es cierto solo Dios sabe por que GNU Linux no se usa todavía en el Desktop, y eso que tenemos los mas vistosos del momento como GNOME y XFCE o KDE entre otros, quizás sea solo esperar un rato más… :-)

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fold this thread helios  Wednesday, 27 June 2007 o godz. 1:48 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

“Ah well, it’s their problem if their computer gets infected. It’s their problem if their computer isn’t a joy to use. At least I get to use Linux”

Good Lord, your folks must be awful proud of you. Do you have siblings or did you eat them?

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fold this thread Koen  Wednesday, 27 June 2007 o godz. 1:51 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

In my experience with people trying Linux (and giving it up) the problem was not really choice, but in having to figure out how to make it work. Something might come up with drivers, or maybe it’s tricky to connect to the internet– I see people that really WANT to use Linux because they are so frustrated with Windows, but they can’t figure out how to make it work. They also don’t have several hours to try, because they are so busy taking care of their families or with work or whatever.

I use Linux mainly because I’m so frustrated with Windows and also the spyware stuff really creeps me out. I use Debian. I notice that it gets easier and easier and more automatic. I’m really thankful for this. The people that write the installation and configuration scripts seem to be really smart and good at making everybody else’s lives easier. Hopefully it will be so easy that my frustrated friends can switch in a few years.

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fold this thread stan mcintosh  Wednesday, 27 June 2007 o godz. 3:52 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

I think that I am a good representative of the CU perspective, at laest I was until about 3 years ago. I had heard of Linux, always thought that the idea of running a Unix-like environment was cool, read about Linux’ reliability and security, but also read about the difficulties of installing and using it. With 4 kids and a demanding job, I didn’t have time to mess with a steep learning curve, so why did I change? In 2003, we purchase an XP PC (service pack 1) to move from Win 98 to XP. The new XP needed constant delousing after a few sessions on the Internet, it needed rebooting several times/day to remember how to connect to the Internet, it seemed damned and determined to make me configure my PC the way it wanted me to, would not network with Win 98 or Win 95 (it was the home edition), and constantly annoyed me with those warning windows that popped up no matter how many times I clicked the ‘do not bother me again with this’ button.

After assuming that the problem was the user for over a year, I finally hit the point where I decided that the question was not whether I had time to fool with a new operating system, but the question was whether I had time to keep fooling with Windows. In terms of ease of use, Fedora totally stomped Windows XP. FreeBSD was a bit of a challenge for the new user, so I stuck with Fedora. As a result of the switch, my PC’s time demand dropped instantaneously.

Whether Linux will grow in the desktop market because of action from Linux’ advocates is an interesting question, but I firmly believe that the main driving force behind switches from Windows to Linux will be Windows. It’s megalithic architecture guarantees poor reliability, performance, and security. The Linux community needs to continue to do what it does best, and focus on continual development of an unencumbered, high performance, reliable OS. Windows is the best agent of its own destruction. Witness the fact that people are avoiding Vista in droves. XP has been a great friend to Linux, and Vista will be even better. XP proved that Microsoft does not have the competence required for a modern operating system, and they have bitten off even more than they can chew with this latest version of Windows.

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fold this thread Zaine Ridling  Wednesday, 27 June 2007 o godz. 10:35 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Keyto makes some very good points. As a lifelong Windows user, I’m documenting my switch to GNU/Linux in a series over at DonationCoder.com: My journey from Windows to Linux, and I hope to address this same issue of the common user. By “common” I mean very much the typical person Keyto describes: aloof, ignorant, and wants to be able to do the most tasks with the shortest learning curve.

Thus, an OS should, of all things, seek to be transparent to the user. Of the big three — Windows, OS X, and GNU/Linux, I think it’s fair to say that GNU/Linux is by far the most transparent — with regard to what you can do with it right out of the box, how easy it is to find and update programs, and all the common tasks that can be done with almost no learning at all.

Although I don’t use it, it’s undeniable the inroads that Ubuntu has made into the popular consciousness. It’s exciting to use GNU/Linux; it’s fun; and it won’t cost you a dime. Not true for the others. So don’t be too hard on GNU/Linux, there are more than several distros working very hard to be as simple and easy entry points into GNU/Linux than ever. The most difficult thing to overcome will be those like myself, who have to unlearn much of the mental sludge that Microsoft has dumped there over the past two decades. That won’t be as easy. But I’ll get there!

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fold this thread Mark  Wednesday, 27 June 2007 o godz. 2:33 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

I wanted to make another not about something today.

When Windows came out it sat on top of DOS. Drivers had to be configured, along with IRQs, address ranges and so forth.

In those days users didn’t say well it is to hard for me to do I think that I will go back to pen and paper. No they called a local computer guru up and asked them to fix it. This cost money but it fixed your problem and you didn’t have to worry about it.

Today we have Windows plug-n-play OS that will work with almost anything out there that is “Vendor” supported and not Windows supported. Divers for Linux will fall into place better the more “Vendors” support the OS. The problem of today and tomorrow will be yesterdays problems with Linux, just like they are with Windows (as far as drivers are concerned).

CUs are like CDs (car drivers), a great number just want to put gas in them and go. The same holds true for CUs, I want to plug it in and go.

A new user to Linux is the same to a new user of Windows. Penny wise consumers should try out Linux before they buy a Windows upgrade/full version, it is free to use after all. None of the users that I know care so much about what is under the hood, just as long as it get the job done.

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fold this thread oli  Wednesday, 27 June 2007 o godz. 3:43 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

And why should we want that CU use Linux? Many users that are used with Windows are “frustrated” because they have write access only on their homedir, and want to make linux behave like Windows, by changing the permissions so that a normal user could write everywhere on the root partition, or by loging into Gnome/Kde/Fluxbox/XFCE or any other graphical environment with root, and examples might continue. And because they don’t understand that not everything is done as they are used to, they start talking that Linux is not ok, and things like that.
If it would be to choose from these to options:
-Linux is improving in it own way, but in a way that will not attract many CU to use it
-Linux will became more Windows like, so that CU can use it happily

I would prefer the first option by far.

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fold this thread nongeek  Wednesday, 27 June 2007 o godz. 4:35 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

I think you’re right, Keyto. I’m was trying to write to the CU from my blog but, after reading your article, I realize I’m not doing it right, after all.

I promote Linux because I’m a Linux user but I’m not a geek, although I’m more tech savvy than the CU. So, I think I have a slightly different perspective than most computer geeks Linux advocates.

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fold this thread Cyphur  Wednesday, 27 June 2007 o godz. 10:30 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +1

Best thing i’ve read on the CU vs Linux debate in forever.. thank you!

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fold this thread rupe  Thursday, 28 June 2007 o godz. 1:55 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Most CU psyche who uses Windows will tend to drive or buy an automatic tranny.
Most users who uses *nix will tend to drive or own at least one manual tranny.
The irony here is that both have a valid drivers license. Just choice.

The same question has been asked over and over again; why buy a manual tranny (*nix) when you can buy an automatic(Windows)? The answer is and always will be; lower maintenance and more control! (down shifting is fun.)(compiling is fun, for me)

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fold this thread Clive  Thursday, 28 June 2007 o godz. 3:58 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Excellent article, I infrequently (these days) write code for embedded systems based on Atmel avr or Texas msp430 processors, I use MSPGCC running under windoze. I have flirted with Linux on and off for the last >5 years, and I have recently loaded Ubuntu 7.04, it is great, apart from the radio network interface not working, everything is excellent and I decided to try and use Linux and not windoze.
However to set up MSPGCC with GDB with a GUI interface and talk to my Texas USB FET tool appears to be a total pain, I will persevere but all I want to do is generate code for my target application, not spend hours trying to get Linux to work with my equipment.
I am not a fan of windoze, but–.

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fold this thread anonymous  Thursday, 28 June 2007 o godz. 5:53 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

“Linux” should not proscribe to the common user, nor should it be unable to be comprehended by the inquisitive user. The systems should be straightforward as possible, and sufficiently documented at both the architectural level and the code level.

One of the worst things about proprietary software is when it doesn’t work you have little chance of being able to fix it without guessing how the system is implemented. However if you are a common user, then you wont be able to fix it if you have access to the internals of the system anyway.

“Just as long as it get[s] the job done” is well and good in some circumstances, however it is important to dot the job well at the same time.

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fold this thread Meatdog  Thursday, 28 June 2007 o godz. 3:24 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

The comparison of the OS with the choice in transmissions of cars does not really fit. At least, not everywhere. It does not apply to Belgium and other European countries.

People use what they know. They use windows because they know it. Even if other options are cheaper, they will pay the extra cost of acquiring Windows, only because it’s what they got taught to use.

The same applies here to cars, but the other way around. People drive mainly manual trans. because it’s what they got taught when learning to drive, and so they wonder why they would pay extra money to get an automatic trans, unless they don’t have the physical skills to drive a manual trans. anymore.

Now the question is, why did they learn to drive manual trans.? Because of the license. If you get your driver’s license with manual trans., you are also considered apt of driving with an automatic trans. But if you get your license with an automatic trans. you’re not allowed to drive a manual trans. That’s why people learn the manual, since it’s cheaper and gives them more choice and it’s the default.

Of those three reasons people start and stick with manual, only the fact that Linux is not the default is different in the reasons why people use windows instead of Linux, making it the most important factor.

Now, first and foremost, there are no equivalents to driver’s licenses for computers, although I heard mostly jokingly remarks that it might not be a bad idea to let people pass an exam before letting them touch a comp. Working in IT I think it might not be such a bad idea to not let people on the internet without such a license, for their own and other people’s protection.

As a little side note, some thirty-forty years ago, people were not required to pass an exam to get a driver’s license. It was like currently with computers. You went to the retailer, bought a car, the retailer explained what the commands were for and off you were. You still had to register, but you didn’t pass any exam to prove you were capable of driving. So maybe one day people will have to pass exams to use computers, leading to proper education of users. Just as it went with cars.

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fold this thread Alex Bogak  Sunday, 1 July 2007 o godz. 10:02 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  --1

Hey, it’s an interesting article, but I have to ask: isn’t the author is being too edgy? Too extreme?

I’m all in favor of providing the best user experience possible, but I don’t agree that it has to be idiot-targeted. I mean it has to be simple and intuitive, such as TV or VCR (Tivo :-) ), but not too simple, as simplicity causes complexity.

Besides, computer literacy is being addressed all the time, so I’m sure much more people would know how to use a computer in a short while, as today’s children grow with it.

So, simplify, but don’t oversimplify.

Users are not stupid. They are just unfamiliar with technology.

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fold this thread Olivier  Monday, 2 July 2007 o godz. 8:56 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Brilliant article. I sometimes wondered if I was the only one around thinking like this… This is well explained and I simply wish more GNU/Linux people would read about this.

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fold this thread Munra  Thursday, 5 July 2007 o godz. 9:05 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Excelent article.

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.)

really good. and the CU people, don’t feel the necessity of use the “Great” linux or even a “Great” Mac, because they don’t “need” or don’t know that maybe need something different.

But it’s true that maybe if wasn’t created windows the people, the CU people just don’t know the internet or the yahoo or winamp.

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fold this thread xivulon  Friday, 6 July 2007 o godz. 2:34 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Wubi (http://wubi-installer.org) is a good start…

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fold this thread nix  Saturday, 7 July 2007 o godz. 7:04 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Actually I needed that read…. Users are just users…. Time to time; people (geeks) may need to be reminded.

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fold this thread yash  Wednesday, 11 July 2007 o godz. 1:21 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Good article!

I like two lines above- clear, interesting and truly prevailing into the GNU/Linux environment.

We should accept the fact that some people are not enthusiastic about using computers.

Linux is great. “Linux advocates aren’t.

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fold this thread Kirt  Thursday, 26 July 2007 o godz. 6:54 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Great article. With too many Linux ‘promoters’, the last thing in the post or article or insult that makes any sense at all to CU is “all you have to do is”. People are stupid, which is not their fault. It’s your fault for pretending they’re not.

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fold this thread zugu  Monday, 17 March 2008 o godz. 2:59 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

I’ve grown tired of seeing these kinds of articles.

Honestly, why does everyone assume only idiots use Windows?

I consider myself a power user, because people come to me to ask for advice when their computer breaks and because I installed and used many operating systems other than Windows.

But I don’t have to be an idiot in order to see where Linux is failing. After one year of using Ubuntu (more or less advertised as one of the easiest Linux distributions around) on my desktop I had grown tired of configuring things, tired of searching forums, tired of looking for alternatives to alternatives. Windows XP is just less time-consuming. I have never had problems with it, because I’m not an idiot and I don’t click on the dancing monkey to win $1M.

Linux is best if your time values nothing.

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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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