June 22, 2002

Commentary: Experiences with converting others to Linux

Author: JT Smith

- By Jesse Smith -

A number of people have been asking me to write about
other people's first reactions to Linux. You see, I often offer to
pass out Linux CDs, give general Linux help and try to spread
knowledge of the advantages of Linux over some other operating
systems. This has given me the opportunity to collect feedback
from a number of Linux newcomers. I can then use that feedback
to change the way I set up my own applications.
Unfortunately, a lot of the feedback I get about Linux is
not positive. Of course, all systems have good and bad points. There
is always a period of adjustment. Below, I will
share some of this feedback with you.

All of the people I mention are experienced
computer users. All have at least five years of experience using
MS Windows and/or Macs. All of them have college degrees and half
have taken computer science courses. I bring this to your attention
simply to suggest that all of these people were computer literate and
quite comfortable in their current operating system.

I gave each person a recent copy of Red Hat or Mandrake, because
I thought those would be the easiest to learn. Their packages, I assumed,
would be easier to install.

Right away, we ran into problems. One person did not have
enough resources to install a graphical desktop. Because switching
to a "glorified DOS" was not an option for him, that ended his experiment.
He returned to his Windows 98 system.

Next, one of my programmer friends tried to install Red Hat
on his system with Windows XP. The install didn't work at all. In fact,
it made his hard drive unusable. I suggested he reformat his drive and
convert to FAT32 from NTFS. He did this, installed Windows XP and then
Red Hat. Once again, his hard drive died a horrible death. He then
tried Red Hat by itself. It wouldn't boot. For some reason Linux couldn't
figure out what hardware it was running on. He formatted again and
installed XP. By itself.

Next, I gave a friend Mandrake. It installed just fine, or so
it seemed. However, the kernel always panicked when trying to boot. Being
a hardware tech, he fiddled with it for a while. However, he finally gave
up and let Windows 98 have the whole drive again.

We now come to another fellow programmer. We gave Red Hat a whirl and
it installed quite well alongside Windows NT. So far so good. However, he
ran into a few problems:

"What are .rpm and .tar.gz and .tar.bz2 files?"

I explained the basic differences and what they meant.

We tried installing a few simple .rpm files. None installed
properly. When I suggested trying the .tar.gz source packages his
reaction was: "You have to compile the program?"

Yes, I explained why. He told me that he wasn't
going to waste his time with something that you have to configure and
compile on the hope it would work better than a binary.

On a positive note, he found the KDE desktop very nice. However,
the command line and file system were a bit of a challenge.

"What are these: /etc, /bin, /usr?"

I explained the use of each directory.

"Why not use '/program files' and '/configure'?"

Tradition.

I also gave him a list of basic Linux commands, such as
cp, mv, cd and ls. I explained these were about the same as the DOS commands copy, move, cd and dir. Again, he wondered at the naming.

He was also interested in the security aspects of Linux, but found that
his modem was a Winmodem. So it didn't make much difference.
Back to Windows XP, which comes with a built in firewall.

Yet another friend dared to try Mandrake. The idea of easy-to-create
user accounts, easy FTP set up and security had major appeal. The setup
went fine after he converted from NTFS to FAT32. The KDE desktop also
had great appeal. However, again, installing software and dealing
with a command line posed a challenge. After fighting with it for a
few weeks, he returned to using Windows XP, which allowed him to create
separate user accounts, and setup a FTP server.

Lastly, we come to a young lady that has intermediate computer skills.
I setup Mandrake and created some accounts, then set up hers to log
directly into the KDE desktop. All went fairly well, except KDE tended to
crash a lot. A little tinkering helped. The games, themes and Web-page-like
setup were a bonus for her. However, there were a number of drawbacks. The
KOffice suite was not powerful enough (spell check didn't work, Office .doc
files didn't always load). I also ended up creating a number of scripts and
programs to hide the command line (she'd never used a command line before).
GAIM didn't work at all and neither did WINE. Linux ended up sharing the
drive with Windows 98.

A big stumbling block was the file system, not the
name of directories this time, but permissions. Mac and Windows users are
used to having access to the whole hard drive. They don't have to "mount"
anything. So the structure of the file system caused a few problems. To
keep Linux on her drive, I had to change a lot of the /etc/fstab file
and create shortcuts to the other drives in her home directory.

Basically, we turned her Mandrake distro into Lindows, come to
think of it.

My conclusions about all of this break down into three parts:

1. We need better documentation. Most pages and packages are too technical to the would-be-converts. They practically had to know Linux to learn Linux, an interesting catch 22. I was often asked, what is a ".tar.gz," what is "make," what is "mounting?"

2. Installing software must be a lot easier. I know I've said it before,
but people need to be able to unzip a package and click on "setup."
Otherwise, they won't get the software installed. RPMs and other binaries were a good
idea, but 90% of the time, they simply don't work.

Also, many packages require third-party libraries. At the very least,
there should be a download link on the page to the required library. Don't
make people search the 'Net for a file. At best, include it in the
package.

3. LUGs -- Linux User Groups are a must. Some of these people had
not even heard of Linux. They can't get a copy in stores here.
Without LUGs, there is no support, no push and no reason for people to
try Linux. There aren't any LUGs within a 100km radius of my town.
As a result, I plan to start one this summer.

Linux users need to get out there, find each other and spread the
word. Newbies to Linux need support and lots of it. Let's give it
to them.

Jesse Smith recently announced he was forming the Annapolis Valley Linux User Group in Nova Scotia.

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