I was asked this question in response to a piece I wrote last week under the title Making Linux look harder than it is, about why new Linux users should start with the simplest possible GUI tools and learn to use the command line only after they have a system up and running and get a little experience with it. That article drew more than 300 emails, mostly along the lines of, "Preach it, Brother!"
but some raised interesting questions, including the one that gave this column its title.
Cost is a big reason to choose Linux
I started using Linux because it cost less than Windows. I was not interested in the power of the command line, even though I learned to enter rudimentary text commands right from the start; back in 1998, that was a necessary part of getting Linux installed and using it as a day-to-day operating system. But I was not looking for flexibility or to control every each of my computer's internal functions one by one. All I wanted to do was write and edit text (because that's what I do for a living), alter a few graphics (mostly photos) now and then, browse Web sites, and send and receive email. I also wanted to keep some simple personal and business records, including contact information for various friends and associates.
These are not complicated computer chores, but they were all I really needed (as opposed to wanted) from my computer. I could have done all of this with Windows quite easily.
The "but" was money. Before installing then-current Windows 98, I would have had to upgrade my hardware. Even used, I was looking at $600 or more for anything decent. And even if I had gotten a used computer with Windows 98 installed on it, I would have needed another $500, minimum, in software to work with publishers who thought there were only three word processing programs in the whole world: Microsoft Word, Microsoft Word, and Microsoft Word, and also wanted all graphics I submitted with a story to be just the right size and otherwise optimized for their publications, preferably with Adobe Photoshop.
Since then, as inevitably happens, my software "must have" list has grown. I estimate that Windows equivalents of the software I currently use on my Linux-running laptop would cost me around $1,500, even though almost all of them are included in major $70-level commercial Linux distribution packages and, for those who choose to go this route, can be downloaded for free.
If this level of cost saving isn't reason enough to run Linux -- and to spend a fair amount of time learning how to install and use it -- I don't know what is.
Power and flexibility are great -- in small doses
One of the touted advantages of Linux (and Unix) is that famous command line flexibility and power. But does everyone really need it? And is the command line best place to start with Linux?
Fighter pilots start their training in simple, "low and slow" trainers, not in F-16s or F-18s. Flight instructors, military or civilian, don't expect trainees to master complicated aerobatic maneuvers before they are allowed to solo. They teach their students how to do basic things like turn, change altitude, and take off and land before they move to the next level. Some pilots never get much beyond the basics, either because they have no need, no time or no desire. It is the same with computers. If a user can do all he or she needs with point and click commands, that's fine. The difference between Windows and Linux to someone on this level (aside from cost and stability) is that Linux offers every user the option of going beyond point/click into command line esoterica, while Windows does not.
One reason I personally boost Linux over Mac or Windows for schools, especially in low-income neighborhoods, is that Mac/Windows-based computer instruction tends to turn kids into semi-competent users and nothing else, while Linux offers them an opportunity to move beyond that level without a school investing in expensive proprietary compilers and other programs a budding programmer or nascent sysadmin needs to rise above the user pack.
But even a young proto-geek needs to start somewhere, and point/click is probably the best place to start, just as beginning readers first learn from books that have nothing but short words in them instead of jumping straight into Thackeray.
More point/click Linux users = more money for skilled sysadmins
Assuming (roughly) 1.25 million Americans are directly employed as programmers and systems administrators, and the population of the country is (again roughly) 250 million, hard-core computer professionals are outnumbered by a factor of (roughly) 200 to one. This is good news for computer professionals; they can earn higher salaries than most workers because their skills are in demand and there aren't many of them. It also means that there are plenty of potential customers for pro-level geeks who choose to go into business for themselves.
These are the people who should take full advantage of the command line's power and flexibility, something Windows does not allow them to do. These are the people who should be working hardest to evangalize point/click Linux on the office desktop, because they are the ones who can make money selling Linux-based small office networks, along with support for those networks.
With a professional sysadmin behind them, users don't need to know much. The sysadmin does the (metaphorical) heavy lifting. But, especially in a contract environment, a large part of that sysadmin's job is user training, and if that sysadmin tries to teach workers who don't need to know much about how the computer works to do their jobs a bunch of stuff that only confuses them, the executives who hired that sysadmin will soon be saying, "Well, this Linux thing sure was a mistake. Guess we shoudl give it up and call that Microsoft-certified systems integrator who keeps sending us brochures."
On the other hand, a Linux/Unix sysadmin who is patient with users and does not try to take them too far too fast will inevitably find that some of them will display interest in going beyond the rudimentary point/click desktop, and a compassionate sysadmin will point them to books and online docs and help them learn how to use a console interface effectively -- hopefully on their home machines, not by giving them root access to the office network.
Making desktop Linux as accessible as possible to as many people as possible is the key to all of this.
Making the barrier to Linux entry as low as possible brings more users (AKA potential customers) to Linux/Uinx sysadmins and programmers who prefer to work with Open Source tools.
And, perhaps more important to the world in general over the long haul, spreading use of an operating system that allows most user-level and single-machine tasks to be performed with simple GUI tools, but also allows users to progress beyond the GUI if and when they need to, helps "the masses" become more adept computer users than they will ever be if their only choice is between systems that offer nothing but a point/click interface, and systems that require memorizing strings of text commands to write and print a simple business letter.
If you have never used Linux but are curious about it, please read our Introduction to Linux and Linux.com to start the learning process.