Migrating to Linux, Part 3

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The future of Linux in the SOHO environment.

Welcome to the third and final installment of our three-part series, Migrating to Linux from a Commercial Operating System. In the first article, I discussed some of the reasons why many people are switching to Linux as their desktop OS of choice for common, day-to-day tasks. The second one covered a few of the essential tasks that the small office/home office (SOHO) user of Linux should be familiar with, such as backups, emergency disks and other administrative tasks. In the final installment of this series, I'll take a look at what the future holds for non-technical end users who choose to migrate to Linux as their desktop operating system.

First, let's take another look at perhaps the biggest problem with using Linux as a desktop OS—the fact that Linux is often perceived as a “hackers only” OS. Linux is commonly regarded as a rough-hewn, not ready-for-prime-time toy, made by and for geeks. That image scares away a lot of potential end users, especially those whose first exposure to Linux may be from techie friends or from people in the IS department where they work.

For a significant portion of the history of Linux, that image was basically true. Linux had little to offer the end user. Just dialing into one's PPP account was a pain, let alone trying to configure the X Window system to one's taste or writing a complex document for a demanding client. Now, as simplified installation and more user-friendly GUI tools are becoming available, that is no longer the case. Yet the aura of Linux as a hackers' clique continues to some degree—perhaps due to inertia or the inherently decentralized method of disseminating information within the Linux community.

What will it take to dispel that myth once and for all? There is no simple answer. Short of a very well-funded marketing blitz and concerted information campaign in the popular media (not likely), it will not happen overnight. Within the Linux community is a lot of debate as to what constitutes effective advocacy. It is beyond the scope of this article to address each and every possible method of advocating Linux and open source software in general. However, I do feel there are a few things that every Linux end user can and should do to represent Linux and tout it as a viable desktop system for SOHO users.

Your successful use of Linux is the greatest advertising. In other words, if you are successfully using Linux, let people know. If you are ever asked what version of MS Windows you are using, be frank—explain that Windows does not suit your needs, so you are using Linux. Usually, that statement is followed by something to the effect of “Linux? What's that?” That's your opening to describe—or if you are in front of your Linux box, show—to them what Linux is and what it does. Whenever I go through this speech, I usually get a response like “but I am okay with Windows”. For some people, that's true. But a gentle reminder of how many times they end up rebooting Windows every week, day or hour may prompt them to ask more questions. On the other hand, don't be afraid to discuss some of the trials you have been through with Linux. No one is going to believe you if you present Linux as the Holy Grail of the computing world. Linux has its flaws, too. The difference is that there is an international cadre of conscientious programmers out there working to smooth out these bumps in Linux.

Support those who develop the software you use. It is important that those who develop software are rewarded in some capacity. Note that this applies to Open Source packages as well as commercial products. For many free software programmers, the reward is in the doing. Commercial software manufacturers are in it to earn money. Whatever the rationale and reasoning of the developers, they deserve support. If you find a piece of Open Source/freeware useful, let the developers know. Provide them with a bug report or a well-thought-out feature request. Let others know you are using that software, and share the URL of where to find it. If you are using a piece of commercial software, make sure you have registered the product and paid the licensing fee. Then, send any comments or constructive criticisms to the publisher. This lets the publisher know that their product is used and appreciated, and it may lead to more companies porting their products to Linux.

Help others migrate. Here is perhaps the best way to further Linux in the SOHO market. By helping newcomers get a Linux system up and running and helping them find the software tools they need, you'll be directly expanding the installed base of Linux. This may sound elementary, but helping another end user get a Linux box up and running requires a bit of time and effort. When I first dove into Linux, I wasted hours looking for solutions to problems that another user with just slightly more experience could have solved in a matter of minutes. Offer your best advice when asked, and volunteer to help if needed. That's why Linux exists in the first place—thanks to the combined efforts of a volunteer crew of users and programmers.

If we all take the above steps (at the very least), we will continue to see a growth in the number of end users who turn to Linux as their desktop system of choice. Perhaps the most impressive action that will lead to increased acceptance of Linux by end users is the refinement of Linux distributions and wider marketing of their products. By making distributions more stable, easier to install and easier to understand, commercial Linux developers are greatly enhancing ease of use for end users of Linux. Wider marketing means more exposure and a less mysterious aura surrounding Linux. These days, you can stroll into several mainstream software retailers and bookstores and walk out with the world's most powerful PC operating system for under fifty dollars (US).

Still, as a SOHO Linux user, I notice two major weaknesses working against Linux as a SOHO operating system. Number one is the support issue. While the Linux community is famous for its voluntary support resources, we still must contend with what appears to the end user as a lack of support. Although I don't claim to be an expert on software marketing, I have noticed a pattern in the way end users perceive the support services of software publishers. Basically, it seems to me that few consumers have much respect for the support behind any software, let alone free or Open Source products. People do care about technical support, especially in the early stages of installing and using a product. Since consumer expectations are very high and their perceptions of services provided are already very low, any impression of a lack of support will push many potential Linux consumers into an “I can't buy that” mindset.

The second major weakiness is the limited availability of end-user applications. While Linux is famous for native ports of best-in-class software like Apache, few, if any, desktop productivity applications are available for Linux that you can honestly say are the best on the market. The recent decision by Netscape to free the source code to its Communicator 5 product, and the decision by Corel to port their productivity applications to Linux, may show more of the corporate world that faith in the future of Linux is well-founded. Again, the Linux community is working against appearances and perceptions rather than realities—on paper, it looks as if the available pool of SOHO productivity applications for Linux is rather dry.

There is much talk about what will be the single (or few) most important “killer application(s)” that finally push Linux into critical mass in the network server market. Oracle, Sybase and names of other large-scale products are often mentioned. (Oracle and Informix have both announced ports to Linux.) The issue is a bit different when we are considering “killer applications” for the SOHO market. Most likely, no single product will make Linux more viable as a desktop solution; instead, it will be the collection of productivity tools that makes more end users feel comfortable enough to abandon their commercial OS. Right now, the compendium of end-user tools is small, but growing.

Now, I guess one of the key questions to resolve is this: how can we SOHO end users of Linux do our part to solve the support issue and encourage the development of more desktop productivity applications? Honestly, I don't know of any “silver bullet” answers.

The support issue can be addressed by following the three suggestions made earlier, along with some of the advice from the second article in this series. Eventually, I believe we need to see dramatic improvements in several key areas, including but not limited to documentation, the SOHO end-user support network and more easily installed and configured software tools.

As for documentation, it's easy to see why programmers hate doing it—it's tedious and may seem peripheral to the real goal of the project, which is producing the software. However, the documentation is often the key to selling the software (whether commercial or Open Source) to potential users. How many times have you installed a software package, and then been left on your own to figure out how to use it? If it means users of free software have to pay for third-party documentation of the program, then so be it. Remember, the key to success for the SOHO user is usability and productivity—whatever gets us there reliably and inexpensively is good.

When thinking about the SOHO end-user support network, it is tempting to point out the obvious—there is plenty of help available to end users in the existing support resources. While that is true, it is also quite tempting to imagine a scenario where SOHO Linux users have his own support network. Perhaps we need a new newsgroup, mailing lists and web sites devoted to our needs.

Making software easier to install, configure and use is a mantra being chanted throughout the software development world, regardless of the OS. One very exciting aspect of the growing Linux community is that more Open Source developers are turning their skills and attention toward end-user tools. The GIMP and KDE may be the best current examples. Such a combined resource pool of programming talent will naturally produce a host of higher quality products than can be achieved in the corporate world of tight deadlines, limited resources and expectations of marketability. I predict that the next few years will see a wealth of extremely high-quality, Open Source software tools for the SOHO end user.

Can we as SOHO users depend on Open Source developers to produce all of the software we need to get our work done? Eventually, maybe so. Right now, some of our needs would be best met by porting existing software to Linux. Personally, I have a dozen or so commercial software applications on my list of things I'd like to see ported to Linux. Every SOHO user can probably name a few of their own “dream ports”. How can we encourage the porting of software? Number one is to follow our earlier point of rewarding vendors who port their software. Positive feedback and payment of licensing fees will encourage developers to invest the time and energy in porting their products to Linux. Another approach is to visit the Linux Resources “Wish List” and suggest software you'd like to see ported to Linux. Your input on the page (http://www.linuxresources.com/wish/) will help the Linux community encourage more vendors to port their useful software to Linux.

While this series has been far from exhaustive, we've taken a stab at discussing the issues a SOHO end user needs to consider when migrating to Linux. The SOHO end user market is not the first niche one thinks of when examining how Linux will fit into the future of computing, but the issues of stability and quality that make Linux the best server platform also apply to the desktop.

Are you thinking of migrating to Linux for your personal desktop needs? I hope this series has helped you make up your mind. Have you already begun the process of migrating away from MS Windows or another OS? Then maybe some of the experiences shared herein can be of value. Are you a software publisher or vendor who is examining the future of Linux as a potential SOHO environment? Please rest assured there are non-technically oriented end-user types who see in Linux an alternative to poorer-quality commercial operating systems. While we may not be pioneers in the same vein as Linus Torvalds, we are on the cutting edge of adopting a better, more reliable way of getting our daily tasks done. Good luck!

Norman M. Jacobowitz is a freelance writer and marketing consultant based in Seattle, Washington. Please send your comments, criticisms, suggestions and job offers to normj@aa.net.

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