Linux for the End User—Phase 1

Is Linux ready for the casual user? Mr. Shirky begins an experiment to find out.

Several months ago, I bought some clothes with my LinuxFund credit card. The guy behind the counter looked at the card and said, “Linux! That's the future, right?” He then leaned over the counter and asked “What do you think is going to happen to the PC?”

The biggest single change in that loose amalgam that is the “Linux community” in the last year is that it now includes people, many thousands of people, who have heard about Linux in the press and liked what they've heard, but don't know anyone who uses it. The old model for the spread of Linux—you tell two friends and they tell two friends—is over, because the press attention has spread news of Linux far outside the community of actual users, to the point where a random cashier in an unrelated business feels confident of its revolutionary impact, even without any direct experience with the OS itself. For these interested-but-unconnected people to become Linux users, they will have to work harder than any of the Old Guard did, because they don't know anyone with enough experience to help them. They will have to find their way to Linux more or less from scratch.

I was reminded of my encounter with the Linux-loving cashier a few weeks ago when Almaz, my wife, decided that she was writing too much to keep working on her laptop and wanted a desktop. All she needed to do on the desktop, she said, was use Netscape, WordPerfect and a printer. And so an experiment was born, an experiment to see whether, armed with only a credit card and a willing Windows user, one could buy a complete Linux desktop system with a printer which that user could set up and get started with on their own. Almaz, who uses a computer every day but has no burning desire to understand what goes on under the hood, seemed to be the ideal test candidate.

This experiment is really two questions rolled into one. The first obvious question is, “Have the recent improvements in usability created a Linux which a casual user would feel comfortable with?” The second and less obvious question is, “Are there companies thinking about how to package and deliver such systems to interested home users?” Since I needed to procure the system before testing it, I set out to answer the second question first.

Phase 1—Needle in a Haystack: Finding a Linux Vendor

To begin, where to find this mythical, pre-configured desktop system? Although I have bought several systems with Linux pre-installed from several different vendors, they were all web servers. In this case, looking for a desktop system, I was almost as much of a newbie as my wife was. I set out down three different paths—using a search engine (Yahoo!, in this case), going to the major Windows PC vendors to see if any of them would ship a PC with Linux, and going straight for Linux URLs.

Search Engine

Reasoning that average users would have little idea of where to turn for pre-installed systems, I went straight for Yahoo!, usually a beacon of clarity in the fog of the Web. Yahoo! did not disappoint in this regard, with a manageable 22 categories which included the word “Linux”. But of these, only three categories were links to hardware vendors. Furthermore, two of those three were specifically business-to-business, leaving me only the slightly off-putting “/Hardware/Custom_Built_PCs/Linux/” as a category.

The problem with this category is that there's no such thing as a “custom-built” computer anymore—in the age of Dell, all computers are custom-built. Customers of commodity PCs expect to be able to adjust the configuration to their taste, and they don't think of this as buying a “custom-built PC”; they just think of this as buying a PC, period. A big part of serving interested but inexperienced users is creating a sense that they are not going to be bombarded with too many choices, but no one selling Linux systems has figured that out yet.

Yahoo! included a scant nine sites which advertised Linux hardware, and these were not always listed in the most user-friendly terms. Would you send a want-to-be Linux user to a site advertising itself as “a Linux-centric systems integrator offering support, hardware, applications, development and services”? Nevertheless, these sites went on the master list. Time for the next strategy: going straight for the traditional PC retailers.

The Majors

The second strategy I pursued was going after existing PC vendors. I had heard that Dell, Compaq, HP and IBM had all “embraced” Linux, though I wasn't really sure what that meant and visiting their web sites provided few additional clues. While a search for “Linux” on all four sites turned up thousands of pages of documents, FAQs and press releases talking up their commitment to Linux, I was unable to find out, using only their web sites, whether they would sell me a Linux desktop system or not. In all four cases I had to resort to the phone, and in three of the four cases, Compaq, HP and IBM, I was told they sell Linux only on servers.

Dell, as usual, was a bit further along than its competition, and sells high-end Linux PCs, but the base price is over $2000, too high for a casual user's desktop. Furthermore, this option isn't even listed in the Home and Home Office section, only in the Business Users section, which would be daunting for newbies.

Nevertheless, if desktop Linux becomes a reality, Dell will be the company to beat. In my conversations with them, they always put me in touch with knowledgeable staff and they never sugar-coated anything, telling me, for example, that printer setup was likely to be “quirky”. I opted not to buy what was really a business-class workstation for Almaz, but when and if Linux for the desktop becomes a reality, Dell is better positioned to take advantage of it than any other Windows PC vendor. Everything they do is geared toward making the customer feel comfortable about making a decision.

So it's a strike-out with the traditional PC vendors. Time for the last strategy: going straight for Linux URLs.