Linux for the End User—Phase 1

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

In terms of newbie reach, what's the most valuable piece of Linux real estate on the Web? (Hint: it isn't Slashdot.) It's Linux.com, the Linux portal owned by VA Linux Systems, because end users typically think of dot-com sites as the Web's anchor tenants. Linux.com is a beautifully simple piece of web design, but as with so many sites, it suffers from insideritis. Clicking on “Desktops”, for example, gets you a page with a bewildering array of conversations about KDE vs. GNOME, but nothing at all about how you could buy a Linux desktop. Clicking on “Get Linux” gets you a page of every Linux distribution out there, but again, no information about actually getting a computer running one of these distributions. Searching for the word “PC” brings up page after page of BBS flames about Windows 98 vs. Linux, but yet again, nothing for the user who wants to buy a Linux PC.

Linux.com has no obvious, Yahoo!-like list of Linux system vendors. I have no way of knowing if this is a simple omission, or if VA Linux refuses to list competitors on a site it owns, but it seems like a huge oversight to host the single most valuable Linux URL from the outside world's point of view without directing interested users to places where they can actually buy a computer running Linux.

The problem here is that ordinary users don't buy operating systems. They buy computers. If there is ever to be a real spread of Linux to casual users, it will mean a move from a focus on this or that Linux distribution to a focus on pre-installed systems. Vendors will have to drop the idea that someday the average user will be comfortable installing an operating system—they don't even like to install ordinary software, so no matter how easy an OS install can be, it will never be as easy as buying it pre-installed. As the size of the Linux user base grows, the number of people who are comfortable installing from scratch will grow in absolute numbers, but will shrink dramatically in total market share. Whoever focuses on selling Linux computers rather than Linux distributions will win in the long haul.

Abandoning Linux.com, I went on to Linux.org (though I am convinced that most end users would not take this step on their own), and finally hit pay dirt.

Linux.org has the most complete list of vendors of Linux systems I have found anywhere, with almost 80 vendors listed in the U.S. alone. However, the list is hard to use, as it's in no particular order and has spotty information about what the vendors do. Furthermore, it looks like a prototypical web site circa 1996, with lots of white space between entries for “readability”, meaning that you can't see more than a handful of vendors at any one time, wrecking the ability to do any comparison shopping.

Nevertheless, this (plus a few sites from the Yahoo! list) is clearly the best source of vendors I'm going to find. Phase 1 is now done: I have gone from a standing stop to a long list of Linux system vendors to check out. Elapsed time: 48 hours. Frustration quotient: medium to high. Amount of work required: much too high. Phase 2 will be evaluating the sites themselves, and Phase 3 will be road-testing the ease of setup and use for whatever system we buy.

As a side effect of looking though these sites, it became clear to me that as the user base spreads, pre-installation will trump ease of use for determining which flavor of Linux users choose, and by this measure, Red Hat is way out in front. No matter how easy the Caldera or Corel distributions are (the two easiest installs in my experience), the real trump card in terms of growth in user base will be deals with hardware vendors. Surprisingly, no home page for any Linux distribution I looked at (Red Hat, Corel, Caldera, Debian, Mandrake) had what I thought would be an obvious link: a big red button that said “Click here to buy a computer running FooBar Linux from our partners”. The owners of different distributions are still assuming that most users will install their own Linux and, though that may be true for the moment, it will not be for long.

Conclusion: On a scale from “Rough” to “Smooth”, Phase 1 surely counts as rough. For someone interested in using a Linux box as a casual user, but with no idea where to turn, there is no obvious answer about where to look first. This bootstrap problem, where you have to know where to look before you do the looking, is the Achilles heel of easy-to-use Linux right now. While it is unclear whether Linux will ever make any real inroads into the MS desktop monopoly, if the software were ready tomorrow, interested users still couldn't find it. As we have learned from Amazon, eBay and Yahoo!, this means that if this space ever does take off, the first vendor to associate themselves firmly in the Web's collective mind as the official vendor of Linux desktops could walk away with a lion's share of the traffic. Next month, we'll evaluate Linux systems vendors.

email: clay@shirky.com

Clay Shirky (clay@shirky.com) is currently the Professor of New Media at Hunter College, where he teaches in both the undergraduate and graduate programs. He has worked as a writer, programmer, and consultant, for Business 2.0, FEED, Silicon Alley Reporter, word.com, Urban Desires and net_worker magazine.

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