Sunday, January 04, 2009

An Inconvenient OS Truth

This post has been in the making since mid-December, when I came across one of the most outrageously titled posts on a professional web publication that I think I've ever read: "Dumbass consumers squander netbook experience by rejecting Linux."

Written by David M. Williams for iTWire, Mr. Williams spends three long web pages excoriating the "hoi polloi" for rejecting Linux and selecting Windows on netbooks such as the ASUS Eee. But to really put this in perspective we need to go back over a year and a half to May 2007.

That was when Adrian Kingsley-Hughes of ZDNet published two posts questioning the viability of Linux in the marketplace. They were "Five crucial things the Linux community doesn’t understand about the average computer user" and "Three more things that the Linux community doesn’t get." Both posts drew a tremendous number of responses (1160 and 600 respectively).

Adrian's points, quickly summarized, are:
  1. On the whole, users aren’t all that dissatisfied with Windows
  2. Too many distros
  3. People want certainty that hardware and software will work
  4. As far as most people are concerned, the command line has gone the way of the dinosaur
  5. Linux is still too geeky
  6. The Mac effect
  7. Who provides the free tech support?
  8. Chill out, it’s just an operating system!
Of all the good points made in those two posts, the first and last (1 and 8) still resonate the most.

First, most people really are happy with Windows. Specifically, Windows XP. Even mighty Microsoft is not immune to that fundamental truth; witness the widespread critical backlash against Vista simply because it was too different from Windows XP. And instead of switching to Linux as many Linux cognoscenti had hoped and predicted, the majority of those Windows users dissatisfied with Vista hunkered down and stuck it out with Windows XP. Another inconvenient choice I'm sure confounded and enraged many of those Linux cognoscenti such as the aforementioned Mr. Williams.

And that's the same attitude that many who purchased all those new netbooks hold; they expected the same (or very similar) Windows experience. After all, those netbooks had a screen, a keyboard (however cramped and crappy), networking (wireless), and promised to provide the ability to surf the web and read web email just like a regular notebook or desktop, except more cheaply. They failed to pick up the finer nuances with regards to netbooks vs notebooks; they just expected that if looked like a notebook and mechanically operated like a notebook then it should behave like notebooks they've used in the past, only smaller and cheaper.

For all intents and purposes netbooks are cheap-as-dirt notebooks with lower performing x86 chips whose primary task is to shore up the low end of the notebook market and keep those margins on Intel's higher-end chips as healthy as possible. This isn't about low-power enabling technology, or even a response to ARM-based devices; it's about creating a new profitable lowest tier using older CPU designs repurposed for the "hoi polloi" who really can't afford Intel's higher powered offerings any more. And so we get Atom, and then we bundle Linux or Windows (your choice!) which are both too bloated to run efficiently on the new chips, and so people make the reasonable decision that if it's going to be slow, then it might as well be something slow I already know rather than something slow I know little about. Because there's nothing more infuriating than trying multiple times to perform a relatively straightforward task on an unfamiliar and aggravatingly slow system.

Second, people don't care about the OS, and they care even less about those that do care about the OS (cue Mr. Williams). I guess the old saying that "You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar" has been forgotten by the Linux evangelists and apologists, or else it was never learned, because you'll never win any attention, let alone converts, by insulting their choices. Adrian summed it up best when he wrote:
Here’s another reason why the Linux market share has been flatlined for years while the Mac share is increasing - Mac communities are on the whole friendlier than Linux communities.

I’m not sure if it’s just a case that there’s a small subset of the Linux community which is both aggressive and vocal or whether the problem is much broader, but this is a major turn off for people considering making the transition to a Linux OS. Even back when Mac communities were considered by many to be pretty hostile and unfriendly places Steve Jobs was clever enough to make sure that this kind of fanatical nonsense didn’t make it onto the Apple site and sales literature (although Apple is perfectly capable of coming up with their own fanatical nonsense, at least it’s not that aggressive). Negative campaigning seems to work for political parties but it doesn’t work for Linux - and the numbers prove this.
In light of the fact that Barac Obama will be sworn in January 20th as our 44th president, I think that it can now be said that negative campaigning doesn't work for political parties either. Just ask John McCain.

Finally, I find it highly hypocritical that Linux apologists have for years cried out about lack of choice in the personal computer marketplace, referring ad nauseum to the Microsoft tax (and yes, as have I). It is indeed sad then when given an unfettered opportunity as the one afforded by the introduction of the netbook that the buying public chose Windows, but that's what choice is all about. And if you want it to be fair, then you have to respect it and live with those choices whether you personally like them or not. It's an important lesson one gets to learn when raising children to be adults.

Those millions of consumer's choices cast Linux in a harsh and unflattering light. It isn't Microsoft being evil that's the problem here, it's Linux behaving badly, specifically when you attempt to sell it as a viable Windows alternative to the general consumer. For them it isn't. And until such time as enough Linux hackers climb down out of their ivory towers and come to the startling revelation they need to write for someone else other than a clone of themselves, it never will be. So get over your bitching about being rejected and fix up Linux for them or else STFU. If you can't give consumers what they want then they'll find someone who will. It's ruthless and Darwinian, but that's the real power of choice in action.

6 comments:

  1. The point of David Williams article is that consumers are buying netbooks to use as notebooks. A netbook is meant to be a second or third computer to use on a train or to check email when away from home. So if you insist on buying XP and Office you are spending hundreds (or committing piracy) unnecessarily to try and use a netbook as a notebook. If you need Office in a mobile environment then you should be using a real notebook.

    Thus free Linux software makes more sense, or if you are an XP user then use OpenOffice and other open source software on your netbook.

    The dumbass comment is that consumers are trying to shove a square block in a round hole.

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  2. Firstly, don't confuse enthusiasm with Zealotry. Linux users are not all the same.

    Whilst saying that most people are happy with XP does explain a reluctance to try alternatives, it is much like saying "the North Koreans love their Great Leader". The vast majority of them don't know any different.

    You're right, people will only switch once Linux gives them what they want. The beauty of it is - it's easy and free for those open-minded enough to try for themselves. As long as their expectations are reasonable (e.g. they don't require a specific Windows-only app) millions of people are finding that Linux (and open source) offers them compelling benefits over Windows.

    'Desktop Linux' isn't perfect, but unlike Windows it is built on sound foundations and is improving rapidly.

    When was the last time you tried it?

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  3. @Wingnets:

    When was the last time I tried it?

    Have you looked over to the top right and the category cloud? Notice how Linux is the top-most entry with over 251 posts? Note that the second and third highest categories are Ubuntu and openSUSE respectively?

    I "use" openSUSE 11.1 currently, and have been "using" some distribution of Linux consistently since 1993. With such a long view I'm well aware of its overall progress as well as its many regressions, and there have been quite a few since the high point of early 2007. The quality of Linux has suffered across the board since then, not only technically but socially as well. The tone of your response only goes to prove the point that one reason so many would prefer to remain with Windows is that they won't have to put up with arrogant putzes like you.

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  4. As a Linux user of nearly 10 years I am absolutely delighted by your article.

    Well put!

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  5. As grege pointed out the article by David had a slightly different angle than the seemingly purpose of your article.

    As far as I can understand the main point is to show the necessity to respect and understand that consumers generally make a different choice than the already established Linux users expect. The Linux + netbook hysteria is mostly a journalistic stunt from the beginning. Many Linux users were of course enthusiastic about it, because however you look at it, it was a sign of progress. Nevertheless the majority of enthusiastic Linux users didn't and don't show the negative attitude you criticize.

    Maybe it's unintentional, but the tone of your article, choice of words, like you response to a comment here (which just as well might be nothing more than a misunderstanding), convey hostility. That's unfortunate because your point about consumer's choice is valid, even though I look at it differently and can't agree with the article's consensus. Why? Because choice also means the following:
    - the possibility to choose something different that behaves differently.

    The problem with Adrian Kingsley-Hughes' blog is its perspective. Adrian does as you yourself use Linux to some degree, but going through his vast amount of blog entries you'll find that it's mainly Windows and MacOS oriented, with the result that his criticism of Linux is done from the perspective of those operating systems and not on the merits of Linux itself. Linux is by too many expected to be a replacement in the sense that it's free but exactly the same as Windows. Isn't that to have wrong expectation since the development of Linux consciously was made on the basis of Unix structural ideas? What's the point of having two exactly similar products?

    To respect one another's choice does also include the understanding of how choice of computing differs. You probably know very well that many pieces of software nowadays used by many are less efficient to use than even the by hardware limited software you could use in the beginning of the 80's. The introduction of the mouse did add new possibilities just as better but cheaper hardware did, but it somehow also has affected the design of software in less positive ways. A popular phrase in the Windows versus Linux debate is "user friendliness", a totally flawed term since it's foremost a question of "user habits". Many common computing routines made by the general consumers aren't in any way "user friendly", but they have adopted and get used to it. My point is that Linux, BSD and OpenSolaris is the only viable choice on the market if you want an environment that isn't messed up by zillions of confusing menus, and instead allow you to get right on business and execute.

    Does that make me a Linux apologist or evangelist? I really don't hope so, because that would mean the world of computing as a whole has become narrow minded, and even worse indifferent. I'm actually an IT-administrator of Windows networks and I haven't been using Linux since 1993. To me it's not ideology, anti Microsoft, or anything anti what so ever, it's just the simple fact that Linux allows me to do things the way I like, and in many ways do things I can't do on a Windows platform.

    If you talk about desktop Linux with pro-Windows users it usually boils down to "look at market shares". When you write "Those millions of consumer's choices cast Linux in a harsh and unflattering light", you have to put that against the fact that millions use Linux on the desktop as their main and maybe only operating system. Linux has to improve, and it's far from perfect, just like all operating systems are flawed in some or another way. Still it doesn't make the ones choosing Linux blind not able to see some "OS truth", because it's not about truth as a singularity, it's about choice.

    If in the long run Linux only attracts 5 % of the total amount of users is that a failure? How can it be a failure if it's what those 5 % really want? A more profound problem, as I see it, is that the operating system market on the desktop is supposed to be uniformed. That's strange, because in most other markets we appreciate differences and we even value the niches. It's actually sad to see the same stereotypes present in article after article, like you last comment about "Linux hackers". Why portray people who willingly work long hours to make software available for free to the public as a bunch of selfish arrogant busters? I know many Linux users in person and most don't have anything in common with term geek, thus we see how these "Linux hackers" have other things than code in common with casual users. Please, show respect for those people.

    I have many views about how Linux need to improve. Some things have to be corrected and sorted out. The core problem though isn't in my view the one you see. Nevertheless Microsoft has to improve their next operating system vastly if I'm to consider it as an option. Humans differ and so do their choices.

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  6. @Bill

    "Arrogant Putzes" :-)

    I'm not sure what I said that so typified the 'arrogant Linux users', but as KimTjik has observed - the 'tone' is all yours.

    I suppose as a blogger to be argumentative helps to generate interest, but really, to be derogatory towards an entire community is not constructive. I think to do so perpetuates the myth that we are all self-superior geeks, and hence our favored OS must be for geeks too.

    Can anyone disagree that the emergence of an alternative operating system, one which is truly free, can only bring benefits, directly or through competition with Windows and Mac, to the end user?

    Change is a challenge for every computer user. There is huge inertia to be overcome. Linux will find its own way and the users will come, but I think a little less passion and a bit more objectivity will help to improve the rate of adoption.

    Just as managing expectations of the user is important - Linux is not, and should not ever aim to be a clone of Windows.

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