Linux users take note: Google knows marketing

While critics and advocates of so-called “desktop Linux” waste their time imagining a world in which some consumer-targeted Linux distro manages to fix all its bugs and then self-proclaimed computer illiterates everywhere download and burn .iso files and then set their BIOSes to boot from CD and install and configure Linux themselves, Google moves forward with Linux doing what Apple has always done: market! Strengths? Highlight those. Perceived weaknesses? Market those as strengths. Actual weaknesses? What actual weaknesses?

Seriously, instead of saying “Anything Windows can do, Linux can do” (some BS statement I’ve seen repeated on numerous Linux forums over the years) or “Linux will be a Windows replacement when it can do X” (another popular BS statement), just be honest about what Linux can do well and then play that up. For years, Linux distros had “app stores” called package managers. Because they didn’t have savvy marketing departments, somehow those package managers became a deficiency (“if only I could double-click a setup.exe as I did in Windows”) instead of a strength (get all your software in one place automatically updated and easily searchable). Apple knew how to take that concept and make it sexy. Voila! The App Store. Google followed up with the Android Market.

Likewise, for years, Linux distros have offered relatively safe computing for web, email, word processing, light photo editing, and music organization. Did that get played up as a strength? No. Linux advocates and critics instead decided to focus on what Linux didn’t offer (mainly Windows-only applications and drivers for some third-party hardware peripherals). What does Google do? Remind people (YouTube watchers, anyway) that they use “the internet” (web browser, really) for 90% of their computing anyway. Why not focus on the web browser instead of niche applications (the features in Photoshop that only professionals use, since the rest are in GIMP; high-end commercial video games, since people who use their computers 90% of the time on the web will either not play video games or play them on a console; iTunes, because you’re going to buy an Android phone and not an iPhone anyway, target audience of this YouTube video)? Why not play up the strengths of Linux?

Linux fanatics and haters, I give you… proper marketing:

It should also be mentioned that Google isn’t stupid. It knows that people generally buy devices, not operating systems. Who wants to install an OS herself and have to go through figuring out drivers and other such nonsense? That’s the OEM’s job. If you’re like the vast majority of consumers, you don’t buy an iPhone and install Linux on it. You buy an Android phone. You don’t buy a Windows netbook (or, worse yet, buy a badly configured obscure Linux distro preinstalled—Xandros and Linpus, I mean you!) and install Linux on it. You buy a Chrome OS netbook.

Where is this dreamland in which Windows “just works”?

First of all, I have to say it is not my intention to bash Windows. I am not a Windows hater. I actually like Windows. I use it at work every weekday, and I have found ways to have a generally pleasant experience with it. I like Mac OS X better than Windows, though, and I like Ubuntu Linux better than Mac OS X. I actually am quite a firm believer in using the operating system that works best for you and that all the major platforms have pros and cons.

What I can’t stand is Windows power users having a bad experience trying to migrate to Ubuntu (or some other Linux distribution) and then proclaiming “This is why Windows will always dominate the desktop” or “This is why Linux isn’t ready for the masses.” This in these contexts meaning that they had some problem using a peripheral or getting their wireless to work or whatever. I don’t get it. Really. I don’t understand where the logic in this proclamation is. Such a conclusion comes from several flawed assumptions:

  1. Windows always works.
  2. People choose Windows because it always works.
  3. If Linux always worked, the masses would suddenly flock to Linux.
  4. The problem I had with Linux is a problem everyone would have in Linux.

The truth is that if you work in tech support (I don’t officially, but I have unofficially in my last two jobs), you know that there are problems (many problems) on both Windows and Mac OS X. Windows has been the dominant platform at both my current and previous workplaces, and every single day there are Windows problems abounding—cryptic error messages, printer driver conflicts, wireless drivers preventing laptops from going into standby, blue screens of death, rogue viruses, and frozen applications. Believe me, our official tech support guy doesn’t just sit around twiddling his thumbs. He is busy.

Oddly enough, when people have these constant Windows problems, they don’t decide Windows “isn’t ready for the masses.” They just stick with it. Maybe they’ll say “I hate computers.” Maybe some smug Mac user (who also has problems of a different sort but somehow turns a blind eye to them) will say “I hate PCs” (and by PC they mean Windows PC). Oh, but the second a Windows power user tries Linux and encounters one or two problems, suddenly Windows is this always-working utopia. “I’d never have this problem in Windows.” Sure, buddy. Let me tell you about problems.

Last week, a friend of mine wanted to create a playlist of songs to put on her iPhone for a party she was throwing. Here are the problems she encountered:

  • The iPhone wouldn’t update because it couldn’t connect to the iTunes server
  • After it appeared to start the update, iTunes estimated the update download to take 54 minutes.
  • When the download failed after a half hour, she gave up on getting updated firmware on her iPhone altogether.
  • After installing the Amazon MP3 Installer, the download of the purchased MP3 failed midway through and would not complete or offer a useful error message after clicking retry.
  • The iTunes store worked better for purchasing music but cost more ($1.29 per song instead of $.99 per song)—not really a technical problem but still annoying.
  • She couldn’t sync the songs in her playlist to the iPhone, since the iPhone had been authorized on too many computers already, so she had to call Apple to get them to deauthorize her other computers so she could authorize her current computer.

So that’s “just working”? These are not the only problems she’s had on a Windows computer, and she’s had multiple computers. More importantly, she could not solve all these problems on her own, but she needed me to walk her through almost every step of the way. Is this pretty typical? Yes, actually. As I said before, I’m not even the real tech support guy at work, but people still ask me for help with their Windows problems every single day of the week. It could be Microsoft Word inserting some stupid line that can’t be erased or deleted. It could be Firefox not accepting cookies for website even when you’ve enabled them in Tools > Options. It could be the printer icon not allowing you to delete an errored out print job.

If there were really an operating system that offered you a flawless experience that didn’t require you to be your own tech support or for you to find outside tech support, then a lot of people would be out of jobs. Help desks everywhere would be laying off employees by the tens of thousands.

So does Linux have problems? Sure. It has a lot of problems. But those problems are not the primary (or even secondary or tertiary) reason most people use Windows. Windows’ dominance has mainly to do with inertia, marketing, brand-name recognition, and a near-monopoly on preinstallations. Why should I have to state this obvious fact? Because again and again Windows power users perpetuate this nonsense—because they have spent years or even decades perfecting the art of making Windows a bearable experience—that there are no problems in Windows and that any problem in Linux must be the reason Linux for desktops/laptops/netbooks isn’t more popular than it is.

Further Reading
Linux-for-the-masses narratives
Macs are computers, not magic (part 2)

The GUI v. CLI Debate

I’ve been helping with online tech support for Ubuntu for over four years now, and every now and then the discussion comes up about whether it’s “better” to use terminal command instructions or to use point-and-click instructions when offering help.

Inevitably, some die-hard CLI (command-line interface) fans come out and say that the terminal is “more powerful” and that every Linux user should learn to use the terminal, and then some die-hard GUI (graphical user interface) fans come out and say that the terminal is intimidating and that if Linux wants more users, it has to develop more graphical interfaces for things; and then you get the hardcore Linux users who claim they don’t care if Linux gets more users or not, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

The truth is that neither CLI nor GUI is always “better” than the other. There are appropriate situations for both CLI and GUI on a support forum. I hope everyone can agree that all common tasks should be able to be done in the CLI and through the GUI. Choice is ultimately what’s most important, so that those who prefer the CLI can use the CLI, and those who prefer the GUI can use the GUI.

But if I am offering help to new users, do I give GUI instructions or CLI instructions? It depends on what kind of support I’m giving.

When is GUI support appropriate?
If a new user wants to know how to do a basic task that she will probably repeat (or, if not the exact task, then at least something similar) in the future, then I will usually give point-and-click instructions to encourage that user to explore the GUI for that kind of task. For example, if a new user asks “How do I install Audacity?” then I am not going to say “Just use sudo apt-get install audacity.” Instead, I’ll tell her to use Applications > Ubuntu Software Center or Applications > Add/Remove, or just link her to this tutorial on how to install software. There are several reasons I do this:

  • Even though the apt-get command makes perfect sense to me, it is just cryptic gobbledygook to a new user, and it will not help her to install other software in the future unless I bother to explain how the command works; and, more importantly, even if she understands how apt-get works, she’ll still need to know the name of the package she wants to install in order to use the command most efficiently.
  • A lot of new Linux users (myself included, when I first started) have an irrational fear of the terminal, even if you tell them to copy and paste the command with a mouse (no typing necessary). Eventually, as they become more comfortable with the new environment that Gnome or KDE (or Xfce or whatever other user interface they’re exploring) has to offer, they are more likely to be amenable to learning terminal commands and even liking them.
  • Among Windows power users (the most likely group to migrate to an almost-unheard-of operating system that requires download, installation, and configuration from the user and not the OEM), there is already a reputation Linux distros have of being too terminal-dependent. It’s great to advertise to new users just how many things can be done by pointing and clicking, and that will make their transition to Linux that much easier.

Ah, some veteran forum members would protest, but what if I don’t want to bother making screenshots or typing out long point-and-click instructions that can be summed up in a single command? To that, I say if you’re too lazy to offer appropriate help, don’t offer help at all. Someone else will help. Or, better yet, find a good screenshot-laden tutorial and link to the tutorial instead (that’s actually how I started up my Psychocats Ubuntu tutorials site—I got tired of constantly retyping the same support posts over and over again, so I just made one place I could keep linking new users to).

I would say something similar to those who use Fluxbox or Enlightenment and want to primarily help those who use Gnome or KDE. If you aren’t familiar with the graphical environment the user you’re trying to help is using, don’t offer help in that instance. Save your help for when the CLI is appropriate.

When is CLI support appropriate?
The GUI may be fine for common tasks (installing software, launching applications, managing files and folders), but what if someone runs into a problem? What if what she’s doing is not a common task but a one-time setup or configuration? There’s no way if a new user says “When I try to launch Firefox, it just disappears” that I’m going to offer a point-and-click solution. Problems are best diagnosed with the CLI, and terminal commands (even for GUI applications) are more likely to yield helpful error messages. Likewise, if her wireless card isn’t recognized properly or fixed by System > Administration > Hardware Drivers, it isn’t a crime to walk her through manually editing configuration files to fix the wireless problem, because once it’s fixed, she should never have to do that again.

If you do offer CLI solutions to problems, though, as much as possible try to explain what these commands mean or do. You don’t have to copy and paste in a whole man page (in fact, that probably won’t be helpful at all—I’ve been using Linux for years and have yet to find a man page I actually understand). Just keep in mind that to many new users, terminal commands are like a foreign language they can’t even say hello or thank you in.

CLI and GUI aren’t going away any time soon. One is a hammer. One is a screwdriver. No one tool will suit everyone best at all times. Use what’s appropriate. Appreciate that what you like or prefer may not be what someone else likes or prefers.

My response to Rory Cellan-Jones

Rory Cellan-Jones recently spent 24 hours with Ubuntu:

I installed a few applications – including Skype, and a social networking application called Gwibber.

But when I tried to install a free open-source audio editing program, Audacity, it appeared more complex to get hold of an Ubuntu version than the one I’ve used on a Mac.

So it was simpler than this on Mac?








What was tripping you up? Not knowing a sound recording and editing program would be in the Sound & Video category? Or not realizing how silly it is to have to open a web browser to install a program? Do you find the iTunes App Store difficult to use? Because that’s pretty much the same thing, isn’t it?

I very much look forward to reading your next article, “24 hours learning to ride a bicycle.” The wheels must just not be worth the effort.

Further Reading
Know why software installation is difficult on Linux? It’s a secret. I can’t tell you.