Linux Myths and FUD

I’ve read—both in forums and in the press—a lot of misinformed or maliciously twisted comments about Linux over the past two years as a Linux user. Here’s my collection, including both pro- and anti-Linux statements. My Linux examples have to do with Ubuntu, because that’s the Linux distro I use.

There are too many Linux distros. This is confusing to new users.
While I will concede that the choice in Linux distros confuses new users, I don’t see any evidence that the cause of the confusion is the number of Linux distributions available. There are two majors causes of confusion, and they’re related.

  • Windows and Mac users are not used to having that much choice when it comes to operating systems. They’re used to Windows… and Mac. That’s it. Suddenly finding out there are hundreds of other operating systems out there could overwhelm (and then confuse) anybody.
  • Choice is always a good thing. But people want to make informed choices. The confusion doesn’t come from the availability of choices but the availability of good information helping people make choices. Fortunately, there are good resources becoming available to help you find the right distro for you (I wish such things were promoted for choosing health plans or retirement savings options)—for example, Zegenie Studio’s Linux Distro Chooser Quiz, which asks you a few questions and then suggests two distros for you to try; or DistroWatch’s descriptions of the top ten distros, which gives you a brief explanation of each distro’s history, pros, and cons.

Restaurant guides help you pick a handful of restaurants to try, out of hundreds in a city. God forbid there should be only one restaurant. Likewise, distro-picking guides or quizzes help you pick a handful of Linux distros for you to try.

One last misconception about this issue is that the literally hundreds or thousands of Linux distros are relevant to a new user looking to use a home desktop operating system. In reality, there are only about ten or twenty major players as far as home desktop Linux distros go. Many Linux distributions are tailored to specific needs (servers, low spec systems, portability, security) and not to the general desktop user. Most migrants to desktop Linux will be picking Ubuntu, openSuSE, PCLinuxOS, Fedora, or Mepis. They won’t be bothering with Pentoo or aLinux.

You have to be a programmer to use Linux
Well, this is wrong on two counts. Strictly speaking, no, you don’t have to be a programmer to use Linux. I’ve been using Linux for two years straight, and I am not a programmer. But even loosely speaking, the sentiment behind the remark (that your computer skills have to be advanced) is wrong. Yes, if you’re going to install and configure a Linux distribution on a made-for-Windows computer, you should have or obtain a basic understanding of what a partition is, how to back up data, how to burn an .ISO, and how to copy and paste terminal commands should something need fixing (like a Lexmark printer), but if you’re just going to use Linux, what’s so difficult about it, really? Click this icon. Use this program. Click the X to close the window. Go to System > Log out to log out. Right-click the clock to change the time. For daily use, there’s really nothing that difficult about a desktop Linux distro.

Windows hardware support is better than Linux’s
For all practical purposes, yes, that’s how it would seem to someone who is able to buy a peripheral and know it is going to work with Windows and may not work with Linux. The idea and statement is a bit misleading, though. Windows itself doesn’t really support that much hardware. It’s usually the hardware vendor (HP, Epson, Viewsonic, etc.) that’s creating and including the driver, not Microsoft. The real meaning of this statement is: all the world recognizes a need to support Windows, but they don’t recognize a need to support Linux. If you rephrase it that way, I’ll agree 100% and not call it a myth or FUD.

Linux is difficult to install
Another one of those technically true but extremely misleading statements. Yes, depending on what hardware you have, Linux could be difficult to install and configure. You could ultimately spend hours trying to figure out how to get your wireless card and screen resolution working (they also could work instantly, depending on what hardware you have). But the statement is misleading because it implies that Windows is not difficult to install. Windows is just as difficult (or can be more difficult) to install, especially if you’ve misplaced your driver CDs (or activation keys?) or don’t know which driver goes with which question mark, or if you are trying to back up your files on a crashed Windows computer. In my personal experience (I’ve been lucky, since I didn’t choose my hardware with Linux in mind, but I just happen to have Linux-compatible hardware), Windows has been much more difficult to install. I’ve read stories of nightmare Windows installations and nightmare Linux installations. Bottom line, though: if you’re going to be installing operating systems, you’re probably not an average user, anyway, and you can deal with problems. Average users buy preinstalled operating systems.

It’s impossible to install software in Linux
It really depends on your software needs. If you’re like me (email, web, word processing, spreadsheets, photo organizing, music listening, light web development), software installation will be far easier than in Windows. If, however, you need X, Y, and Z specialized program (or you’re trying to run in Wine some Windows-only program), then software installation may turn into a nightmare for you. If you’re on dial-up or have no internet connection, your experience might not be that pleasant either. If you’re high needs/low skills, it will seem impossible to you. If you’re high needs/high skills, you’ll probably be fine. And if you’re low needs/any skills, you’ll definitely be fine with software installation. In fact, you’ll not miss the days of searching all over the internet trying to find free software that is spyware-free or that doesn’t have a 30-day trial.

The only reason Linux doesn’t have viruses and malware is its low marketshare
If you change that sentence to read One of the many reasons desktop Linux doesn’t have viruses and malware is its low marketshare, then I’ll agree with you fully. That is one of the many reasons. It is also secure by design (with the level of default security varying from good to excellent, depending on the distro). Read more about that here. And keep in mind that even if that is one of the major reasons Linux isn’t targeted, it is still a good reason to use Linux. The Linux desktop marketshare isn’t going to skyrocket in the next three years, and you’re not obligated to keep using Linux if you feel it has become more targeted by malware. Most Linux distributions are cost-free and obligation-free. You could use Linux until 2010 and then switch to something else you feel is more secure at the time. You’re not and shouldn’t be married to your operating system for life.

Linux security is idiot-proof
Nobody actually says this, of course, but some Linux-security-defenders get overly defensive and try to make it sound as if malware is nigh-impossible to produce for Linux. You do not need to explicitly make a file executable in order for it to wreak havoc on your system. All you have to do is create a .deb for Ubuntu for “cool” software and have people download it and double-click it. It works just like a setup.exe in Windows pretty much. Ubuntu includes a program called gDebi that will install a .deb file for you if y
ou double-click it and authenticate the installation with your password. A good security framework can be set up by the operating system, but security ultimately rests with the user. Have dumb users and you have compromised security. The use-my-last-name-as-a-password and click-on-anything crowd will negate any good security you put in place.

Linux isn’t user-friendly
I notice that whenever someone says this, she rarely has any concrete examples to back it up. Let’s think about this, shall we? In Ubuntu, if you want to log out, you go to System > Log out or click on the taskbar icon that looks as if you’re exiting out the door. In Windows, if you want to log out, you click on the Start Menu and then select Log out. How is that more user-friendly? In Windows, if you go to Add/Remove programs, you can’t really add any programs, only remove them. The adding of programs needs a setup.exe file, which you’d be better off double-clicking than going through Add/Remove. In Ubuntu, Add/Remove programs actually lets you add and remove programs. In a default Windows installation, there’s no show desktop button on the taskbar. In a default Ubuntu installation, there is one. So which is more intuitive or user-friendly? My answer: neither. I give examples of ways in which Ubuntu is more new-user-friendly than Windows to counter the oft-repeated myth that Linux isn’t user-friendly, but the truth is that there are ways in which Windows is more user-friendly and ways in which Linux distros are more user-friendly. And ultimately user-friendliness and intuitiveness get completely negated by familiarity. Familiarity trumps theoretical notions of intuitiveness or ease of use any day. There’s nothing empirically intuitive about the key combination Control-Alt-Delete, but almost all Windows users know to press that key combination if something goes wrong. It’s learned and ingrained behavior… and it’s now familiar.

There’s no reason to use Windows / Windows users are idiots
A lot of Linux users aren’t elitists, I swear! But I have still read sentiments along these lines, and it saddens me. There are plenty of good reasons to use Windows. Linux is not for everybody, nor should it be. If you need Windows-only software, you should use Windows. If you’re not ready to learn anything new, you should use Windows. If you know how to keep your Windows computer secure and functioning properly and you like it, then you should use Windows. Ironically, it’s sometimes these very same users who bash Windows and overevangelize Linux who end up being the same ones who tell failed Linux converts to “Then go back to Windoze!” If you’d left them alone in the first place with the operating system they liked and were familiar with, you wouldn’t have to tell them to go back to Windows. Which leads to the next myth…

Linux will solve all your Windows problems
More a sentiment I see than an actual statement I’ve ever read, but just about every article I’ve read about Linux in tech magazines and blogs makes Linux sound like a piece of crap no sane user should use or like the solution to all your computing woes. I can assure you desktop Linux is its own operating system with its own benefits and deficiencies. It is not Windows. It will not run your Windows programs. It will not necessarily run on your previously Windows computer. It will not fix your broken toaster oven or get your delinquent child to get better grades. Come to Linux if you are willing to learn something new. Come if you have compatible hardware or are willing to buy compatible hardware. Come if you are skilled user or if you are an unskilled user with simple needs.

The fact that Linux users ask me to paste commands in the terminal is the reason Windows is the dominant desktop operating system
Anyone who says this clearly wasn’t around in the 1980s. I, like many others, grew up with MS-DOS. Microsoft’s operating systems were beginning to take over the desktop market even before they had a graphical user interface (or GUI). Even when they had a GUI with Windows 3.1, the GUI stunk, and the GUI had to be started from the command-line. Any number of competitors had better GUI implementations (Amiga, Macintosh?), and guess who won? Windows. If you know the history of Microsoft, you know that Windows dominance has to do with market forces and bullying tactics, not the need for people to point and click. After all, Mac OS X, even now, has many of the things people say Linux “needs” to increase desktop marketshare—a GUI for all major tasks, ability to use Adobe Creative Suites, a slick user interface, OS preinstallation; but Mac OS X is still in the single digits for market share and has been for years.

Linux users think Linux is perfect or It’s because Linux users can’t take criticism that Linux doesn’t improve
Wrong on so many levels. These kinds of statements usually follow from a disgruntled Linux migrant finding difficulties with the migration and then posting one of those “I’ve been a programmer for 30 years…” Linux-isn’t-ready-for-the-desktop rants on a Linux forum. The usual blah-blah-blah about Linux “needing” better hardware support, more user-friendliness, no terminal commands, etc. is thrown around, and guess what—it does nothing to improve the state of desktop Linux. In answer to those statements, Linux users know perfectly well that desktop Linux isn’t perfect, which you can clearly see from this Ubuntu Forums thread entitled What do you like least about Ubuntu? and from the Gutsy Gibbon Idea Pool.

Also, many Linux users (unlike disgruntled newcomers or well-intentioned trolls) actually do something to improve desktop Linux, not just post threads with already-been-said-before “suggestions.” There are a number of things you can do to contribute to development:

  • File bug reports
  • Create blueprints and specifications for new features
  • Donate money
  • Contribute code or patches
  • Create artwork
  • Write documentation
  • Help new users solve problems

Whining in a forum thread or even a blog post doesn’t make desktop Linux better. There’s also an erroneous assumption that Linux developers just sit on their butts twiddling their thumbs. Every new release adds new features. And for desktop-oriented distros Linux Ubuntu, Fedora, or openSuSE, new features are usually targeted at new users and are usually GUI frontends for previously terminal-only tasks. Posting a “Linux isn’t ready for the desktop” forum thread or blog entry doesn’t and never has caused Linux to improve.

That’s it for now
Oh, there are many more Linux myths, both positive and negative. But that’s all I’m going to cover for now. You can also find more information at wiki.ubuntu.com/CriticismFAQ. I may do a sequel later.

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