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The Linux community’s mixed messages

I’m a long-term (three-year) forum member at the Ubuntu Forums. I’m also a moderator there. I realize that in any online community, even one built around a common interest, there will be a diversity of members and a diversity of opinions. Nevertheless, there is a problem with mixed messages in the Linux community. I’ve seen this in blogs, other Linux forums, and, of course, in the Ubuntu Forums as well.

Here are some examples:

Is using Windows okay or not?
Many Linux users will make fun of Windows users for using Windows, say that Windows is garbage, say that Windows users are sheep for using Windows and not Linux. Then, I think it’s these same Linux users who, when a frustrated new migrant to Linux complains about her hardships in migrating, will reply with “Go back to Windows” or “Why don’t you just stick with Windows, then?”

Either Windows is a valid choice, or it’s not. Make up your mind.

If you’re okay with people using Windows, stop making fun of Windows or its users. If you’re not okay with people using Windows, don’t tell them to go back to Windows if they’re experiencing problems with Linux.

Providing alternatives
A lot of Linux users like to make it sound as if DRM and corporations are a bad thing and that people shouldn’t support the iTunes music store and should use services like eMusic or Jamendo or Magnatune. The problem here is that you can’t dictate people’s musical tastes. If people actually like pop music and not indie music or ambient/trance, then you have to give them some good pop music that isn’t from the major music labels or that isn’t DRM-laden. I’ve been able to track down a few pop songs on Jamendo, but most of the stuff labeled pop isn’t really pop at all.

Just today I saw a thread bashing the iPhone 3G and saying there are better alternatives like the FreeRunner. If you go to the FreeRunner Wiki, though, the FAQ indicates a lot of the functions on the OpenMoko are unstable.

When people have suggested on Brainstorm that Canonical open a Canonical store akin to the Apple store with Ubuntu preinstalled computers and Ubuntu-compatible peripherals, the ideas have all been voted down, and the down-voters have said they prefer to build their own computers and they would rather have Canonical focus on software development.

Well, where does that leave consumers? Why would I choose the OpenMoko, which I’ve never seen in use and which gets, frankly, less than flattering reviews, instead of the iPhone, which I have seen in use and which gets a lot of positive reviews (with a few downsides mentioned on the side)?

I did end up getting an Eee PC preinstalled with Linux, but it was mostly on faith. I never saw it in use in person. I still don’t know in person anyone else who has it. I didn’t have an opportunity to try it out. All I could do was watch a few blurry YouTube videos and read hundreds of reviews and then take the plunge.

Do you care about marketshare or not?
A lot of Linux users claim not to care if Linux gets more users on desktops and laptops. Of course, these same users celebrate every time they find out more schools and governments have switched to Linux, or every time they see a Linux computer in a TV or movie, or every time Linux is given a good review in a relatively mainstream publication.

Do you care or not? If you don’t care about marketshare, then really don’t care. Don’t say you don’t care.

Stop overhyping desktop Linux
Along with the first point, people will blame frustrated users for not researching hardware compatibility or knowing about the limitations of Linux, but then they’ll keep linking to and posting blogs and articles that make it sound as if Ubuntu is the cure-all for Windows problems and that Ubuntu has no problems at all or migration difficulties.

Well, you can’t hype it on the front end and then say “Buyer beware” on the other end. If you’re going to say “I told you so” later, you actually have to tell someone so beforehand.

Free has to be worth something or nothing – make up your mind
I see a lot of Linux users say that there is a popular misconception that free means lesser in quality. The basic idea is that people are skeptical of free products, but we know free products can be of very high quality.

But if someone complains about Linux, then all of a sudden Linux users say “Why don’t you ask for refund?” or “It’s free. How can you complain about something that’s free?”

Where to go from here
Personally, I have non-mixed message stands on all of these issues, and, being as self-centered as I am, I think the Linux community should take similar stands and be consistent about the messages they send.

  • Windows is a legitimate choice. I don’t make that choice personally. I prefer Ubuntu to Windows. But if people are using Windows, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, and they are not necessarily sheep. They may use Windows-only programs, may actually prefer Windows, or may not have the inclination to try something new that may give them migration difficulties.
  • We do need real alternatives. Especially if you’re going to criticize people for using proprietary software, your open source software alternative has to be as good, as fun to use, and as polished as the proprietary software alternative. If it doesn’t provide the exact same functionality or better, don’t criticize others for not choosing your open source alternative.
  • Marketshare does matter. People who claim not to care about marketshare still benefit from increases in marketshare. If Linux gets used by more home users, more companies will support Linux, which means you have more software and hardware choices available to you.
  • Linux shouldn’t be overhyped. If you lower people’s expectations, they’ll most likely be pleasantly surprised. If you raise people’s expectations, they’ll most likely be disappointed and never want to try Linux again.
  • Never tell people to ask for a refund. Free software can be and often is the same quality or better than commercial alternatives. People can criticize free software just as much as they criticize nonfree or paid-for software. We do not want people to believe free software necessarily means lesser-quality software.