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.


  1. 1) Windows is a legitimate choice. It’s also a bad one, at least for a nice percentage of its users (although I do acknowledge the need for Windows or OS X for many others). I won’t make fun of the Windows users I’m trying to actively promote to, but I think it’s fine to make fun of the OS itself. Just in the same way I respect other people’s political ideas as valid, but I don’t necessarily consider them good.

    2) There are tons of DRM-free pop music in online MP3 stores like Amazon and the like. It’s not just Jamendo, and nobody (not even RMS or the FSF) considers that there’s a moral imperative to only consume freely-licensed artistic works.

    As for Canonical becoming an OEM, that’s up to sabdfl. I think it’d be a wrong idea because OEMs have a tiny profit margin, but then again it’s not my company. In any case, even if they did start selling Ubuntu boxes I could still choose to build my own.

    3) Marketshare does matter, indeed. I think a 10% share of the laptop/desktop market would be a big triumph for Linux, and would make hardware compatibility even better than it already is. Netbooks will probably be key in this.

  2. “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)?”

    As a programmer, I might say “Freedom.” But I’m not a programmer. As an alleged paranoiac, I might say privacy, because it’s proposed that the qtopia phones should have full encrypted filesystems and voice encryption. Nothing has materialized yet, but I’m hoping.

    One thing I noticed about linux users is that they seem to go through a “zealotry phase” for a few months, or as much as a year, before they settle down. Once they settle down, they (we) tend to feel just-a-little smug about being different from everyone else, or, for a more technical user, about using something that fits his needs rather than something made to fit everybody’s needs – because even though Ubuntu is trying to be “for the people,” and doing pretty well, it’s still good for the pgorammers and privacy buffs.

  3. Nice post.
    I’ve been using Ubuntu as my primary OS for 3 months. I have used it on occasion for ~5 years.
    It is a very nice OS. In fact, I think it’s more attractive than XP. It’s solid in my opinion.
    On the other hand, I would like better hardware support, e.g. hard drive pausing when I move my laptop for example. (I’m familiar with what’s out there and available to do this, by the way.)
    Does Ubuntu fit my needs? For the most part, yes. But, where is my legal DVD player? Fluendo’s working on one that should be released (hopefully) before the end of the year. It is 2008, by the way.
    For the short term, I think Linux will be used by some home users and used as servers for businesses. Until we see more folks come over to writing proprietary versions of their Windows applications, it’ll be mostly a hobby for lot’s of folks. Even Mac has this problem. Many, many applications aren’t available for the Mac as they are for Windows. Since Mac is based on BSD, it would seem like a good idea for any company writing programs for the Mac to make it easy to port to Linux.
    At the end of the day, can you do what you want to do? For me the answer is ‘no’. I can do more in Windows. But, I enjoy using Ubuntu so I use Ubuntu.

  4. I find it odd how incredibly naive about the wider world the FOSS world can be. Things like selling guaranteed workable Ubuntu hardware would be a perfect move for the likes of Canonical considering it’s position with Ubuntu as Linux for human beings, and what better way to make it simpler than to take a fair dosage of the uncertainty out by selling working hardware with it.

    I talked about the whole “It’s fee, you can’t complain” thing on my own blog. It’s an incredibly lame excuse and get out for when something doesn’t work that shills any responsibility you have as soon as someone uses and relies on your software, and kind of goes against all the ideals you get told of it being a community, and just ends up being a place where excuses get passed around for everything that’s broken to the point the community breaks down and the whole model goes to shit.

  5. (Skip to #5 if you want the interesting comment.)

    1) “Windows is a legitimate choice.” Windows may be needed to run all that software you need for your job, but… the OS itself is unnecessary. Frankly, I’m waiting for Microsoft to port MS Office to Linux, say “We won’t make a Windows 8”, and everybody jump on the POSIX-compatible bandwagon.

    2) “We do need real alternatives.” Thank god for the Amazon MP3 Store, eh? (Too bad America’s stupid copyright laws make it illegal to watch you’re own movies.) And I readily admit there are no Linux alternatives to a lot of professional CADD, graphics, and movie editing applications out there.

    3) “Marketshare does matter.” Sure, I’d enjoy better hardware compatibility. As long as a massive shift in user base from power users to Joe ignorant users doesn’t result in all my favorite software being castrated for “simplicity”.

    4) “Linux shouldn’t be overhyped.” I couldn’t agree more. But the occasionally sly, “Bummer, you had to reboot your computer because Microsoft forced you to install an update while you were working? Funny, that never happens on my Linux box” doesn’t hurt. ;-)

    5)”Never tell people to ask for a refund.” Perhaps because I’m a hobbiest programmer, who plans on making a splash with some open source programs of his own, I feel more along the spirit of “This software is provided AS IS without any guarantee it will make you happy.” When you buy something, there is a somewhat implicit understanding that it will work, or you’ll get your money back. That is, by buying the software, you are entitled to a program that fits your needs. People who download free software have no such entitlement. Now I have no problem with people complaining about software libre; in fact, I prefer it if people do so, preferably in the form of a bug report or a feature request. However, a lot of what I see are users who are spoiled by the high quality of a lot of open source software, and get the delusion they have a RIGHT to high quality free software. YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO GET HIGH QUALITY FREE SOFTWARE. You can *ask* for bugs to be fixed, but you can’t *demand* for them to be fixed. The developers and the community work as a team to create the software THEY want… if it’s not what you want, you can curse your luck, but you’ve got no case to demand the developers cater to you. Now most of the time, the developers are people who care about their users, and may be interested in helping you by fixing a bug or adding features you’d like, but only if you approach in a polite manner.

    The best example I can think of this is the hate mail Aaron Seigo got when KDE switched to a SUSE-like default menu in KDE 4.0, and the when support for desktop icons was dropped in favor of FolderView widgets in KDE 4.1. Issuing personal insults to developers, or dissing a piece of software without trying to understand it are inappropriate. They had no right to be rude or demand certain changes to the code of KDE. When “users” become “abusers” it is fair to remind those people the software is free, take it or leave it, and if you’re going to be nasty about it, please do leave it.

    (Now, certainly there are open source programs such as the Linux kernel, that are developed by paid professionals, and companies may have a case in demanding a certain experience from software that they have paid for the development of, but most users who flame about open source can’t say they’ve donated to a project or paid directly for it’s development.)

    “One thing I noticed about linux users is that they seem to go through a “zealotry phase” for a few months, or as much as a year, before they settle down. Once they settle down, they (we) tend to feel just-a-little smug about being different from everyone else”

    Wow – that describes me perfectly. I didn’t know that was the norm (given the rabid Linux fan-boys on Digg.)

    As for Canonical selling hardware – that is a purely economic choice. Personally, I doubt that would be as profitable as simply making deals with Dell, HP and Asus directly. I think I’ve rambled long enough.

  6. You’re certainly correct that people shouldn’t feel entitled to demand changes, but nor should “Why don’t you ask for a refund?” be the standard response to every complaint or criticism.

  7. I just installed Linux for the first time on one of my laptops. I am fairly experienced with computers in general, but there is a distinct gap between “Just Starting” and “Linux Expert” that people seem to expect you to bridge before you are worth talking to.

    If we want to increase Linux marketshare, we are going to have to write articles, scripts, and give help to people to load the things they want to use. No one owns a computer for the operating system. There’s little more useless than loading Linux and then realizing that your favorite applications will not run under it. Point? The choice of OS should be immaterial – it’s the choice of APPLICATIONS that people care about.

    Microsoft and HP forced me to go to Linux, and I hope this trend will continue. HP sold me a laptop and attempted to prevent me from taking Vista and their adware off. If I had been able to install Win2000 on it, I would not be writing this today. However, I’m stubborn and no bastard is going to tell me what I HAVE to use and make me accept it. I may have used Windoze for years, but I have never been a sheep.

  8. About the legal issues on playing CSS protected DVD’s in some countries… Well, bear with my shameless plug but as I just yesterday wrote quite long blog rant about the issue I would rather give a link to my blog post than write a couple lines here.

    Basically I’ll go through several claims, issues and try to explain why (in my opinion!) any laws banning using stuff like libdvdcss or DeCSS for *viewing* a legally purchased DVD should not be recognized as a “real law” by anybody. The software is out there and unless you do like me and tell in public websites that you are going to use them the law is one that cant be enforced on you. But make your own opinion, please :) So here:

    Watching legal DVD’s on Linux claimed illegal:

  9. I posted the link to my website article which makes many of the same points you do. There is something just.. wrong about the whole vibe I get from the Ubuntu community and message that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

    Part of it is exemplified by the nastiness and almost-religious nature of the Ubuntu faithful.
    Another part of it is the mixed messages that newcomers get. Is Ubuntu supposed to be better than Windows or is it not? If it is, then why don’t simple things work? If it’s not, then why was I led to believe that it was? Am I supposed to have to learn how to use Linux, or are things supposed to just “work”? The last question is probably the most important one because that really is the basis of your philosophy.

    Very good post and my username is “airjaw” on ubuntuforums btw. I came here due to your reply to my post.

  10. Hi aysiu,

    I see your points and pretty much agree on all of them.

    One thing about alternative software:

    On the Ubunu forums a lot of people don’t know about some of the open source alternatives to the windows programs they are using.

    Take utorrent. A lot of newcomers try to run that using Wine. I always suggest they at least try transmission or deluge (ktorrent) before they resort to Wine.

    But I know what you mean.

    Nice write up.

  11. There are reasons for the mixed views. Windows may be a valid choice, but the vast majority of Windows users never actually made that choice. Nearly all home PCs on the market today still ship with Windows and a great many consumers are still oblivious that other operating systems exist. Once in a while such people discover Linux; telling these people to go back to Windows, although rude, is often much easier than retraining their entire way of thinking about computers.

    Maybe I’m a dreamer; maybe I’m just a thief, but when people ask me about free alternatives I instruct them in the art of digital piracy. I have reasons for this that I feel are quite legitimate: 1. Media and software companies have been sucking the blood out of their customers for years. 2. The copyright + commercial licensing system cannot be used to protect data; it simply doesn’t work because someone will always find a way to crack, decrypt, decompile, and reproduce whatever proprietary material becomes available online. I believe this system must and will change in the near future, besides there are plenty of people maintaining copyrights with open licenses and making a name for themselves if not a profit and there will always be other ways to make money.

    You are right about alternatives though, and also about market share. We need to offer free alternatives that can beat their commercial competition. Market share is everything, and Window’s market share is launchpad bug #1.

    As for over-hyping Linux (by which I mean GNU/Linux based operating systems), I often tell people that it has come a long way and can do anything you can imagine a computer doing, often faster and with better security and more responsive support than Windows… because that’s all true. I also warn people that switching over your whole operating system is not for the feint of heart and you can expect a frustrating transition, because that is also true. Indeed, there are still a few million bugs out there, but that’s not any more than Windows and there’s a heck of a lot more chance whatever bug you have in some Linux package will get reported, triaged, worked around, patched, and fixed within a reasonable time. Is that too much hype?

    Telling people to get a refund is funny! J/K

  12. I also warn people that switching over your whole operating system is not for the feint of heart and you can expect a frustrating transition, because that is also true.

    In that case, it doesn’t sound to me as if you’re sending mixed messages at all. My issue is with people who practically beg Windows users to use Linux, hype up Linux to be this amazing thing and, in fact, ridicule as sheep those who stick with Windows; and the minute a potential migrant to Linux complains about any difficulty, these same people (not you) are the first to say “Hey, you don’t like it? Go use Windows!”

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