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)


  1. I think it has a lot to do with what you elude to in your last paragraph, but also that Windows has that critical mass among the masses. When there IS a problem, generally there are other people who can assist, even those with minimal power-user experience.

  2. You’re absolutely right, Neil.

    But when I see these rants on the Ubuntu Forums or in blog posts, it’s always the assertion that it’s because there are problems that Linux isn’t successful and not because Windows has a bigger in-person support infrastructure.

    The other day, I had someone (in person, not online) ask me about Linux. He said he was intrigued by Linux but a bit scared of it. I said if he’s scared he should find me or someone else he knows who can install Linux and set it up for him. He said he doesn’t know anyone who uses Linux except me.

    That pretty much sums it up.

    Much of Windows’ dominance comes from inertia and infrastructure. Want a Windows computer? The store will be selling it. Want Windows support? Someone you know may be able to help you, or any pay-for service will probably do Windows. Need a program or application? It probably has a Windows port.

    All of those are legitimate reasons people keep using Windows. I’m not denying any of that. But the total lie that Windows works well and has no problems and that that is why people use Windows instead of Linux just has to die.

  3. Well i must agree at the time of writing this i just have put a post http://sinurge.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/why-windows-still-leads-and-not-linux/ on this. I do consider what you say is right.

    What windows does and does amazingly well is some things and its like the 80:20 rule. for e.g my lan works. Thats one imp point if u claim this u got the online users on ur side. Which unless i purge nm from my pc is currently not possible.

    Am not a windows fan boy or a linux hater. Would like both to be great as they are in their own league.

  4. The Linux desktop isn’t ready for the masses, and anyone who says it is, is just fooling themselves. There won’t be a “Year of the Linux Desktop” for some time, unless we really buckle down, and quit treating it like hacker’s wet dream.

    I read http://linuxhaters.blogspot.com, not because I hate Linux (I don’t, I’m actually quite fond of it), but because the author understands what’s wrong with our beloved operating systems. That site is kind of like the kid coming to wedding party, uninvited, and spilling all the beans and dirt on the new couple, and any and all family members related to the newly weds. It sucks, but no one is doing anything about it, and until we quit turning a blind eye to it, we’ll never be ready for the masses, and that’s just the truth of it.

    There are several reasons we have less than 2% desktop market share. I just mentioned one of them.

  5. C’mon, in what way is this woman’s problems with her iPhone/iTunes a Windows problem? Is this apples or oranges?

  6. The Linux desktop isn’t ready for the masses, and anyone who says it is, is just fooling themselves.

    My point isn’t that Linux is ready for the masses. My point is that Windows and Mac aren’t either. “Readiness” is a red herring. There are many factors involved in what operating system people choose to use—”readiness” is not one of them.

    There won’t be a “Year of the Linux Desktop” for some time, unless we really buckle down, and quit treating it like hacker’s wet dream.

    Did I say there would be a year of the Linux desktop? I actually distinctly said there wouldn’t be: The Linux Desktop Myth

    C’mon, in what way is this woman’s problems with her iPhone/iTunes a Windows problem? Is this apples or oranges?

    This is again a double standard that Linux faces. So if someone had problems with her iPhone on Linux, people would say Linux has a problem, but since she has a problem with her iPhone on Windows… it’s Apple’s problem, I guess? Windows isn’t to blame? To most end users, blame and fault are irrelevant. They are either facing problems or they’re not. If they are facing problems, then they get frustrated. So the Amazon MP3 Installer (which I’ve had no problems with in Ubuntu and Mac OS X) is also not a Windows problem even though it occurred on Windows? Make up your mind. If this situation is to be blamed on Apple and Amazon, then every Linux problem is to be blamed on ATI, Nvidia, Lexmark, and Broadcom.

  7. “The Linux desktop isn’t ready for the masses, and anyone who says it is, is just fooling themselves.”

    Please don’t presume to speak for us. We are part of those “masses”, just average PC desktop users. We have been using Ubuntu exclusively since June 2008 and it works great – no problems and nothing we want to do that we can’t do. We take photos, listen to music, write books, speadsheets, websites, articles, upload to You Tube, edit Wikipedia, run discussion groups and thousands more things. No spyware, no viruses and all free of charge. Ubuntu works flawlessly on our desktops.

    In our house 2008 was “Year of the Linux Desktop”.

  8. I love Linux run it on all my servers and support it at work, enough that I am confused for a moment when VI commands don’t work in a web form but…

    HDMI? Graphics Drivers? Non standard resolutions?

    How about being able to legally play all multimedia formats and DVDs without breaking any laws in the country I live in?

    Or interfacing with my gadgets without too much bullshine, if at all…

    Granted these are really not technical limitations of Linux, but rather policol or business limitations. They are still barriers to my using it as a desktop.



  9. Very interesting site, and I’m actually trying to use this to recover files off a non starting Windows XP machine. After a lifetime of windows, from DOS, to Windows 3.0 to XP Pro (I skipped Vista, 7) I moved to a Mac 2 years ago and haven’t had any problems. I use it for work and home (same machine) for everything from casual internet browsing, to iphone, to Photoshop CS4, Illustrator, Lightroom (all those for work), the iWork system, iMovie, iDVD, etc.. and honestly, it does just work. I can’t tell you how much I hate the pain windows gives. Even after I stopped using windows, I had to troubleshoot my brother, girlfriend, parents. It never ended.

    Over the past year, they’ve all converted to macs, and I only hear from them asking “Hey, can I do _____”, or “How do I”, and I pop on a screenshare with iChat (which yes, just works), show them, they’re happy and that’s it.

    I know no OS is perfect, but for me, after 25 years of windows, OS X is nirvana.

  10. Hi, Up until recently computers were just another tool for me, I used them at work and at home always windows and I must have been one of the lucky ones I can not recall any real dramas along the way. I did not align myself in the windows camp, computers were just a tool something constantly evolving and improving and helping get the job done. I had heard of Linux it sounded interesting but I never had the time to learn about using it as a alternative to windows. I now have the time and have been using Ubuntu and Puppy mainly to learn and teach myself more about computers and OS’s. I use Ubuntu Forums and I am constantly surprised how passionate some Ubuntu user’s are in defence of a OS. Absolutely amazing. I like Linux and in particular Ubuntu and will continue to use both and computers are now more of a hobby for me. People crash motorbike’s and cars and people often are the real reason for their computers crashing.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *