New desktop users can make plenty of mistakes (as can anyone). But knowing which mistakes to avoid, from the start, helps prevent a LOT of frustration. I've handled the topic of mistakes new Linux admins make, but never those of desktop users. Here are some of the most common Linux desktop mistakes I see new users make.
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1: Assuming they are using Windows
Although this might seem way too obvious, it's not. The average user has no idea there are even different operating systems to be had. In fact, most average users couldn't discern Windows XP from Vista from 7 (unless they are certain Windows 7 was "their idea"). Because of this, new users might believe that everything works (or doesn't work, as the case may be) as it does in Windows. Make your end users aware that they are using a different operating system — and that it works differently.
2: Trying to make exe files work
Unless you have done your homework and installed WINE, double-clicking those .exe files simply won't do anything. And when that happens, your end users are going to be upset. I have seen many an end user download an app made for Windows assuming that it will work for Linux. Make it clear to users that Linux, like Windows, will only run applications made for that operating system. This, of course, is tossed out the window when WINE is involved. But new users won't be using WINE anyway.
3: Choosing the wrong distribution
One of the biggest problems for users is choosing the wrong distribution. Imagine being a new user and selecting Gentoo or Slackware or Fedora! Yes those are all good distributions, but any of them would send a new user running away in fear. If you are in the initial stages of helping a new user out, do yourselves both a favor and choose the distribution carefully. Consider the user's ability, needs, and hardware before you make that selection. Don't just jump on board Ubuntu because everyone says you should. A lot of distributions out there are made specifically for new users. Give them all a close examination before making the choice.
4: Not finding software
Because so many new Linux users are migrating from Windows, they think software can be had from the same channels. Most of the time, this is not the case. The new user needs to become familiar with their package management tools right away - especially tools like Synaptic, Packagekit, and Ubuntu Software Center. Each of those tools is a mecca of software where users can most likely find all the applications they need.
5: Sending OpenOffice documents to Microsoft Office users in the default format
I see this so often. New Linux users are proud of the strides they have made but dumbfounded (and sometimes turned back to Windows) because the people they share files with can't read their formats. Remember, Microsoft products are not good at getting along with other operating systems and other applications. Make sure your new users are saving in file formats that are readable by the Microsoft equivalents.
6: Avoiding the command line
I can't, for the life of me, figure out why people completely avoid the command line as if it is the most complex tool there is. I know people who can work absolute magic with Photoshop but can't seem to type a simple rm command at the command line. Why this is I will never know. New users shouldn't shy away from the command line. Knowing the command line isn't essential anymore, but it will make them more capable users.
7: Giving up too quickly
Here's another issue I see all too often. After a few hours (or a couple of days) working with Linux, new users will give up for one reason or another. I understand giving up when they realize something simply doesn't work (such as when they MUST use a proprietary application or file format). But seeing Linux not work under average demands is rare these days. If you see new Linux users getting frustrated, try to give them a little extra guidance. Sometimes getting over that initial hump is the biggest challenge they will face.
8: Thinking the Windows directory hierarchy translates to Linux
There is no C:\ in Linux. Nor do you use the "\" character. Nor should you use spaces in filenames. These are common mistakes new users make. Trying to map out Windows to Linux, directory for directory, is impossible. You can get as far as C:\ = / and maybe Default User = ~/, but beyond that you're out of luck. Make sure new users understand that everything starts at / and their most important directory is their home directory (aka ~/ aka /home/USERNAME/).
9: Skipping updates
I have been burned with Windows updates many times. Need I bother mentioning the update from Explorer 7 to Explorer 8? Very rarely has a Linux update fubar'd a system of mine. In fact, I can't remember the last time it has. So I am always up to date on my systems... and with good reason. Those updates bring new security patches and features to software and should be applied. Having an installation with a security hole is not what your users need, especially on a machine that houses important information.
10: Logging in as root
I really shouldn't have to say this. But just in case, be sure to tell your users DON'T LOG IN AS ROOT! But... just in case they must... DON'T LOG IN AS ROOT! Instead, have them open up a terminal window and either "su" to root or use "sudo". And just in case you didn't hear me the first time, DON'T LOG IN AS ROOT!
11: Losing windows to the pager
The pager is one of the handiest features of the Linux desktops. But over and over, I've seen that new users don't quite understand what the pager is for and what it does. Because of this, they will "lose" their windows from the desktop. Where did it go? It was there a moment ago! I guess it crashed. No. More than likely, they moved it to another desktop. Another desktop? You see where this is going? Help the new user understand what the pager is and how useful it can be.
12: Ignoring security because it's Linux
A big part of me still wants to boast and say, "In the 12 years I have used Linux, I have never once had a virus or worm or been hacked." Although that is true, it doesn't mean I should ignore security. I have witnessed the effects of a rootkit on a Linux machine. They aren't pretty and data will be lost. Tell your users that they can't ignore security just because they're using Linux. Security is crucial, regardless of the OS.
We have all fallen victim to these types of mistakes at one point or another. But you can avoid them, and you can help other new users avoid them as well. Let's all help to make Linux a better experience! If you've encountered other big Linux mistakes, share them with other TechRepublic members.
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.