Open Source

10 ways to help users transition to Linux

There's no reason why switching to Linux should be traumatic for your users (or stressful for you). As Jack Wallen explains, you can set them up to succeed if you approach things the right way.

There's no reason why switching to Linux should be traumatic for your users (or stressful for you). As Jack Wallen explains, you can set them up to succeed if you approach things the right way.

Sheer economics are driving the increasingly widespread usage of the Linux operating system. It's free, it's reliable, it's safe, and (did I mention?) it's free! But when adopting a new operating system, there is always a learning curve for the user base. Not only that, many users think Linux is hard to use. This, of course, is not necessarily so. But it's your job to overcome their reluctance and to train them to use Linux so that it becomes second-nature to them, as Windows is. Without sending your users to some sort of boot camp, this may seem like a rather daunting task. But there are ways to ease the pain of learning Linux. Let's examine some of them.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

1: Standardize on a Windows-like desktop

Home is where the heart is, and this applies to the computer desktop as well. There are plenty of Linux desktops to choose from, and the one you select can make or break your users' Linux learning experience. If your users are PC un-savvy and have used only Windows, make sure you stick with KDE or Xfce. You could even use a modified GNOME to look and act exactly like the Windows desktop. Take this even further by modifying the default start menu of either GNOME or KDE to parallel the Windows Start menu. Now when your users sit down to their Linux desktop, they won't feel as if they are working in a foreign environment.

2: Get users familiar with applications before you switch

Before you migrate your users from Windows to Linux, get them familiar with applications. Because some of the most often used applications are cross platform, you can start them on the applications while working in their familiar environment. For example, you can start them on OpenOffice and Firefox while they're using Windows. Because they will be doing the majority of their work in these two applications, by the time they get to Linux they will already have some level of familiarity. There is also a port of Evolution (the Linux version of Outlook) for Windows. If your users use Outlook for e-mail/calendaring, this could be a positive step toward Linux education.

3: Choose the right distribution

Why would you choose Slackware as the distribution for new users? You wouldn't. Slackware is not a distribution aimed at ease of use. But plenty of distributions are available for the new user. Ubuntu tops the class for ease of use. But Ubuntu is not alone in this category. PCLinuxOS, Mepis, Linux Mint, and Mandriva are all outstanding distributions for the new user. This issue, of course, is heatedly debated. Everyone seems to want their distribution to be the distro-of-choice for new users. Suffice it to say there are plenty of Linux flavors for the new user.

4: Have a machine up and running for your users to play around with

Instead of pulling the rug out from under your users, have a machine available for them to experiment with. Set up this machine exactly as their desktops will look so they can see, first hand, that their future PC will be as easy, if not easier, than what they are currently using. You can take this one step further and install a virtual machine on their Windows PC to allow them to play with Linux while at their desktop. This has the added benefit that if they fubar the install (chances are slim to none, of course), it's no problem to get it back because it's being run in a VM. Even better, but much more time consuming, is to set their machine up to dual boot. With a dual-boot setup, they can go back and forth until they are comfortable with Linux.

5: Remove administrative menu entries

For the new user, seeing Samba, Network, SELinux, User administration, and other related administration tools in the menu can only serve to confuse them. Sure, a control panel is fine (such as the Gnome Control Panel). But having high-level menu entries will serve no purpose outside of tempting fate. Limit the menu entries to user-specific tasks. When you're training a new user, you do not want to have to spend the extra time to teach them how to configure SELinux or use gparted (or constantly tell them they don't need to bother learning that particular tool).

6: Adopt adept

Adept, and other simple update and installation tools, are key to keeping users happily computing. One of the biggest problems with new users and Linux occurs when they're confronted with installing applications. You don't want to have to teach a new user the ins and outs of apt-get or rpm, as these are tools best suited for users who know what they're doing. Having a user-friendly graphical front end for application installation is far easier to learn. This is much simpler to do on a Ubuntu-like distribution. Because Ubuntu uses sudo, you don't have to worry about teaching users what the root user is. Instead, you can just explain that they will have to enter their "user password." This is more in line with using OS X than Windows, but it is much easier to teach than having to go through root privileges. Besides, your users don't need to have access to the root user anyway.

7: Offer printed materials

Before I go into this, a word of warning: Do not ever tell your new users to RTFM. That will not get you very far in educating users on Linux. But you do need to have printed material for users to keep with them. This material should not be generic Linux information but information specific to what they're using. If your users have KDE 3.5 on their desktops, do not give them handouts that refer to KDE 3.4, KDE 4.1, or even KDE 3.x. On top of that, make sure your information includes specific references to the menu entries they see in front of them. This may require you create your own documentation or edit documentation already available. But never give your new users a printout of a man page. For old hat Linux users, a man page says a lot. For new users, you might as well hand them a printout in Martian, because they'll get nothing out of it. Along those same lines, make sure the documentation has plenty of pictures, with solid examples of what they're looking for.

8: Take screen casts of more difficult tasks

I can think of one specific task where a screen cast will help more than any printed image. When your new Linux users have to open a file, they're going to be presented with their home directory. You can't tell new users to navigate to their ~/Documents directory. And telling them to navigate to /home/USERNAME/Documents goes back to the Martian reference. Instead, capture a screen cast of you navigating to the ~/Documents directory to show them exactly what they need to do. Of course, you will have to tell them that they won't be looking for /home/jlwallen/Documents unless their username happens to be jlwallen. Make sure they know what their username is, so they know where to go. Showing new users how to navigate around their ~/ directory will go a long way toward increasing their competence and will keep you from constantly having to remind them where they have saved their documents.

9: Encourage the use of Linux-based forums and mailing lists

There will be times when you aren't available for help or training. When this happens, and your users have problems, it will be helpful if they know how to turn to a KDE user list, a GNOME user list, or a new Linux user list for support. If you do suggest this to them, make sure they're informed of the etiquette for these lists. Nothing is more discouraging than getting flamed by a troll on a list. If your new users find themselves caught in the cross hairs of a forum or list troll, make sure they know the best way to handle the situation (which is not to reply at all.) Here are three good mailing lists for your users:

10: Have an installfest

Work with me on this one. Offer to your braver users your services in installing Linux on their home PCs. Make sure they know the benefits of using Linux at home (security, reliability, free software, etc.). When your users have the same setup at home, they're going to become familiar with Linux much faster. Granted, this isn't going to be as easy in a large-scale setting. But for those of you in a smaller business setting, this could be a valid option to help your users gain familiarity with the operating system.

Painless transition

This list leaves out the professional training centers or online training in lieu of keeping all training in-house. And of course, every company handles training differently. But if you implement some these ideas, your new Linux users will be able to make the transition without having a nervous breakdown.


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website

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