Open Source

Linux from the eyes of a newbie girl, part 1: First impressions

To help IT professionals understand the fears of new users, Jack Wallen persuaded his fiancee to learn Linux and to write about her experiences. In this first part of a series, Natalee McClure gives you her first impressions of the Linux world.

As the editor in chief of Linux content for TechRepublic, I’m supposed to cover every aspect of Linux, including training. Training users on computers isn’t an easy task. Where patience is a virtue, understanding should be a mantra! But many IT professionals fail to be either patient or understanding. Understanding the anxieties of new users may help you become a more effective IT professional. Therefore, I’ve conducted the following experiment:
I took an innocent victim (in this case, it was my fiancé—call me brave), set her down in front of a Linux machine in order to teach her how to use it, and told her to document her ordeal. Has my experiment succeeded? Well, the answer depends on what you take away from this series. I hope that it will give you some insight into the fears that users experience when they learn something new and that it will cause you to be more understanding the next time you train a new user. So, sit back and listen to someone who’s trying to learn Linux.
I know that I'm supposed to begin by introducing myself, but I think that a disclaimer is in order—or maybe a small demonstration. Take the thumb and forefinger of your right hand, and place the tips about an inch apart. That's how much I know about computers. And what knowledge I do have is Windows-based. (It's not my fault! I studied in the labs of the University of Louisville.)

Now then, my name is Natalee, and I am Jack Wallen Jr's fiancé. Ironically, we met in one of the aforementioned computer labs. He worked there, but he only used the machines for his C++ homework. Now, I use his Linux arsenal/home computer every day, and each day, I have to call him at work and ask him questions that make me feel ignorant. For instance, I’ve had to ask, “How do I save a document to disk?” And I’ve had to ask, “How can I download an attachment when there's no OK button?” Then, when he answers without hesitation and the words sound foreign to me (like “mounting the disk”), I get frustrated and start cursing the Linux Revolution. Usually, I slam down the phone and turn on my trusty old laptop, which is equipped with Windows 98, as I angrily mutter blasphemies about penguins and red hats.

Recently, Jack approached me with this idea. He said that he was looking for a female voice for Linux—not just a female who already knew the operating system and liked it, but an inexperienced, unbiased soul who would learn it and keep a journal about her learning experience. Would I be interested, he asked.

Of course, unbiased might be stretching it. Inexperienced? That's certainly me. And I was interested. I was interested in finding out what was behind all of the hype, why so many people think that open-source is the best way (because it seemed socialistic to me), and what it is about Linux that causes millions of users to overlook its apparent inconveniences. Most of all, I wanted to be able to get through one day at the computer without having to call Jack.

Day 1: The interface and simple navigation
I'm writing this journal entry on my laptop, and I’m using Microsoft Word. How scandalous is that? But the experiment takes place on another laptop—one of Jack's extras in case I break something. Or in case I just get frustrated and throw it against the wall. Today, I'll attempt to use Caldera 2.4.

First impressions
I turned on the computer and let it boot up. Eventually, I was confronted with a login screen, just like in Windows. One difference that I noticed was the Session Type drop-down menu. I have no idea what it means, but I left it at kde, as Mr. Wallen instructed. After typing my username and password, I clicked Go. As I had hoped, a familiar screen appeared: the standard blue-green background with several icons scattered around the left side. So far so good, I thought.

At the bottom of this screen, however, I didn’t see the usual Start button. Instead, there were all kinds of strange options. Fortunately, when I placed the cursor (which looked like a big black X and reminded me of Frogger) over them, a short description popped up—except when I moved the cursor over an odd-looking K next to an arrow that pointed up. Out of curiosity, I clicked the K, and I discovered that this letter was the Linux equivalent of Start. There were normal categories, such as games, office tools, settings, and utilities. Subcategories or submenus, which were indicated by the customary arrowheads, appeared when I placed the cursor over the main categories. In other words, the startup menu was self-explanatory and basically self-navigable. Now, I tackled today’s objectives.

Objectives met?
First, I was supposed to figure out how to open a console. I didn't even know what a console was, but I looked through the start menu and found it. Then, I discovered that it was spelled with a k! (How kool!) I realized that it was a command-line screen. (Why not call it that?). Anyway, I breathed a sigh of relief. Next, I wanted to move around the directories and try to create one—not by using the file manager, which is supposed to be similar to Windows Explorer, but manually. I wanted to wow all of my engineering friends.

Since the e-mail that I use at school is UNIX-based, I had a vague idea about the commands that I would need. I still referred to the Caldera user manual, anyway. The first few chapters were useless to me. They contained information about installation and reconfiguration. However, there was an entire chapter (Chapter 7) that was devoted to command-line operations. It was mapped out so that even computer idiots (like me) could understand it. For example, within the section entitled Basic Operations, I found the subheading Navigation Commands.
While I’m talking about the console, I’m going to admit that I didn't like the fact that the cursor didn't blink. I kept thinking that the screen was frozen.
I decided to try to create a directory first. Then, I’d work on moving them around. I cheated a little; I tried mkdir, a command that I had learned at school. It creates directories that store old e-mail. To my delight, it worked! Unable to control my glee, I dance around the room like Cartman and chanted, “I did something ri-ight, I did something ri-ight!” But then, I sat back down. Now what? I consulted the manual.

Changing from one directory to another was simple enough, but I must confess that I still don't understand the whole directory tree concept. Right now, all I know is that it's a method of organizing something. (I don't know what yet.) At any rate, the manual clearly explained the how-tos of navigation, and I've become quite adept at listing and changing directories, typing ls (to list contents) and cd (to change directories). With a dot here and a slash there, I can move from one directory to any other. To another novice, I may look like I know what I'm doing.

Day 2: File manipulation
Today, my task was to figure out how to create, delete, copy, and move files. Yes, it did take me all day to figure that out.

Frustration sets in
Let me begin by saying that it's a good thing Day 1 ended on a positive note because today I was completely frustrated. I should have known what a file was, but I didn't. What I mean is this: In word processing, I knew that documents are files, and in programs like Paintshop Pro, pictures are files. I also knew how to attach documents and pictures to e-mail messages. I knew how to use the ls command to list the files in a directory. I even knew that I had to add -a to find hidden files. But I didn't know how to create a file from the console. I didn't even know what it was I was supposed to create.

I searched the manual for an hour. Then, I finally came across a section about text-file readers and editors. This section contained an example of how a test file is created. Following this example, I came up with a new file, which I named blue. I created this file in my home directory by typing vi blue at the initial command line. Then, to edit the file, I had to enter input mode by pressing [Esc] and [i]. In this mode, I could enter and delete text as usual. Pressing [Esc] returned me to command mode. Of course, there were directions for saving the file and exiting the editor—but only in the manual. I never would have figured out how to perform these tasks otherwise. I'm proud (I guess) to have completed this task, but I still think that it was an irksome and pointless chore for a new user.

To copy, delete, and move files, I referred to the File Manipulation section of Chapter 7. The basic syntax of the commands was incredibly simple. I practiced elementary manipulation. I copied and moved the blue file to the jlove directory (which I created yesterday). Using mv, I changed the file’s name from blue to ghost, but when I tried to move the file back home and rename it, I got caught in a circle of slashes and spaces. Finally, I got so annoyed that I deleted everything with the rm command. (At least I learned that useful command!)

So, what did I learn during the past two days? Other than realizing that I know very little about computers, I’ve learned that I can indeed learn how to use them—even Linux! This experiment might turn out to be productive after all…. Well, that's enough self-degradation for me this week. Next time, I'll tackle (and be tackled by) the graphical aspect of Linux, and I’ll start using floppy disks and the CD-ROM.

Natalee McClure has been exposed to Linux (by association) for about a year. Currently, she lives in Louisville, KY, where she’s enrolled in the Brandeis School of Law. Eventually, she hopes to usurp Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State.

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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