Throwing down the gauntlet: Prove that Linux is not user-friendly

Jack Wallen tosses down the gauntlet in a challenge to ask readers to give legitimate reasons why Linux can or can not make it. Do you have what it takes to offer a sound reason why Linux is or is not user friendly?

I've been covering Linux and open source since 1999 and using Linux exclusively since around 1996. I'd say that earns me some credit - at least in certain circles. Through those years I've pretty much seen every trend, every success, and every failure. I've also evolved from and through every stage of Linux user. From blind fan-boy, to staunch advocate, to mentor, to guru (some would say), and everything in between. During said time I have tried very hard to remain PC and let the criticism just roll off my back. I have said some things only to retract them and held back certain opinions out of fear I might offend.

Not this time.

Recently I have had a lot of people comment (on this forum and other forums) that Linux isn't user friendly, that Linux will never make it to the average user's desktop, that "Windows rulez and Linux droolz". Among most of those detractors hardly a one will offer a solid reason to back up their statement. So this time I am throwing down the gauntlet of challenge to say "prove to me that Linux is not user friendly".

Of course, this must begin with a definition of user friendly. From my perspective, in order to be user friendly, an operating system must be usable. It must be such that any level of user could sit down and take care of the average daily tasks they are charged with without issue. It must have a graphical environment that is stable, pleasing to brain and eye, as well as be intuitive so those average daily tasks are made even simpler. But what are the average daily tasks? According to the Digest of Education Statistics, the average tasks (ranked in order) are:

  • Word processing
  • Connect to internet
  • Email
  • Spreadsheets/Databases
  • Graphics designs
  • School assignments
  • Household records/finances
  • Games

Notice Games is last. A good portion of people will proclaim the reason why Linux will not succeed is Games. Well that may be true for the gamer, but the gamer is not the average user. Gaming, in fact, ranks at the bottom of average tasks done on a computer. Of course the study does not discern or define what Games is. Games could be Solitaire or World Of Warcraft. Either way, Games alone does not a user friendly operating system make. Now, judging from that study let's see which of the above can Linux do:

  • Word processing: OpenOffice handles this, so check.
  • Connect to internet: How many browsers does Linux have? At last count I have eight installed on my machine and that doesn't include all of them. So another check.
  • Email: Another big check thanks to Evolution, Claws-Mail, Thunderbird, etc.
  • Spreadsheets/Databases: OpenOffice Calc and Base or MySQL suit your fancy for a big check here.
  • School assignments: Seeing as how most of these are done via word processing...check.
  • Household records/finances: GnuCash is just as powerful as Quicken, so check.
  • Games: Linux has plenty of games and, thanks to Cedega, it can even play Windows games...check and check.

So...Linux can handle the tasks of average users in a user-friendly way.

But let's examine something else that has ruffled my feathers on a number of occasions. Over the last five years Linux has consistently grown more than any other operating system. It seems to me that the majority of detractors haven't used Linux since the kernel turned 2.6. I hear such exclamations as, "You have to write your own device drivers!" In over 12 years of usage I have never had to write my own device drivers...not even back in the days of Red Hat 4 and Caldera Open LInux 1! That's pure ignorance speaking. If you've not used a recent distribution release, you are missing out on a LOT of evolution and growth. Let's take a look at some of the examples:

Folder sharing: In recent releases, both GNOME and KDE have evolved in such a way that file/folder sharing has become even more simple than it is in either Windows or OS X. No more editing of Samba configuration files, no more having to manually install and run Samba...period. It all is just there and it all just works. USB: The USB sub-system on Linux has become incredibly user-friendly...on par or exceeding Windows and OS X. You think this to not even be a factor when considering user-friendliness, but not 5 or so years ago Linux users had to manually mount and unmount USB devices. I remember well those days and am glad they are a thing of the past. Graphics: Linux has taken huge strides forward in this area. Gone is the need to edit an xorg.conf file. Linux now just recognizes your hardware and uses it. On occasion you might have to install a proprietary driver in order to get the most out of your hardware, but generally speaking, it works amazingly well. Printing: Take a look at Fedora 13 to see how well Linux handles printing now. Windows doesn't hold a candle to what Linux can do with printing. And that older printer that you love that Windows 7 doesn't support? Linux will continue to support it. (NOTE: I ran into an irate client this past week because we migrated them to Windows 7 only to find out their favorite multi-function laser printer wouldn't work under Windows 7. That same printer works fine in Linux.) Applications: Pound for pound, Linux is on par with both Windows and OS X with most every category of application. The only glaring category that Linux has yet to catch up on is games (but Cedega helps Linux out there). Current iterations of OpenOffice are far more user-friendly than MS Office (thanks to MS Office adopting that ridiculous ribbon interface). Evolution practically mimics Outlook (minus those pesky PST files that hinder more than help Outlook's functionality).

This list could go on and on.

On a daily basis, I work with both Windows and Linux. I have to know how both work and how to fix them when they don't. Thing is, Linux never breaks. Linux gets deployed and we never hear about it again. Windows, on the other hand, is a daily struggle to keep running due to virus/malware infections, printing issues, disconnected mapped drives, VPN problems, and more.

I ask you - how is that user-friendly? How is a constant battle with viruses and malware user friendly? When the user spends more time cleaning and disinfecting than they do working that user is not being productive. When the company is spending more money keeping a machine running than they spent on the machine itself - that is not user friendly.

So tell me, all you who would proclaim that Linux will never succeed on the desktop, what is it about Linux that makes you think it is not user friendly? And exactly why do you think Linux can not make it on the desktop of the average American citizen (we have to discount the majority of the world because many of those are already using Linux on their desktop)? And I do not want to hear cries of "Market share!" because that is simply not an answer to the question.

Here's what I want: I want to hear intelligent, legitimate reasons why you think Linux can or can not make it on the average user's desktop and what is it about Linux that is NOT user friendly.

NOTE: In order to answer the above questions you MUST have used a distribution of Linux that has been released in the last year. Anything prior to that is like saying Windows is a horrible operating system and your only basis of comparison is  Windows 98.

Here's your chance people. Lay it down. Tell the readers exactly why Linux can or can not make it. The gauntlet has been thrown down....bring it!

By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....