Big Deal of a Big Challenge

Mark Shuttleworth has been laying out the challenges that we , the community called open, need to overcome to make a ubiquitous desktop of Linux. I first listened to this, or a variation of it, talk at Lugradio Live 2006. It was an inspiring presentation because it crystallised many of the core themes which I have been tackling with Small and Medium sized business owners over the last 10 years. Ive been promoting and discussing free and open source software at every small business expo and meeting I can attend in that time. From the Federation of Small Business to the new Microbiz fairs I have taken the opportunity to just people informed about open source alternatives to the closed and costly lack of choices people feel they have. Whilst the Server environment has been a “no brainer” to quote Eddie Bleasdale the desktop has always proven more intangible in defining how to gain traction in the hearts and minds of potential users. Ubuntu is now changing that landscape one desktop at a time, however there still remain barriers to acceptance and a few of them are more to do with the community than the software they represent. In talking to many computer users at business breakfast, lunch or dinners it is clear that the perception of operating systems is that there is no choice. Outside of the lack of support discussed by qualified IT managers the real concern for lack of support is the support of end users for non brand systems. End users dont want to feel they are using something other than the established brand they have come to expect. Managing the emotional attachment that people have to the Windows brand is one of the hurdles in pervasive support. I have seen users dismiss and negatively react to open source software simply because its not the “expected” or “wanted” product. Their frustration is similar to that of a individual who feels that they are unable to access the fashionably acceptable choices of their peers. In their minds there is one choice because its all they have seen and the only thing that everyone uses. Every user is convinced that things only work well and they will feel happiness if everything is the same and similar and associated with one brand. A stunning piece of marketing by Microsoft which we need to reverse if we are to encourage people to feel that open source can be a pervasive and positive experience. There needs to be a way of getting the Open Source brand as clearly into the minds of possible consumers in the same was that Dominos does for Pizza and Screwfix manages for DIY. Window stickers that clearly say “Ubuntu , Linux for Human Beings” and LiveCDs in every hotel room and foyer along with letters written to local news papers asking where the Open Source alternatives in Councils. This in turn should make more people ask their own support network about Linux. As new users , especially those who could provide support or enthusiasm , arrive its becoming more important to be forgiving of their etiquette faux pauxs. To reduce our own expectations of their abilities to enable them to contribute and get involved without requiring a skill level by which they become accepted within the community. Many of those arriving are likely to be the support personnel , the Nephews, Cousins and Man across the road whom others will turn to. Their experiences of open source and its community will be communicated to potential Linux Desktop users. I write this particular post because I realised that I have been discussing and promoting open source software for 10 years now and I still feel like its the scene from the Life of Brian where we are all trying to decide if we are the “Peoples Front of Judea” or the “Judean Peoples Front”. I love how Ubuntu has mobilised and driven so many people to just get up and do or simply get things done. Lets find new ways to get in peoples heads over the next few months and put some grit into the smooth running Microsoft marketing machine and build the support of all users for open source choices and a open source brand.

Thanks for reading.

UPDATE: so after writting this article I got up this morning to discover that I am not the only one commenting on how the community  is both a strenght and a weakness to the acceptance of Free and Open Source Software, so itsa case of great minds think alike and fools seldom differ. Inside the mind of the enemy

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4 Comments on “Big Deal of a Big Challenge

  1. After reading your article I surfed a bit in the rest of the blog. While reading the “About” section where you refer to your passion for maths my mind went back to the days of my early childhood.

    My father is a mathematician so I had always easy access to all kinds of mathematics books, problems and someone who could set the right pace of learning. Whenever I faced a nice, tricky problem I was totally giving myself in and what happened in my head was magic. A feeling of mental joy that you can’t get from anything else. However everyday at school the rest of the kids didn’t share the same passion. For the rest of the class mathematics was a disease that they couldn’t avoid. Of course they were right to feel that way, they never choose to do maths and on top of that their brain was tailored for other things equally beautiful but also totally incompatible with maths.

    What goes on with Linux is pretty much the same. A large number of Linux users enjoy living with a free, structured operating system and something magic goes on in their brains too. On the other hand there is the rest of the class. People that never wanted to have any kind of involvement with Linux and that just want a computer as a media center or word processor or whatever else. Can we put the Linux magic in their heads too ? We have as much chances as my mathematics teacher had in making a class full of math geniuses.

    To make matters worse those people are not even interested in any aspect of computing. They are not evil supporters of Microsoft or anything like that. They just know that they want to get some things done and they have to buy a computer to help them. They don’t care about licenses, proprietary drivers or corporate monopolies for the same reasons that I don’t care if the guy who wrote the firmware for my mother’s VCR is Japanese, Korean or whatever. I don’t even care about my mother’s VCR at all. I enjoy much more watching movies in my computer at home with better quality and sound. And they don’t care about that ugly white metal box called personal computer. They enjoy much more spending their time shopping, going out for a drink and talking about football.

    This “problem” becomes a nightmare if we consider that most of them have the attitude of a consumer. They payed a significant amount of money to get a computer and the software it came with. They were working a whole month to buy that machine and now it’s payback time. They have demands, they want a machine that’s worth they money they payed for it. Every time the computer stops working they get mad like hell. It’s not just them. I pay 25€ a month for my broadband connection and every time my ISP goes off-line for three or four hours I start calling them like mad demanding that they fix the problem ASAP. Can you imagine the demands of a simple user who payed 1200€ for a computer. If you have worked in a helpdesk at least for a day you know what I mean.

    A large percentage of Linux help communities try to achieve the impossible. They try to put the magic that’s inside the math genius’ head to the brain of the pretty blonde girl that’s chewing gum in the last row. How can we achieve something like that ? We can’t, we never could, we never will.

    We can never expect that a guy who “invested” 10 hours of his lifetime to learn something completely boring and useless to him such as operating a windows computer will just waste a couple of weekends to learn how to use apt-get or how to edit /etc/X11/xorg.conf if ubuntu can’t detect his monitor. Yes I know apt-get is easy, and editing .conf files ain’t rocket science but I will never bother telling him about it because I’m the “math genius” in class and he is the pretty blonde girl chewing gum.

    What can we do to make sure we can all feel the “magic” in our brains and also not feeling smarty-nerdy-weirdos ? First of all we should stop talking to the blonde girl about maths and ask her out for dinner. Who knows we can even get laid (just kidding) !!! We should also hire a teacher to try and teach her maths. We get out of the boring process of listening to the blonde’s silly questions and the blonde might understand a bit of our world. After all the teacher is specialized in teaching while we are not.

    How does this example translate to the Linux world ?

    A) Let’s create Linux promoting groups that will consist of professionals from the “evil-side”, like marketeers, graphic designers and usability experts instead of people with knowledge in Linux. People that have mastered an operating system or a programming language feel totally depressed when they have the task of answering to people that just installed a Linux distro yesterday. It’s not their job anyway, they got far more important things to do like spending time on improving Linux itself. So let’s get the gurus out of the support groups for everyone’s benefit. Or to set it more accurately, let’s create a filter between Linux experts and Linux newbies.

    B) Let’s create really transparent software. We must identify the procedures that people want to follow in order to feel Linux can work for them fast and easy. For example in my last day-job half of the people had never changed the default XP wallpaper for a year. This kind of people face a terminal once in a lifetime and call the geek pal on the phone when they come across a preferences tab. Simplicity wins most of the times even if you have to sacrifice some power to achieve it. If you have the time visit which is the site for the synonymous PHP framework. Their target group is advanced PHP developers who have no trouble reading the most boring manuals on earth. When I first visited it I thought I was in a site for housewives for the first few seconds. Yet I never was delayed for a single second by the plain simple interface.

    C) When something does not work on your computer you don’t have a question, you have a problem. Let’s give solutions instead of answers. Forums and FAQ’s are a nice first step but it’s not easy enough for anyone. When a newbie asks “how do i get my videos playing in Ubuntu” he doesn’t want to listen to sudo apt-get install blah blah… What he really is trying to say is “give me the link to the software that makes videos play”. A nice example is K-lite codec pack for windows. Once you download it you just accept the license, click next a few times and your videos just play. People repeat themselves all the time in forums. Let’s get the most common demands out and provide super easy solutions. Right in their desktop or a nice friendly web page. We should be learning from users how to make easy software for them instead of trying to teach them how to adapt to what we have made.

    Fortunately Ubuntu is in the right path. It’s the most friendly Linux I have ever used and most of the things just work 🙂 I may have escaped from the main subject a bit but I hope you’ll find some useful ideas in this comment.


  2. A Linux User Groups is just a front for fanatical, fascist organisation that seems to have a simple manifesto…

    WE WILL hate Bill, Microsoft, Windows, hate, hate, hate.

    WE WILL protect the Geekyness of the Linux while trying to push it onto the desktop, enforcing our own usefulness for decades to come.

    WE WILL completely ignore any other operating system and then profess great knowledge when comparing a “superior” Linux feature, (you try doing that in windows!)

    WE WILL assume new LUG members are imbeciles without talking to them and bothering to ascertain their skill set.

    WE WILL come across as loudmouth arseholes who know everything about everything.

    WE WILL quote the baseless open source Philosophy … “Ownership source code is a crime against humanity”

    Seriously guys you need to sort this out if you want the calibre of people that would make a difference, don’t scare them away, things are changing nobody these days wants to associate with sad people like this.

    Linux has huge potential, I have realized this over many years, where it sticks is at the geek/human border, due mostly to the fact that self absorbed geeks just cannot see beyond their VIs and command lines.

  3. Anonymous: We’re not a front for a fascist organisation, we’re a self organising, unhierarchical collective.

  4. I thought it was an anarcho-syndicalist commune.

    There, Anonymous forgot the one golden rule of Geek:- “When all else fails, quote Monty Python”.