By Ken Starks
Having spent a considerable amount of time as a bachelor, I've learned survival and coping techniques necessary for the lifestyle. I've learned to buy my own clothes without guilt ("you're not wearing THAT, are you?") I've conquered the laundromat, microwave, and DVR... I've even mustered the courage to buy my own food in a supermarket. Exposing testosterone in a female domain can be tricky, but learn I have...
Look helpless long enough and some woman will show you pity and the cereal aisle.
But there is one mystery I have yet to unravel.
There they sit in the produce section... piles of them, one on top of another. I have thumped, smelled, hefted, and even squeezed the damned things. Regardless of my efforts, the one I ultimately bring home will have the heart of a concrete slab and taste like cardboard.
Precut and packaged melon has been my most often used option.
If only the rest of my life were so simple.
Since 2004, I have been a Linux Advocate. As the founder of The HeliOS Project, I have organized an effort that, to date, has built three learning centers and given away approximately 1,071 computers to kids that cannot afford them. I mention this not to self-promote but to indicate that I have a bit of experience with New Linux Users.
I've come to realize that picking a candidate for Linux conversion is much like picking melons from the supermarket... you can thump and inspect to your heart's content but in reality, not every person is ready for the Free Software harvest.
Let's look at a couple of the most common factors as to why. The first one is the most obvious.
It's a Microsoft Windows world and I don't think anyone wants to argue that point. Since the advent of Microsoft's last real innovation, Windows 95, most every computer coming off the production line has come pre-installed with Microsoft operating systems. People have learned to use their computers in line with the Redmond Dictate. Let's be honest here: philosophical arguments aside, when Windows is running well, it is a fairly decent way to operate a computer. I mean, sure it allows an unsuspecting user to delete svchost.exe... it even allows a moron to do it multiple times through multiple reinstalls... but aside from full default user control, it works mostly well. Mostly.
People get used to doing things one way. Facing another fact, many in the tech teaching world might agree that about half the people operating a computer today are not computer operators at all... they are task-set mouse clickers. Move one icon from its place or slide a toolbar from bottom to top and many of them will scream ! They have become comfortable with their chosen applications and environments and are loath to step outside of them. Even when you physically show someone another application for the same task, they are often either hesitant or they openly balk at change. To use another application would mean leaving their comfort zone.
There is one factor that can change this... occasionally.
The Pain Threshold
Sometimes, enough is enough. Semi-annual reinstalls and constant losing battles against viruses and spyware can take its toll. However, I've sat down at Windows computers that had 5 or 6 spyware toolbars nestled within Internet Explorer and the owner was clueless as to why his computer was running slow. Many of these people insist "it's the computer". Opening the process dialog and showing them the actual software-based reason for it most often produces glazed-over eyes or blank stares. Seems that seeing anything ending with a file extension can cause discomfort... often it's best not to show them the man behind the curtain.
I know that sounds condescending but we see it more than we'd like to.
Here's the rub...
Many of these people, even if they were willing to try something different, do not know that they have a choice. Even when they do, I've had first-hand experience in guiding people to Linux only to have them tell me that a family member or their "computer friend" said not to bother... that "Linux Sucks".
Like the rinse-lather-repeat behavior of Microsoft Windows doesn't suck?
I don't apologize for the fact that I believe people who refuse to solve their own problems are idiots. I've been criticized often for my lack of bedside manner. Then again, when you have the source of most Internet and computer security problems suggesting that the computing public be taxed to clean up infected machines, it's no wonder they are confused. To many computer users,
Microsoft IS the definitive expert on their computers. This is sad.
In my experience, approximately three out of ten Windows Users in distress will seriously consider making the switch... and I don't necessarily think of those as dismal numbers. In the baseball world, that's equal to batting .300 which can command multi-million dollar annual contracts. I'll take three out of ten.
While we've had most success with this in younger people, the fact that one harried Windows User recommends Linux to another harried Windows User has had surprising results. Recently, we installed a Linux computer in a housing project in East Austin. It was a single-parent household with two children who needed a computer. It wasn't two weeks until people from the project were coming over to use that computer to check their email or look something up on the Internet because their Windows computer was hosed.
We've done nine Linux installs in that project to date and they all stemmed from that one initial install. Once people have something to physically compare their current Windows computer to, the job becomes easier.
Pain Threshold indeed.
Kids at school are a big factor in getting us candidates for installs. While the computer gaming crowd isn't going to pay much attention, having a kid brag about his "new system" will. The 3D cube has a lot to do with it, and truth be known, I rarely turn on my extra effects anymore, but with the younger users, it most certainly is a selling point. Add in the Atlantis or Cube Gear plugin and you have an environment that draws them in quickly.
Understanding the Difference
As mentioned above, many New Linux Users are put off or confused by a different environment. They are so used to the blue XP visuals that when presented with a differing screen or menu, they become uncomfortable. I've often mentioned that the absolute worst thing we can do as advocates is to give a new user a Live CD and walk away. Case in point...
A stay-at-home mom was given a CD by one of our directors a couple months back. It was carefully explained to her how to use the CD and what to do in order to get it to boot. When he called her back the next day to check up on her, she complained loudly that Linux wouldn't work for her.
"I put the CD in, I opened the folder and clicked on every icon in the box. Nothing happened."
The Director told her to reboot the computer with the CD in the drawer and it would become apparent what she should do. Nope... the computer BIOS was set to boot to hard drive first. The boot process took her straight into Windows again. When it was further explained that she should hit F12 to change the boot device, she refused.
"If it's that much trouble to use, I don't want to use it."
This is coming from a woman who bitterly complained about the 20 minute update and patch time she had to endure every time she booted her computer into Windows.
This from a woman who had 11 individual viruses or instances of spyware on her machine.
She reported her boot time into a desktop at 6 minutes.
And yeah... sure, most people who sit down at a computer will be able to negotiate the Live CD just fine, but I am consistently amazed at the number of people who cannot. I've found that once you personally sit next to them and show them how it works, their confidence level increases greatly and the chances of them using Linux on a consistent basis is much better.
I fully realize that many people just do not have the time, patience or social skills to sit down and walk a new user through this process but many of us do and that is why I am writing this. Make them comfortable in a new environment and half the battle is won.
Forewarned is forearmed...
Next? Destroying the mental myths of Linux use. Stay tooned... this will be fun.
Ken Starks is the Founding Director of The HeliOS Project. The HeliOS Project rebuilds computers to current technology standards and gives them to financially disadvantaged children in the Central Texas area. He lives in Austin, Texas and has been active in other projects such as Lindependence and The Tux500 project. Ken is a long-time advocate for the Linux Desktop and has made it the top priority in his life. The HeliOS Project is entering its fifth year in May of 2010 and to date, this effort has provided just over 1000 computers to those that need them most. Ken outlines the mission of his Texas non-profit in simple terms:
"A child's exposure to technology should never be predicated on the ability to afford it."