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What Do Newbies Need to Make the Switch to GNU/Linux?

"GrokDoc" goes live.

I am happy to tell you that GrokDoc, the web site for our community usability study of GNU/Linux newbies -- applying free and open source ideals to documentation -- has been set up. It's here, and it's a wiki format, because that is what most of you said you thought would work the best. We've got it set up to begin, and now it's ready for you to do your part, the actual study.

Our goal is to find out what newbies need to make the switch to GNU/Linux and then to create a useful manual on basic tasks that new users will find simple and clear and easy to follow, using what we learn from our study. There has never been such a community usability study on this scale for GNU/Linux systems, so far as I have been able to determine, and we are approaching it in a new way. We are not trying to duplicate effort. We are trying something brand new. Instead of experts telling newbies how to do things, we will let newbies show and tell us what they need.

We are requesting that you sit down with a friend or family member who has little (or ideally no) experience with GNU/Linux, and let them try. If you have no experience, please sit yourself down and try, and then record what you have trouble with.

Don't show them anything. Just watch and record. What do they have problems with? How did they try to resolve the problem? What happened? Did it fix it? Watch them try and record the results. What works? What doesn't? Have them try to do a minimum of four things: email, a simple letter, including printing it, surfing the internet, and setting up a firewall. What do they spontaneously say they like and what do they say upsets them? Is the menu clear? Where do they get lost? Record what you observe in addition to what they tell you. Where do they pause? If you can only get their cooperation for one of the four, go ahead and report on just that one task. You may not want them to try to set up a firewall on your machine, for example, if you already have one set up and it's too awful to contemplate having to wipe it out and start fresh. That's fine. Do the rest. We're all volunteers.

They can try any GNU/Linux distro, including Knoppix. They can use the manuals that come with the distro and they can use Google or any other search engine to try to find help if they need it. You can tell them such resources exist, but don't show them how to find them. Just let them try on their own, as if you were not even there, as if you were just a fly on the wall. An observant fly on the wall. If they want to go home and study the matter for a few days on their own, and solve the problem after they have time to read and surf to try to find the answer, that is fine too, as long as you mention it in your report, along with what resource it was that helped them finally to suceed, if they do. If they hit a point where they utterly give up, then step in and help, but don't leap in until they are at that point. I don't want your mom or friend to hate GNU/Linux. But let them really try to solve it themselves without input from you. Of course, I hope that such a moment never happens, but if it does, it's valuable to know exactly why and when. Don't hesitate to provide partial results, because the large scale of this community project means that even if your study subject only tries one task, the results are still valuable.

You can do several sessions, or just one. If your study subject feels like inputting their own reactions, that would be wonderful, in addition to your observations. What would they like? What would have made it easier? We aren't necessarily limited to a traditional book format only, although I know from experience that online help isn't of any use if you can't get online, so a manual that people can read on paper is important. We could have video. We could have audio instructions. Let's find out what is needed and then we'll brainstorm to see how best to meet the need.

If they wish to try to install, by all means let them, but no one should have to do that to participate. They can use your computer. Note for us the hardware used and the distro and the application. We've set up the Grokdoc site so that it is easy for you to input your results in the right slot, so it will then be easy for us to collect it later, and for everyone to find what interests them on the site. The manual can be translated eventually into any language.

When you input your experience into Grokdoc, please write down what solved the issues and what didn't and what you think (or they indicated) would have helped. Clear suggestions would be appreciated and very valuable. Would a screenshot have helped? More words in a manual or online resource? Less words? Better organization? Less technical? In other words, evaluate yourself what you think is needed, and please be very specific and as detailed as you can.

The research results will be collected, and after we have collected enough for it to be meaningful, we will then write up the manual explaining how to do the basic tasks we have studied. You can also help us write a manual from what we learn. Your friends and relatives who participated in the study can help, too. I've had several offers of help from scientists who have prior experience in usability studies, who have been helpful already in helping me to think through how to plan. The site can grow over time to be whatever we find out it should be. It's a community project, so it will no doubt have a life of its own, but the original study has to be structured to be of real use.

I think it'll be fun. If we all pitch in -- and anyone in the world can participate -- it won't represent a major burden on any of us, and yet the aggregate value of our observations will be enormous. I think we can make a real difference in enabling new users to make the switch painlessly. We may also be able to be useful to programmers who wish to know how to design to make their applications user-friendly but can't afford to do usability studies the way large companies like Microsoft and Apple can.

I also hope this study will help GNU/Linux use to reach critical mass and such popularity that they dark side can't kill it off. So, come and help, won't you? Ideas and creativity are welcome. Don't let the wiki intimidate you. If you can't figure out where to put something, just open a new page and we'll figure out where to put it later. And you don't have to be a technical god to participate. This is just a lot of people getting together, just ordinary folks, trying GNU/Linux so we can see what happens and how to help each other. It's a simple way we can all contribute something back to the community, to say thank you to all those who made this software possible by unselfishly writing it and giving it to the world.


More Stories By Pamela Jones

Known to millions of online readers as "PJ," Pamela Jones is the editor and moderator of Groklaw. They also know her as the heart of the open-source community's legal battle against litigation aimed at the Linux kernel and other free and open-source software.

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Most Recent Comments
David 07/15/04 05:31:06 AM EDT

I've been watching some sites that were linked from weblogs.
Now google does not display the weblogs links when you seach for backward links.
It seems that these links don't count anymore.

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William Cloteaux 07/04/04 08:29:11 AM EDT

As an instructor of less than knowledgable pupils, I found that all of the newbies require text that is written in plain english. Use the Cook Book method. In order to teach a newbie they must have instruction that is specific. You do not ask them what they want to do but rather you tell them what to do.
Use a specific distrobution for instruction. One distro does not fit all situations. Many of the newbies have no one to act as a teacher so they must read text that is clear and written in none technical english.

Deke 06/29/04 04:25:03 PM EDT

OK, I'm skipping hunks of history to jump in at the present day. If at any point you think "Well why?..." I can assure you that the answer lies somewhere in the last 20 odd years between the BBC 'B' and now.

I have a home made PC. A couple of years ago I upgraded it and Windows wouldn't run. It transpired that my upgrade meant that I now needed the WindowsXP, with its extra added spyware. I figured what had I got to lose and went right in at the deep end with Mandrake 8.1 Gaming edition.

I had no problems with the load until I hit the message telling me that in order for my modem to work I needed to download the SpeedTouch Microcode. The instruction also told me which bit I needed and where to put it. It was gibberish to me. Linux was a foreign language. How did I 'navigate to the directory in which I down loaded it'? Indeed, how did I download it if the modem wouldn't work until I had downloaded it?

After reinstalling my old modem, which, fortunately, did work, I was able to locate and download the microcode. After some thrashing about I found the bit I needed. I even managed to drag and drop it across to where it was supposed to go, whereupon it promptly made its way back to where it had come from. No one had mentioned that you need to be in 'root' to perform this action, or how to become root whilst using the GUI.

At this point I turned to Mandrake, where my one free piece of help went on a very helpful and carefully detailed list of what I had to do. I did it. It worked. I was now back surfing with ADSL.

Since then I have had few problems with the program other than websites telling me I need IE, but no end of trouble with new programs. Someone needs to make it easier. Some load themselves with a single click, some require me to become a superuser and navigate through all kinds of directories copying out loads of code, which is gibberish to me, and others fall somewhere inbetween. So maybe a beginner's guide to Linux code might be a good idea as well.

Finally, I recently installed Mandrake 9.2, and was horrified to discover that I still got the microcode conundrum. Someone should sort that kind of thing out. It's a major turn off.

As I said previously, some of you will be going "Wha?...". What you've just got is a short look inside the mind of the total ignoramus. The only thing I built the PC for was to play games. I did (Still do, mostly) all my 'real work' on a RiscPC. I'm quite at home with that. I'm afraid that after RISC, Linux is kinda like stepping into the zone without a stalker... (Quick S/F reference to lighten the atmosphere).

james pomarico 06/23/04 12:05:44 AM EDT

I've used lots of Microsoft based software for years, but wanted to try Linux. Purchased SUSE 8.1., but had to move to new residence before got an old Dell set up to use it. Once I installed it (very easy) I couldn't register it as it didn't recognize my modem (a "windows" based modem I later found out).
So I called SUSE and was told I waited too long to install because there was now a new version out, and SUSE would no longer recognize the 30 day support that came with my version.
So, I tryed to fix it myself. First, I opened up my machine and noted the modem make and model #.
Then, I went on line with my Microsoft based computer and reviewd the SUSE site and found a list of modems supported. This one wasn't listed.
Should I have gone to this site to see if all my hardware works before I buy linux software?
So then, I seached until I found a site with what appeared to be a patch.
Next, I downloaded the patch to a floppy and attempted to load it into the SUSE program.
No Luck
I guess I ran out of patience and left it alone for the last few months.
Maybe, someday, I'll contact a "support group", or maybe I'll spring for another software package.
I don't mind following some steps or procedures to get something to function, but there needs to be a fairly clear path.

Mark 06/17/04 01:53:48 AM EDT

This is a great idea, but why must it be limited to OSS? Why not do it for Windows, too? Or the Mac? (Assuming any Mac user actually needs the help.)

James 06/15/04 05:38:39 PM EDT

I was/am still a linuxnewbie (linabee?) I have a background in MS Dos and M$ Windows. A few years ago, I was drawn to Linux by the open source model and stability of the OS. Also, I wanted to share a dialup internet connection on my home network, but didn't think I should have to pay money for what should be a very simple software patch. I new that a Linux box with two nics would be able to handle the task with ease. I will limit the rest of my remarks to the trouble I had/am having understanding Linux and not get into a "Linux should do/have/be this......" diatribe.

The first thing about linux that I had (still have) trouble with is the file system and directory structure. I did not find it too difficult to install RedHat 8, but that was on a recycled windows box with a hard disk wipe. Partitioning was done courtesy of RedHat Installation CD's. (almost a no brainer)

With Dos and Windows, you have C:\. Program files (mostly) install into C:\program files. Windows OS files go in C:\Windows. Applications normally install shortcuts in the windows menu system. Do most Linux apps do this???

Windows has amazing hardware support. 'Plug and Play' works pretty good on windows machines. I am still trying to figure out how to enable sound with Linux on my laptop. The hardware is already 'plugged' and now I get to 'plaaaaaaaaay' Most of the help with this that I have seen is too specific--for a particular make/model/build of sound device. I know that I probably need a driver from somewhere, but where can I find it??? Should I get a vendor provided one? Or maybe one that Tom so-and-so compiled?

All of the commands in Linux are more evolved than their Dos counterparts, with epic man pages that bewilder me.

Although I could write adequate dos batch files for housekeeping and even multi-boot batch files, Linux scripting is totally foreign to me. Maybe eventually I will be able to understand and even write some script.

The GUI (Gnome) is a little foreign. It does not behave identically to Windows. Sometimes when I 'double click' an executable, I get nothing, even though I expected a big, friendly window to pop up and say, "Hi. I am the program that you wanted to execute and this is what I do."

Those are the big things. I still want to wean myself from Microsoft completely, though, and will endure.

In closing, I believe the Linux 'killer app' for newbies would be some form of interactive help system that would actually respond in an intelligent manner to specific questions, and would even ask additional questions to clarify. Either that, or some sort of 'buddy system' that pairs a newbie with an experienced Linux user on a voluntary basis.

Finally, to those that cry, "Linux doesn't support enough killer games", I say, "write some."

James Landers

DAvid 06/15/04 02:22:14 PM EDT

My background: I'm new to linux but consider myself a power user in windows, that is I'm starting to find windows inflexibility a bit annoying. I'm using Mandrake 10.

The biggest problem I find is that various everyday things just don't work very smoothly, if at all. I've had problems unpacking a password protected file, the app didn't know what to do. Opera has tiny fonts, Firefox 0.8 fonts were too small.

Totem is a lousy music player. Mplayers codecs don't install properly, the video is colour negative, the skins are too small and unclear.

When I install programs they sometimes seem to vanish! I know now but didn't before, where does the bin go? Why don't installed apps add shortcuts to the KDE "start" menu.

Its all user oriented stuff really. The HCI has come along in leaps and bounds in the past few years but scratch beneath the surface and the majority of programs have a terrible user interface, complex and laborious installation and seem generally not to be very reliable. Take Notes in Kontact for example, it just crashes the system - everytime from a clean install.

Don't get me wrong, I would love to use linux and I will perserve to fix the problems I'm having. However, Linux isn't ready for general use yet. The people who program for it will have to pull their fingers out their arse and start thinking about things from a users perspective. You guys are going about it the right way.

Best Regards,


Larry_B 06/15/04 05:56:12 AM EDT

I am an intermediate programmer of C/C++ and have been programming with MS Visual C++ on Windows. It's evident that I'm new to Linux but I still want to develop some simple c programs on the Linux platform. I have Redhat 9 disto and GCC installed. Once I begin this simple task I feel very surprise that it's really a hard way, from the guide on the net I must study vi,make,gcc,gdb,autoconf, oh so many tools. I just want to keep the way what I develop on Windows and want to finish the task in an IDE. I tried several tools and recently found something called Magic C++( ). I like it for very MS VC like. It's light weighted and allows me to code in windows for linux apps. very cool.

Mark H 06/15/04 05:12:44 AM EDT

Newbies also need to be able to make the switch from whatever extra lifestyle tools they use. Palm pilots and other handheld computers need sychronising with program X, Y or Z in their new Linux distribution. E-mails need to be transferred, as do calendars etc. Without this most Windows users won't make the transfer.
It has to be as seamless as possible. No difficulties in turning Windows off one day and turning Linux on the next. In terms of Office apps, we're pretty much done - but easy transfer of all the accumulated data from Windows to Linux has to be a priority...
One of my main problems with Linux is that I spend more time trying to set it up to work properly than using it to do work... This has to change if you want to attract people in droves. The switch has to be as painless as possible; to the extent that people don't really realise that they've changed systems - because everything just works.

Buldir 06/14/04 10:11:44 PM EDT

I have been using Fedora Core for about 9 months and recently upgraded to Fedora Core 2. For one, the mouse was detected as a PS/2 mouse, despite it being a USB mouse, and about once a week an update would come out that would screw something up. After 3 hours of Googling and fixing the problem, the fix would cause another problem! "Recompile your kernel!", people would say. "Get rid of the bloat and streamline the OS." What bloat? Is my computer retaining water? So after, another day of Googling, and failing twice, I have successfully compiled three kernels (not much, but I'm learning), and could not fix the problem. I am not going to get into the problem. The point is that despite the wonderfulness of yum, apt-get, urpmi, etc., there are still dependency issues. When I download and install a security patch from MS, about 99.9% of the time, it doesn't screw stuff up. Now, I guess I could live like the Debian folks and use the 2.2 kernel, the Gimp 1.0, xmms 0.6, and never install anything more recent than March of 2000, but I shouldn't have to if I don't want to. I simply found myself working "on" my computer more than using my computer to "do" work. This was frustrating. Open source developers hopefully realize that there are people out there who don't care about what's in the kernel and what isn't, they just want their GD camera to show up when they plug it into the USB port. The problem is that Linux is very close in many aspects to being a easy-to-use stable OS for the desktop, just close enough that geeks can use it everyday, but not close enough for the "average user" to say, screw MS, I'm jumping in hip deep.

Chris Baker 06/14/04 09:59:20 PM EDT

To get newbies to switch to Linux, you need Linux gurus who actually have some social graces.

I scored a 790 on the SAT in math. But anytime I ask a question about some problem I have with Linux, I am spoken to like I am some type of moron. I just don't have as much experience as some other people do, and I learn faster than most. But there is no way that anyone can know everything.

I'm sick of this garbage that I get from arrogant immature techies who often prove that they are quite ignorant in other areas. I once met a Linux guru who didn't how many states the USA has.

Linux gurus need to stop giving smart-aleck responses like "RTFM" and give answers that actually solve problems. If the answer is in the manual, tell the person what manual and what page. Some people just learn better when things are explained to them by another person than by reading some book.

You don't have to be rude. If you want more people to use Linux, grow up and give the operating system the respect it deserves. Be a couretous representative, and people will come in droves.

Kergan 06/14/04 09:40:41 PM EDT

A different OS

I'm not exactly a clueless newbie, since I've been using Linux and Unix on several occasions. Yet Linux remains the most nightmarish piece of junk I can name.

I suppose setting up a Red Hat or a Mandrake is more or less OK. And quite obviously, the Debian community is on the right track, since they got their installer working quite well last time I tried it. Though on the latter, there are still plentiful of filthy options and defaults. Like asking for the root password in order to turn a desktop machine's power off by default.... The most irritating example might be this: the PCMCIA support is started _after_ Eth0 despite my ethernet card was - rightly - detected to be a PCMCIA card during the installation process. Go figure... Not to mention going through obscure man's and howto's to change the initialization process, editing even more obscure configuration files, eventually discovering recompiling the kernel might be an option too, and formatting the hard drive to reinstall Windows after thinking there is no way I should have needed to read this BS in the first place - it should have been turned on automatically.

Then, there is the OS architecture. Quite arguably, the clueless user has no interest in how it is working in the background. Yet I cannot help noticing that Linux is still based on technologies that are 20+ years old. MS is setting the pace here, has 10+ years of technological advance at the very least, and is spending billions of US dollars in R&D. Bottom-line, while Linux developpers are implementing yet another copy of some 10+ year old app, MS is in search engines, 5G programming languages, semantics, digital ink, native clustering, neural networks, and who knows what else.

Then, there is the GUI. Please! Trash X at once and get Linux a real GUI. Something that is modern, elegant and responsive - rather than old, ugly and sluggish, such as Gnome or KDE. And make it usable. As it is now, Linux looks like some outdated copy of QDOS with a graphical interface. Make sure no user ever needs to open a Terminal if he does not want to open one. Moreover, install documentation by default, make sure it is easy to find it, that is makes sense to clueless newbies such as myself, and is useful for clueless newbies, i.e. not 'to do a search type some text in there and press the search button', but 'here's how to find the emails related to last month's project'. Take example on BeOS: BeOS was not about options or lack thereof; it was about the best possible defaults.

Then, innovate a tiny bit. Why is the Linux community so committed to keeping my filthy keyboard around? I don't care if you type 300+ characters per minute. The clueless newbie doesn't, and odds are his mouse will be detected just as badly as mine was. I'm upset that the research world is so miserable at developping - just examples - digital ink, speach recognition, or 5G languages any faster. Odds are MS will market a product before Linux even gets a prototype.

And after you're done with the two above, don't forget yo make software. Not nerdy stuff like Gnome Eyes and java class HelloWorld. Real software that I can actually use. Make sure that my word processor's documents read properly in MS-Word, because 99% of my coworkers are using that. And that they don't tear OLE appart and don't miserably crash when I press 'Yes, I'm sure I want to save under the MS-Word format'. What more, in case I change my mind and decide I no longer want to use it, make sure there is a way to export my data - such as email - in addition to a way to import it. I can't even recall MS going so far in trying to trap its users as to making it so obscure on how to export their data that no clueless user will ever make it out.

Linux still has a long long way to go before it comes anywhere close to being a credible replacer for Windows on the desktop. Take this hunch for what it is worth (i.e. nothing): if OpenBeOS gets anywhere near a beta someday, it will be a lot more credible than any distro of Linux available out there, despite the significant lack of applications on it.

spookehtooth 06/14/04 06:19:12 PM EDT

some drivers hard to locate - i found my wifi drivers eventually, but a deposit like would help.

more & bigger newbie friendly software aquisition sites like - if not hosting the files then deep-linking into other peoples sites, along with reviews and ratings & FRIENDLY install instructions. Compiling and Installing need not be a fear factor if help is there. I overcame that by learning and messing up and not giving up.

More beginners guides and general attention given to casual-users.

It is a big community but the help assistance and info is far too scattered for my liking, or focused around a specific distro.

Michael Romose 06/14/04 05:42:50 PM EDT

Make modern 3d (ie microsoft compatible) games simple to install and run.

Make the most of Use Case design methods. Make the use cases using only newbie concepts - picture, document, window, handle, button etc..

Consider having a "newbie mode", where most advanced options aren't there to confuse, and every task is kept as simple as possible.

Always use familiar concepts - avoid weird naming conventions. "GNU".... ok, it's "Not Unix", but what is it? To the non-techie it is merely an ugly, strange animal with a strange name. Bearded nerds may identify with it, the average user probably does not.

Do everything possible to get students using Linux.

Too many times when I have searched for open source software, I am more likely to be treated as a developer, and not as a user.(here is how you access our CVS! This is our nightly build!) If there is more information for developers than users, that does not bode well. The link for the current "production" or "stable" version should be alone on the front page, and it should be simply labelled "latest version". The user does not need/want to know that there are 'unstable' versions out there.

Embrace piracy.... there must be countless millions of penniless users out there who are using windows because it is freely available at the price they can reasonably pay. These users would be using linux if windows wasn't available illicitly. Xandros have got the right idea, even if they delivered the message very clumsily.

The Linux world should consolidate (further) - the bewildering choice of distributions works against Linux, not for it. They may all be very similar, but who knows? It is confusing to the newcomer, and my gut reaction is "many different versions: higher support costs".

Here's to a future with Microsoft as the "also-ran" it should be.....

Colin 06/14/04 04:45:36 PM EDT

Heres my wishlist I'd like to see for Linux:

(1) Easily be able to install any application on Linux without ever being forced to go to the terminal to install it - it's fine if you leave the terminal option in there for powerusers or people who just prefeer that way, no other os forces you to go to the terminal.

(2) Drivers drivers drivers - I know this isn't technically any linux maintainers fault but it's something end users need if you want to have linux run well

(3) Easy HD Navigation - I should be able to navigate anywhere on my hard drive easily, I just loved it when I saw the finder in Mac OS X 10.3 Panther and how it just made it easy to go anywhere in a second - also a window explorer that isn't also a browser, i tend to not really like either the gnome or kde browser a little bit because they are also internet browsers on the same window which makes things a very cluttered

(4) Multimedia - I don't like having to configure or download new software just to make existing software on my system work - there are some good multimedia players on linux, but they need to improve a lot

In short in many ways Linux needs to be like Mac OS X not in copying them, but in functionality. Mac OS X comes with a few great apps that work well straight out of the box, the finder allows you go anywhere in the hd fast and preview virtually everything. Plus Mac OS X has the easiest application installers i've ever seen.

In short it seems to get more newbies onto linux you need to focus on the user experience and make it so that it's easy to do just about everything while maintaining advanced options for power users. A #1 no no is to flat out tell newbies that things are easy the way it is and tell them to accept things the way they are, if things were easy and flawless in linux newbies would be asking a small fraction of the questions that they are now.

Tom 06/14/04 02:46:37 PM EDT

Game support, game support & game support. If Linux could play all of my DirectX games without a hitch I would switch in a minute. The problem is that WINE is half-baked and not many game publishers distribute for Linux.

SimpleGuy 06/14/04 02:32:35 PM EDT

If you want to branch into a brand new arena. Look at the following website:
The information is targeted at young kids, but it is guaranteed to capture your attention. Something along this line would make it easy for newbies to follow and learn from.

John Bancroft 06/14/04 02:18:47 PM EDT

I was introduced to Linux (SuSE 7.1 or 7.3, can't remember which) at uni a few years ago after Win98 decided to retire on me at irresponsible times (like midway through an essay - though I had the good sense to save often!!). The lad who set up my system for me was a whizz and everything ran fine for him. However, after leaving uni I switched to Win XP and I have (as yet) had no problems with it. I decided to try my newbie hand at SuSE 8.0, as SUSe give away their old software when they release their new software.

My problems were that even the 'basic' how-to guides I found on the net expect you to know something, anything, about Linux. SuSE didn't pick up my modem and I discovered that this was common (something to do with Win-dems!?!). I found a driver for my modem but couldn't make head nor tail of how to install it. A true newbies guide has to treat us like idiots with step-by-step guides - but without missing out any of the steps that an experienced user would assume. I am used to point and click with Windows so going into shells and typing a string of commands of gobbledy-gook isn't overly welcoming. However, I like messing around and when I next upgrade my PC, I'll keep my old box and stick whatever Linux is floating around at the time on it and see if I can sort it out myself!

Hope this helps.

Suso Banderas 06/14/04 02:07:28 PM EDT

The number 1 thing: An open mind

I don't know how many people I've installed Linux for only to have them say something like "Oh, gimp can't do X, I don't like Linux anymore". When in fact, gimp could do X, but it just does it differently than in Photoshop.

Ross Charette 06/14/04 01:57:57 PM EDT

Speaking as a Linux Newbie, we need a central single source to download all binaries. The site has to look nice and clean, and have every free distro available, including other OSS. The site should be maintained by a neutral third party, and supported by every linux institution in existence today. The site needs tutorials and forums. Make it the type of place where, if someone at a party asks you about linux you can say "Just check out, they got everything you need for linux".

Will R 06/14/04 01:53:21 PM EDT

When we're talking newbie, we need to remember that there's several levels of newbie. One kind is the person who keeps their manual nearby so they can remember how to turn the computer on. The users who have difficulty locating a file on their hard drive constitute another kind. Then there's folks like me - over the weekend, I put a new hard drive in, and since my Windows 98SE manual disappeared (which has the product key needed for installation) I decided to install Red Hat 9. Not a computer newbie by any means, but a newbie to Linux.
Part of the problem with getting around Linux for newbies is that the online community, while doing their best to be helpful, often speaks languages that a newbie won't understand. When you install a distro, you're greeted with crisp graphical screens, and the GUIs work quite similar to Windows. However, if you have a problem, and you look online, you're going to see a lot of command line instructions and discussions. Installing programs is especially daunting. (RPM sounds handy, until you encounter a dependency with no suggested resolutions...) When you tell the average Joe to "make" or "sudo" or something similar, he's very possibly going to feel like he's in over his head.
That's the biggest problem getting newbies over. You can teach people how to use the programs with little problem. But it's hard for a new user to learn to make the system into what he/she wants. Less technical documentation and easier installing apps would go a long way towards bridging the divide.

Professor Cheech'i 06/14/04 01:45:54 PM EDT

I am an XP Pro user who came from Win 3.11 to MAC OS 5 to Win2k. Never used Linux as a desktop, so i think i'm the perfect candidate to answer your question. I have not yet made the switch, although i try to keep informed about things regarding computers in general, *nix or otherwise. i use XP Pro because i know how to make it work for me- after years of lesser versions of windows i've learned the stuff that should be "taught but not obvious"

i classify things like simple registry editing/modification, working with the services, msconfig/dxdiag/etc, and i know my way in and out of the control panel now. moving from XP to any other OS (windows or otherwise) i first change the GUI to suit my prefs- taskbar small and on top, Quarkbar/sidebar on the right. when i look at my desktop, i want to see my desktop, not a bunch of crap that doesn't have a real place. Windows' Quick launch is a gift from [deity], no matter what you want to say about the rest of windows. after i get it to look like i want it (and subsequently i know where to find everything i want) i next go for the deeper stuff- the sort of things you'd find in Windows' control panel.

What Linux needs most is a fairly quick way to change graphical preferences, and a more advanced, thoroughly documented way to change system preferences also. these two things may be present already, i don't know.

NEXT you need programs. releasing a great game for Linux, that the world knows is for Linux and can identify with Linux when they hear the title, is ideal. businesses by expensive servers, but gamers buy expensive desktops. Linux is already the best solution for business-end servers, but to get an individual to go for a Linux distro on their desktop(which you should want), you need to think that way. is great, i currently use the Windows version and i must say i'm impressed. Media Player Classic and BSplayer are also great media tools that i use on windows and have learned great things about their Linux functionality. overall you need to get more drivers, more formats, and more programs. take a page out of Apple's book; people want things to work without having to worry if it's going to work. clicking something shouldn't involve the user thinking 'am i going to be able to find something that will play this?' or 'this program/gui sucks, i have to rewrite it from source' the option to do that does not mean that people should have to do so, many 'open' programs i've seen (GAIM and the Gimp come to mind) could benefit from being more 'complete' rather than simply providing a working source and an example that sorta works, but isn't a real solution without major tweaking.

overall, the general idea about things i've heard is this;
Linux gives users a lot more power and control than Windows. that statement isn't quite as true as the linux people out there want you to believe. if you know what you're doing you can do a lot of stuff, and if you don't you can cause a lot of problems, regardless of what OS you use.

Jared Grubb 06/14/04 01:11:53 PM EDT

I just made the switch this weekend, and here are the problems that I ran into (I am using x86_64 of FC2):

* Kernel 2.6.5 came with ALSA drivers, but I had a hell of a time getting sound output. It would be nice if the volume levels were naturally at a medium level, as it took me a few hours to figure that out.

* Installing new software from source wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, especially now that I know to do ./configure and then make and then make install as root. A simple easy-to-find demo would've helped out a lot.

* Knowing I needed to edit the fstab file could have been useful as I was trying to get my windows drives to mount.

* MP3 and MPG playback would have been nice out of the installation. But I eventually found the appropriate programs.

Other than that, FC2 installed great and so far I really like it.

colin 06/14/04 01:04:34 PM EDT

As a confirmed mac user with a strong tech background, I hadn't considered a switch until recently... I'm very very nearly at the point where I'm going to shell out to buy another box for some free gnu/linux distro, but here's what's holding me back:

1: why? yes, i want a linux box to play on, but is that it? are there uses for it that my osX box can't handle? is this just my inner-geek wanting some play time?

2: security? sure, it *can* be secure, but is security going to be such a pain in the ass to implement that it isn't worth the effort?

3: #1 has a lot of facets, see #1, above


Bernie Simmons 06/14/04 12:59:46 PM EDT

College's that don't insist that one have the latest Microsoft OS and Office application installed.
College's that have classes and offer college credit hours for useing OSS applications such as Open Office.
Microsoft has a monopoly on college credit hours.
15 courses are offered this semester in Office Technology alone at the college I attend, none of these courses are OSS and require a Microsoft operating system and Microsoft Office. Only one course offered this semester has anything to do with OSS. Ironically, the course is "Network Security", it's not under the Office Technology heading and isn't a required course for any degree offered so nobody takes it and it's cancelled all the time.
The world isn't going to tip until students are trained in an alternative.

john carter 06/14/04 12:59:23 PM EDT

1st a bit about me so you know my perspective. I would class myself as being reasonably competent on a pc. I've installed mandrake 9 on my pc, which i assembled myself. Firstly should the installation of Linux and its use be separated ?
1) I think the installation process (which has improved since I tried it with redhat 5 or 6 on my 100mhz Pentium) could still be improved upon. Should it be fair to assume that the user knows about partitions, master boot records etc. (what I did to my XP raid 0 disk array with Linux would give some readers an evil grin ). when trying to connect to my isp installation procedure asked me about my user name and password, but never thought of installing wvdial which as far as I know is required as the isp uses ppp.still have to get this working
2) Assuming that the system is all setup, I think the gui’s that I've seen assume the user is some way competent (very relative term) the installation of a new package is a good example. I think you need some sort of intelligence in the gui to to some hand holding (almost like a teacher student relationship) when the gui asks what you want to do, and I don’t mean at exercise in frustration that some OSes call help. I’ll stop my raving now as im sure your getting a head ache
Later jc

Steve 06/14/04 12:55:33 PM EDT

The issues I have the most problems with are new hardware/installing drivers for hardware not found during the install and installing new applications.

One problem(?) I've noticed is that there are too many options. Why do I need 4 control panels to change screen resolutions (if I can even find it the control panel).

prophetess 06/14/04 12:36:16 PM EDT

The one thing that would make people switch to Linux in droves: application distros that didn't require 47 flavors of other app or library to be installed to make them work. You get a Windows install package, it installs the program and its specific files on top of the OS and whatever standard libraries are there. It doesn't ask for or whatever other "custom" bit is missing. Either it's included in the installer, or it uses the stuff already running on the system. Solve that problem, and it's good night M$.

Richard Brickley 06/14/04 12:23:45 PM EDT

I downloaded a linux version since it claimed to be able to run almost all windows programs. I had to download almost 2 giga bytes of data to install it. Once I installed it and had a dual boot system(linux and windows me), I tried to do simple things with linux. I installed it on a 160gbyte hard drive and to my surprise it installed on the portion of the hard drive that windows did not use(137 gbyte limitation for windows me). I put in a root password but did not know that the user's name would be root so I had alot of time trying to get administration level. I tried to use the install/remove program but when I did it would tell me that my path to my cdrom was not working as I guess the only way to install is to have the program on the cdrom drive. There was no way to change where the program was looking for the program to install that I could figure out. I tried downloading a windows program and than trying to execute it and it would do nothing not even giving me an error message. I am the only one who uses my computer and I should not have to do feel like the computer is preventing my from doing simple instalations. I know about wine but could not find anything about it on this instalation(ignalum). If this version can execute windows programs than it should be able to do it just by double clicking on the instalation program or at least be able to tell my what to do in it's help program.

Kiyote 06/14/04 12:09:51 PM EDT

There is one fundamental flaw with this test, but one that is easily corrected.

You should add a test of installing a new piece of software. Say, the latest version of Open Office (which I think is not unreasonable...people will want to use that sort of thing eventually).

And when I say latest, I mean the latest stable release. Nothing beta, or testing, or whatever.

This, in my opinion, is where GNU/Linux falls down for new users.

James Shoemaker 06/14/04 11:59:39 AM EDT

True newby users would have the SAME problems with windows. I spent quite a bit of time on the phone with my mother-in-law when she first got a computer explaining where the start button went when she drug the taskbar to other parts of the screen or resized it into nothingness.

I ended up creating icons for everything and telling her to ignore the taskbar, what a crappy interface it is for the beginner.


InfoPoint 06/14/04 06:05:42 AM EDT

From the GrokDoc main page:

All of us at one time were GNU/Linux newbies. But some of us came from tech backgrounds, which made it not only easier for us but also a lot of fun.

But a new group of nontech users are switching, or being switched by their employers and governments, to the Linux operating system. Some of them, maybe a lot of them, will need help to make the transition pleasant and painfree. There are many wonderful newbie documentation projects, including the Linux Documentation Project ( ) and, and this isn't an attempt to duplicate their work.

Our idea is this: instead of technically proficient people explaining tasks and functions to newbies, we let newbies show us what is hard for them. Proprietary software companies do such usability studies, and they benefit from the knowledge gained. The Free/Open Source community has all that we need to do the same, using the many eyeballs approach, so to speak. Open source ideals applied to research can be very powerful.

Sabra Asante 06/14/04 06:01:11 AM EDT

Great...I can't wait to scoot over to