It was the case, back in the day, that Linux was for the hacker elite, but those days are long gone. Now, you can pop in a live CD and you’re off. Most live CD’s offer an install option, so if you like browsing around the OS, double-click an icon on the desktop and it’ll install to your hard drive. When I got my new computer, to install Ubuntu, I just popped in the CD, let it boot, and chose the install option. I then sat back as it did everything for me. Oh, it asked me a few questions, such as my name, where I was located, etc., but those aren’t exactly questions that computer newbies would have trouble with. The whole thing was easy; I watched TV while I was doing it and just glanced over every now and then to see its progress. It rebooted when it finished and I was presented with a login screen. I typed the user name and password I’d chosen, and boom! I had a pretty desktop with very normal looking menus. If someone is used to Windows, they’re going to feel pretty comfortable with a distribution such as Ubuntu because the layout is easy to work with.
Ubuntu is the distribution I recommend to Linux newbies, too. It’s easy to install and it’s easy to maintain. When there are updates to the system, you see a little orange symbol in the taskbar and it pops up a little message telling you 1) that there are updates and 2) to click the orange symbol to install them. It’s as easy as that. As for applications in Linux, there is usually an alternative available; see The Linux Equivalent Project for a big list of Windows applications and several Linux alternatives.
Advanced Packaging Tool, or APT, is a package management system used by Debian GNU/Linux and its derivatives. APT simplifies the process of managing software on Unix-like operating systems, by automating the retrieval, configuration and installation of software packages, either from binary files or by compiling source code.
Apt-get does not have a GUI, which may be intimidating for those new to Linux. Fortunately, there’s Synaptic, which is a GUI frontend to apt-get. You open up Synaptic, search for the application or functionality you’re looking for, and it shows a list of possible applications. Choose the one you want and click a button to install it. Some people who tried Linux several years ago, or who tried a distribution without apt-get, will cite the difficulty of installing applications as a drawback to Linux. With a Debian derivative, that’s not a concern. If you’re installing a tarball or an RPM, you might have to go out and download dependencies for whatever you’re trying to install. With apt-get, you don’t have that worry because it calculates the dependencies, gets them, and installs them for you. It’s smart about it, too, installing the dependencies before installing your desired package.
Despite the simplicity I’ve been talking about, I still hear from people that Linux is not meant for total newbs, Joe Sixpacks, average people with no computer know-how. I call shenanigans.
- My mom - Mom is not a computer person, she's a plant person. She'd love nothing more than to spend all her free time repotting plants in her greenhouse. However, since getting internet access years ago, she has discovered the world of online plant trading. My dad maintains the computers in their house and, rather than deal with the continuous BSODs, viruses, crashes, and random, undecipherable Windows errors, he just installed Debian on my mom's machine. She doesn't have to deal with any of that crap now. She just clicks her little Firefox icon to surf plant web sites or her Thunderbird icon to check her mail. This is an example of the usability of Linux for one particular "Joe Sixpack," after Linux has been set up for said user.
- My dormmates - Back when I lived in the dorm, there were occasionally issues with the residential internet service. Usually they affected everyone regardless of their operating system, but on one occasion, I was doing fine on my Linux box when my roommate on her XP system couldn't get anything to load. I thought it was an isolated issue before our neighbors came asking if we were having internet troubles. I had a few live CD's laying around because I enjoy trying out different distributions from time to time. I don't remember if they were Kororaa, Ubuntu, Knoppix, or a mixture of all three. Nevertheless, I distributed them to the other girls with an explanation to pop them in their CD drive, that it wouldn't overwrite any of their stuff, but that they would be able to get online with them. I went with one of the girls, Tiffany, to ensure things worked out. She stuck it in her laptop, booted the disc, and got Firefox up and running. Most live CD's are set up to work with dang near any configuration, so it automatically recognized the internet connection and she was online without any hassle. I introduced her to Gaim so that she could log on to AIM or MSN or whatever and talk to people. I left her with the instructions to reboot and pop the CD out when she was done. A few days later, she brought it back to me, grateful and with her Windows install on her laptop unharmed.
It is also often said to me that getting “basic” features installed in Linux, such as Flash or MP3 support, is difficult. This is another area where Ubuntu shines, in my opinion: if you do a Google search for “ubuntu MY PROBLEM”, you’re probably going to find a solution somewhere on the Ubuntu Forums or elsewhere on the web. Searching for specific problems for other distributions, or for just Linux in general, often lead to good results, too. I’m citing Ubuntu here because I’m more familiar with it and because it’s known for its very friendly user base. There are sites such as Ubuntu Guide for how to install pretty much anything, such as Automatix2, which will let you install things like Flash with one click in a nice GUI. For MP3 support and other restricted formats, Ubuntu has a particular help page addressing that topic.
Even though such things are easy to install, it’s still raised as a complaint that they require installation at all. “Why doesn’t Linux just come with these things? They’re on my Windows machine by default.” To understand this, you have to understand some of the history and reasoning behind Linux and open source software in general. There are different ideals for Linux than there are for Windows; it’s a whole different beast.
Patent and copyright restrictions complicate free operating systems distributing software to support proprietary formats. ... Ubuntu's commitment to only include completely free software by default means that proprietary media formats are not configured 'out of the box'. ... If this seems like unnecessary work, remember that Ubuntu is limited by patents and license restrictions in some countries, which make it illegal for Ubuntu to include them.
See also Philosophy of the GNU Project.
The bottom line is that Linux is really not that hard, even for non-geeks. I think a lot of the reports that it’s hard come from the following issues:
- It's different from Windows. It has a different ideology from Windows and that shapes how things are in the Linux world. It's all up in that "open source" stuff, a lot of distributions don't include things like support for the MP3 format, and people just don't get why that is at first.
- People have had bad experiences in the past. I have a cousin that's an electrical engineer; he programs embedded systems all day in C. This guy is most definitely a computer geek. However, his first experiences with Linux were back in the 90's with RedHat. He experienced firsthand RPM dependency hell, as well as a young and green Linux. For years he refused to try Linux again, sticking instead to familiar Windows. He eventually gave it another shot with Mepis and hasn't gone back since. He and his wife, who isn't a computer geek, happily use Linux exclusively on their home machine. Mepis worked with his wireless configuration, KDE suits him, and Linux is no longer a confusing hassle--it just works.
- Outdated information is spread. Yeah, Linux was not as sleek and user-friendly several years ago as it is today, but then again, what was? How pretty was Windows 95 in comparison with Vista? Remember the brick-like phones that Nokia used to sell, and how everyone had one? How about those old web sites with the flashing GIF images, frames, and lack of CSS? The point is, technology just gets prettier and better over time, and Linux is no exception. If you're talking to someone who tried Linux a few years ago and getting a bad impression, you're not getting an accurate reflection of how things would be for you, were you to try it today.
- You're told it won't work with your particular machine. Now that's just crazy talk. Linux works with some of the most obscure hardware out there, often out-of-the-box. Support is continually being developed for hardware, too. When the next hot device comes out, you can bet there's going to be a Linux solution for it. Linux worked on my old machine with its K6-2 500 MHz processor and on my new machine with its AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ processor. It worked on Todd's Powerbook, dual booting with OS X. It works on an old 386 at my parents' house. It works on my Sharp Zaurus. See Linux Drivers.