Sunday, September 27, 2009

Conundrum of Choice

If you follow the Linux world at all you have seen the same questions asked and topics debated over and over again. Is this the year of the Linux desktop? What is holding Linux back? What's the best way to bring new people into the fold? Can grandma be happy with Linux? All free software or take a more accepting view of proprietary software?

While these are all important discussions I think the most important question discussed is whether there should be a "standard Linux." I've seen people get extremely flamed to Sunday and back for even having the guts to bring this up. But why is there such vitriol against the idea?

I've had family and friends ask me "how do you know all this stuff?" in amazement as I can tell them some way to fix their Windows problem from memory over the phone. How did I learn this stuff? Well, besides having to do it a million times, there is only one way to do it: "Open Explorer, go to Tools, ..."

In Linux this is not the case. At all. Sure, I can tell them to open up a terminal/console and type in some commands but uninformed user shudders at this; clicking buttons is their comfort zone. This leaves Konqueror as the way to do things. Oh wait, it's not just Konqueror. There's Dolphin, Nautilus, Midnight Commander, Thunar, and on and on. What prompted this whole thought process is this editorial at ZDNet that is a rundown of the 10 best Linux file managers.

Even an experienced computer scientist like myself cannot keep track of all the different ways to do something in Linux. This allows for a wealth of customization and allowing you to do things your way, but this is really only a benefit to tech people who, let's be honest, can switch distributions and such as they please. An instance of the flip side for normal users occurred this summer. My students were working in a Linux environment and, though I told them to set KDE as their default, some people who had seen Linux before wanted to use Gnome. I let them, but later when they had problems translating KDE-centric instructions to Gnome I had to shrug and say "I don't know." This is where the "one to rule them all distro" makes sense: avoiding the huge hurdle that new users experience of getting help. Everyone joining the party would be in the same boat, everyday users could give each other tips, online guides would be simplified and they'd never find one for the wrong environment, and techie people would only need to learn the generic way and then whatever way they prefer doing things.

Ah but that would make too much sense. People will continue to bicker for all eternity because they don't want Ubuntu to become the standard over their beloved Fedora (replace those two with any other distros to your pleasing). They'll say it isn't in the spirit of Linux or that it's against free software because this Joe Everyman distro would have to include graphics drivers and media codecs.

Look at the rising popularity of Linux Mint and PCLinuxOS, the two that seem to have gotten the closest to this ideal. New users don't care about our tired and pointless debates, they are worried about practicality and usability. An article about the 10 best file managers isn't going to get their juices flowing like the rest of us.

To satisfy the grognards, isn't the spirit having a distro to suit everyone's needs? This distro-for-everyone would serve the users who don't care about customization and choice, the people coming over from Windows or Mac that are used to being told how they should accomplish something. If we are honest with ourselves these people are not using Linux now, so this new distro probably would not hurt the existing distros that much.