Since 2008 when OpenBytes was created as a platform to highlight the benefits of GNU/Linux and FOSS itself, little did I know that even though I’ve always kept a foot in the door for the new user (and certainly not gone down the “all or nothing” route some advocates have taken) I too was guilty of forgetting that a “simple to use Distro” is maybe simple to anyone who has had more than a small interest in computers, but the vast majority of people who use their computers have no interest in what’s going on under the hood. They have no interest in source code (if they even know what it is) and do not see the advantages of FOSS because in their computing lifetime they will not see any benefit to them. Of course you can argue that even if the end-user is unaware of what FOSS is, they are still unknowingly, gaining benefits of updates, forks or whatever in the future.
I would hope people read the whole (if somewhat long) article because these are my conclusions of many years advocating FOSS and Linux, talking to (and forming good friendships) with the people involved. I think you will find, if you look back over my years of views that my opinions documented here are no different from those in 2008. Is this a closure article now my writing interests are diversifying? No, not at all. For those that don’t know, I’m currently awaiting a release date for my novel and I’m still focused on technology and FOSS, I merely now have less time to dedicate to a subject which is very dear to me. Over the years I’ve met many advocates of free software, some good and some rather bad. Bad for many reasons but I do notice a large amount of self claimed “advocates” who have no online presence (except for their posts in forums) who would have you believe in an all or nothing approach and if you can look past their hypocritical (and sometimes vulgar) opinions, I find these people as harmful to would be new Linux and FOSS users as the ones who do anything they can to prevent people using it.
This article has been inspired somewhat by a group of people who for many years (for reasons unknown) have targeted Linux newsgroups and forums with the sole purpose of disrupting the advocacy that occurs. These “people” will use any means necessary in order to do that and looking at the amount of posts they make all day every day, one has to conclude that either they have a financial interest in free software being hobbled in the eyes of the mainstream, or worse, they merely have nothing else to do but post all day. One chap in particular who I believe falls into the later category has recently (on top of thousands of words in posts daily) taken to making videos to highlight these “major issues” with Linux. Now just what an allegedly married man with kids and a computer business is thinking of spending so much time in this way is anyone’s guess but it did help to inspire this article.
Let me give an example of this “man’s” work. Recently he took to posting a video showing that using KDE and Dolphin file manager, if you put a file to trash then replaced it back to where it came from (in that example the desktop) you couldn’t edit it because of its privileges been changed to read only. Having not had a need in the past myself this came as a surprise, so I tried it on one of my rig’s. XFCE DE and PCManFM. The issue was not emulated and the read/write privileges for that file remained intact, however this example proves two things. Firstly the depth some people will go to in order to discredit free software and two, for the casual user of tech, did you even understand what I meant by all this?
Who is Linux aimed at?
Most distro’s would boast that they are aimed at new user and expert alike. Now there are many types of Linux user – the seasoned expert, the casual “know enough” user and the brand spanking new non tech interested user who merely wants to do whatever they do on the computer without having to think about whats running underneath.
Most distro’s hit two of those groups well. The expert doesn’t need any assistance at all and the casual user has usually dabbled enough to know exactly what they need to do. The brand new user is a completely different kettle of fish so to speak and this is where Linux fails.
Lets look at Peppermint which is a distro I think very highly of. Installation was very simple, however it was very simple to someone who has installed Linux before and been presented with less user-friendly options. Think of one of your non-tech interested friends who use computers regularly – that might even be you reading this article now. What’s a proprietary driver? Peppermint for example makes it very easy to install these, but if you are not interested in computing, would you know what this meant? - This is but one example where advocacy and Linux distro’s need to take ownership and realize that if they are to appeal to the mainstream user, these things must be clear, simple and to the point, otherwise it’s another facet of Linux which is a barrier to a new user adopting it.
Whilst the example of file permissions video is an extreme example of a business owner (allegedly) who seems to have more free time than business, it does highlight another issue of Linux – conformity. I am unclear as to if his discovery is a bug, or maybe some well-intentioned feature, but if indeed it is a feature which the mainstream user wanted, it’s a barrier straight away.
But Linux choice is great?
Absolutely. I like the fact that I can use KDE on my higher spec’d machine and XFCE where resources are limited – And see? There we go again, advocacy of choice – baffling to anyone wanting to try a different OS for a better experience. Lets give another example. I had a friend who wanted to try Linux – mainly because they had been told the experience would be faster than the one they were experiencing currently. They had performed a little research themselves beforehand and discovered that Linux is sometimes called Ubuntu, sometimes Mint, maybe Sabayon – You get the idea. Now if the concept of “flavours” of Linux is not baffling enough, you then have mention of DE’s, file managers and all manner of choices. – All this is great for people who know what this stuff is, but I’d suggest that about 90% of the desktop users have no interest in these things and merely want their computer to perform a task, they may want a faster experience or a more secure one, but as to what is going on underneath, whether the software is proprietary or not, is of no concern. The majority of users have one computing requirement: “It does what I want it to as quickly as possible and no problems”. Anything less than this from an OS that is different from the one they’ve used for years and they will go running back to that which they previously used – better the devil you know.
Proprietary drivers are a good example. Lets forget about gaming, but on all the rigs I’ve run and installed Linux on, the better performance comes from using proprietary drivers. Sorry if that offends some people. Sorry if that’s “evil”, but its the fact. In fact my experience of the free drivers has been a hit and miss affair. Whilst I advocate free software, I’m not prepared to gloss over the fact that (certainly on all the set-ups I’ve used) proprietary drivers have performed better. Now you tell me, if you were to introduce Linux and free software to your Windows using neighbour, would they be interested in listening to a talk on free software and then not having proprietary software in favour of “ethical” software? I’m sorry – The mainstream are not interested. Who cares? It’s software? – To be fair to their apathy towards software ethics there are more important things in this world to have a conscience about and even for me, an advocate and user of free software, the “evils” and the “ethics” of free software are well down the list of important issues in the world.
Richard Stallman – A help or hindrance?
There are fewer people who have done more to promote the benefits of free software than Richard Stallman. Anyone who has followed Mr Stallmans work over the years will see that not only does he have a firm opinion but also sticks with what he says and lives his computing life exactly to his viewpoints with software – that in itself is something worthy of much praise and I hope in the future, he plays a very large part in the computing history books. But in his dedications I certainly think there are flaws, not flaws in what he says, more flaws in what is expected by him.
In my view, the very last person to appeal to the mainstream non-tech interested user is Mr Stallman. This is not because he is rude or aggressive in his delivery, nor is he aloof or patronizing, its more his unswerving view towards everything which he regards as “ethical”. For users of free software, Mr Stallman is interesting and provides much food for thought. For a new user, I would guess he’s baffling, restrictive and certainly not promoting a desirable alternative to say Windows or Mac. Let me explain.
If we agree that around 90% of the computer using populus have no tech interest, I think we can also say that the vast majority of those non-tech interested also like “fluff” – the bells and whistles that are provided on a new machine when they first switch it on. Proprietary drivers running in the background, a few proprietary games. I think you can imagine the type of system they will be running.
Now lets consider what RMS would “approve of” this is rather difficult for me since through the hours of footage I’ve seen of Mr Stallman, he seems more geared around what you shouldn’t use. But lets imagine something which Mr Stallman would approve of, now imagine presenting that to your Windows using neighbour who doesn’t care about software ethics (or having source code to anything) once you imagine that, I would hope you can see the problem.
The Linux and FOSS world seem to me to be intrinsically linked together in a sort of “all or nothing” type world. I argue that the reverse should be true. Why not use Linux yet use proprietary software? Why not say have a proprietary Operating System and use free software? – If I go to an open air music festival it doesn’t mean I want to wear flowers in my hair and live in a caravan near to Stonehenge.
So what is my answer?
Firstly I think that Linux advocacy needs to be directed at the new user who knows absolutely nothing and has no real interest. Anyone who does know and you’re merely preaching to the converted. It’s all well and good RMS talking about software ethics, but the only people he is reaching out to in my opinion are the ones who are already in the know and have made their own decisions.
I think the mainstream distro’s have a responsibility (even with their simple to use installation) to explain and take the users through the steps – the proprietary drivers being an example. Maybe even have a two option installer, one for the total beginner and one for people whom are comfortable or already know?
I think we also need to speak softly in the ear of the “all or nothing” folk who preach the ethics of free software. These people whilst get the favour and ear of those in the know do nothing to show the mainstream the value of coming over to Linux. The aim should be to introduce new users slowly, not throw them in the digital deep and see if they sink. People (believe it or not) can make up their own mind on where they stand on proprietary, after they have moved from a Windows or Mac machine to Linux.
Hypocrisy? – The Linux gaming and other questions.
Open source gaming can offer many hours of entertainment. I have reviewed and played many RPG’s which are open source and they have been great. But when considering the value of open source software, gaming should not be used as an example and I don’t think open source gaming will ever get mainstream penetration for the reasons I list below:
Most of the “popular” open source games are WIP’s. Whilst the source is open for everyone, how many people have the skills to benefit from it? and why would a hardcore gamer (or a user whom gaming plays a large part in) want’s to play a game whose code (and game is in a state of flux). People don’t go out and get Grand Theft Auto 5 with a promise “Don’t worry you’ll be able to ride motorcycles in the next version” or “We’ve got someone working on some great features, I know your gun doesn’t shoot straight, but next version we’ll have that sorted”. Sure, proprietary gaming does have updates, there are sometimes massive problems with proprietary gaming, but as a rule, when you get the latest Grand Theft Auto or similar you get a complete game thats ready to go. Todays gamer wants it now. They want it complete. Open Source gaming does not offer this and even if it did, if we take the popular Alien Arena (FPS) and put it on the PS3 against proprietary alternatives, would it be given a look in? I’d say no.
Many that call themselves open source advocates would disagree with me and list games which are open source and popular and I’ll agree, there are popular games but with todays gamers, can we honestly say Tux Racer offers something more than the experience they would get with say Mario Kart? Is there any benefit Tux Racer has being open source which would appeal or entice the mainstream gamer? I’d say no. Sorry – the game has a team of dedicated hard-working contributors, the game itself is fun, but it in no way compares to a proprietary equivalent at all. Want to argue? Try showing Tux Racer to your WII owning neighbour who plays Mario Kart, see what they say.
Now we come to the hypocrisy of some advocates of free software. Free software is great? Open source is great? Well I’d agree and one of the most popular examples of free software is the emulator. Retro computing from yesteryear that’s open source. Good idea? Well of course it is. Emulators are being used in many Linux distro’s and in fact Puppy Arcade dedicates itself to emulating a plethora of old systems that you’ve heard of (and some that you havent). The trouble is for the open source world is that whilst the popular emulators are open-source, the software which they are designed to run isnt. A fact which gets conveniently overlooked by some. It also highlights my point that if open source gaming is so great, how is it that emulators are far more popular and the software being run is proprietary?
The Raspberry PI has been hailed by many as a great piece of kit (and it is, without doubt) but even the PI is running (in some cases) proprietary software with use of emulators. If your emulator is open source does that discount the “evil” proprietary? I’d say in the case of many of the FOSS advocates it does since they remain very quiet. I’d expect a boycott of emulators (for the reasons stated above) from them, but instead we don’t get it. (Maybe they are too busy playing SNES Super Mario?)
The market share of Desktop Linux is always up on debate – and I care not for the actual figure. For the purposes of this article, lets just say it’s between 1-10% (please don’t debate this figure it’s merely for illustration purposes of the point) and I think the contributing factor to the share remaining quite small is that the unrelenting “all or nothing” view pushed by some of the more vocal advocates.
“But open source software is better for the user because there are no back doors people know exactly what the program is doing!” Rubbish. Let me take a current example to highlight this. But lets firstly remove this myth. Whilst yes, having the source available enables any back doors to be identified, for the majority of users how do you know that the software your package manager has installed is the same as the source? and even if it is, would you be able to trawl through the code and identify a back-door? I’d suggest the vast majority of open source users (even the experts) would have neither the time or expertise to do that. It’s ok if you are running a simple little Python script to identify anything untoward, but a binary with thousands of pages of accompanying code? Best of luck. The other myth about back doors (as current news shows) is that its nothing to do with the software you are running on your machine. For example, if my Google Mail is being looked at by a government agency, the fact I use Linux and FOSS has no effect on that what so ever. If my Google drive is being examined, do you think it even factors in that I use FOSS? Of course not. In addition, if someone wanted to monitor my online activities, then with a court order this could be done at an ISP level. The fact I run Linux or FOSS software again would have no bearing.
There will never be (in my opinion) a world where there is only open source software and unless the consumer (and that’s a key word here) demands it, there will be no dramatic shift (certainly in the gaming market) towards it. You only have to look at the most popular BitTorrent client on Windows – it’s not open source, its proprietary, now with the plethora of choice even on Windows for the BT client, why is it that the one which is proprietary is the popular one? It’s because the mainstream don’t care. You won’t convince them. So if Linux is to gain further adoption on the desktop (which itself is seeing a decline) then you need to cut back on your “ethics” and consider the “market” in which you are introducing it. You don’t need to tell me about the benefits and ethics of FOSS. You probably don’t need to tell most of the people who are reading this (as we already know). But above all, you certainly don’t want to be preaching it to uninterested potential new users. You’ll drive them away and back into the arms of a welcoming proprietary environment, that doesn’t baffle them or preach ethics and merely presents them with what they want.