Warp 35

Soapbox of a GNU/Linux lovin' guy.
FOSS just works.

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Location: Groningen, Groningen, Netherlands

I'm a Dutch guy born in 1974. Growing up I went from a dreamer to halfway mature. In 2002 I met my life partner and I'm living happily with hime ever since. I'm seconded at Stork Technical services since 2001. Right now I'm pretty happy with where I'm at.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Is converting a good idea?

I have seen a sudden resurgence in articles dealing with the subject of "converting" non-GNU/Linux users. While the general idea is laudable, I wonder if the end result is anything but benign. Of course getting everybody liberated and free to shape their computing environment seems like the best thing to do. Who doesn't want to be free? The problem is that most people don't want to have a free computing environment, they rather have no computing environment at all. A computer to them is a necessary evil. They have to deal with it to get the stuff done they ultimately desire. Most people don't want to use a computer to process their information, but there are no other more cost and time effective alternatives available.

Converting these people won't help them and it won't help you or me. Realistically, "converts" will be coming from the Windows world. When you coax these people in to switching, you pull them from a world, where everybody from the Major to the town idiot uses Windows. Where drivers are written for Windows, where books are written for Windows. You drop them in a niche world, where everything is a few steps behind Windows, where hardware is not made for GNU/Linux, where there are no local users around, where knowledge has to be gained by learning yourself. In other words you dump them in an alien world, where people who merely tolerate computers are truly lost.

I know we can be very persuasive when we talk about freedom, community, low cost, high stability, acceptable security, no upgrade cycles. Trouble with that list is that it only comes to fruition when you generally muck about with computers. If your predisposition is to use a computer as an unenjoyable means to your ends, GNU/Linux won't yield any of the promised items. Using GNU/Linux in that situation will drop you in a barren world where anything you do is more complicated, time consuming and a more lonely endeavour than ever before. Your neighbor won't be able to help you. No shop has qualified staff to fix stuff for you. No crappy $5 software from the supermarket will run on your machine. The only help you have is that geeky "friend" who dumped the wasteland of GNU/Linux on you.

It will be a burden on the geeky friend as well. We always claim that Windows doesn't have a community, but that is the biggest lie in the world. Windows has the biggest community of all OSes. Everybody condemned to do computing through it, has a friend in a fellow Windows user and they all help each other to get by. When we yank them out of this real life community, we create a huge problem. These people can't handle Internet communities, this is an alien concept. The typical Windows user asks his questions to the nearest living soul, not some l33tk1d on a forum. The reality most of the time translates to the geek becoming the "help community" all on his own. This might function if the geek has angelic patience, but people can handle just so much and a non-geek is pretty draining. Non-geeks don't explore on their own, they wait until they get the solution dictated to them.

It is not that a typical Windows user is retarded, it is just that his mind works different from the ones in geeks. Different people, different skills. The problem is a lack of empathy on our behalf. We can't for a moment visualize a world where computers are alien, hostile things. Computers serve us, because we have a gut feeling about the way they function and we can beat them into submission. Non-geeks are at the mercy of those misbehaving pieces of electronic junk. Windows as the most common way of computing has the upper hand for the non-geek. They can always depend on other victims to help them. Truth be told, GNU/Linux is not better in that respect than Windows. If you can't figure out how to tame Windows, you won't be able to tame GNU/Linux. So getting the Windows user out of the realm of Windows is unduly punishing them for using something that halfway works for them.

GNU/Linux needs to depend on the curious computer users. The ones who can explore on their own. People who can ask questions on forums. The geeky people. At least we need to stop alienating entrenched Windows users. Just long enough for commercial parties to start supporting GNU/Linux as a mainstream system. We geeks can't "rescue" the 95% computer users on Windows. They outnumber us in support questions. They are ill equipped to handle computing tasks. Windows at least has the support structure in place to get them through their computing days. We only put them in agony on GNU/Linux if we can't be there 100% of the time for them to solve the trivial stuff. It might mean tolerating Windows a few decades longer, but it will mean a lot less drain on us and more time for GNU/Linux to become more refined.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Being the computer guy sucks.

I've been mucking about with Linux on the Desktop since 1998. I'm a full time user since 2000. I know my way around the Linux Desktop. There also lies the problem. I'm quite knowledgeable about an Operating System which is sparsely used in my geographic area. Up North in The Netherlands FOSS isn't that prevalent yet. All long time Linux users know the strengths of the Linux OS, we also know that that "other OS" has some very annoying weaknesses. When I see people struggle with the OS from Redmond and I see they are fed up with it, I can be too eager to suggest Linux.

Some have taken the suggestion to heart and did make the plunge. That in itself is not the problem. It is a good thing if people exercise their freedom of choice. The problem is the attitude towards the hands on nature of Linux. Linux doesn't shield you from the inner workings. The OS rightly assumes you are knowledgeable or able to get knowledgeable. Some people can handle that and they adapt. Others keep assuming that an OS will babysit you through your computing session and lock you out of dangerous or low level stuff.

It is the latter category of people who are giving me grief. Most of them can use a search engine to find any information they need, but for the life of them they seem absolutely unable to apply their searching skills to their technical problems. So most of the time it comes down to me to help them with trivial stuff. Well, help is an understatement. I have to do the work for them, because "it is all so difficult". The darker part of me wants to attribute that to disrespect and laziness, but my lighter side refuses to believe that.

Switching Operating Systems is a time intensive task. You have to reinvest considerable effort in a new platform. Old assumptions don't work anymore and new features need exploring. In today’s busy existence it is a daunting task. I can imagine it is very tempting to offload the tricky stuff on me. I have been through all the motions already. For me it is trivial to do them. All very true, but there is one huge, flawed underlying assumption. It assumes that I have nothing better to do with my life than to fix trivial computer problems.

Yes I am geeky and I like computers in general, but there is more to me than information technology alone. I'm discovering more and more enjoyable ways of spending my leisure time. My social inhibitions are becoming less of an obstacle at my age. I'm not as plagued by my disorder(s) in the autistic spectrum, as I was in earlier years. I do enjoy an evening just talking about life, the universe and everything. (What is the Ultimate question?) I like to be invited for just a cup of coffee and I won't be disappointed if there is no computer to be fixed. Most people might not realize it, but most of the time they are beyond number 4 already when they ask me for help with their computer problems.

What doesn't help either is that I firmly believe in learning how to fish. I can't handle people who ask me for just a fish meal very well. I keep giving them pointers to where they can find information on the net, where configuration in Linux is done, how to get the most out of the available software. Most of it seems to go right out the window. Pointers don't help. The "problem" people simply don't latch on to the pointers and explore on their own from there. If I want them to do what I suggest, I have to spell it out to the last dot. If I have to start dictating, I might as well do it myself. It'll be quicker and less frustrating.

Ultimately, I'd love for everybody to be able to do computing in full freedom. Freedom does come with obligations though. One of them is actively pursuing and defending freedom. Here some of my "switchers" falter. They don't seem to pursue true computing freedom, they are trying to get rid of computing frustrations and they latch on to the promise of problem free computing, represented by the stability and resistance to malware of Linux. Linux can keep that promise, but only if you take the time to learn how to work the system. If you don't, it is just a waste of time considering using Linux at all.

Back to me. Can't I just help all those people? Yes, I could, but I don't want to spend most of my time mucking about with computers anymore. I'm past thirty now. The once strong teenage fascination of mucking about with machinery under my control is swiftly waning. Life is demanding other stuff now. I have a boyfriend who doesn't want to feel bewidowed by a computer. I own a house that needs maintenance. I also have friends that want to see me for me and not just to fix their electronic piece of junk. It simply means that I won't come round on a whim and fix your stuff.

You've got a brain and two hands, you are perfectly capable of solving your problems yourself. God knows I'm giving pointers enough to help you out. I keep saying "Google is your friend." I really mean that. If you can't find it on Google, be sure I can't fix it either. I'm quite knowledgeable, but most of the stuff I know is readily available on the net. It is just you and your willingness to let go of the resistance to learn a new system. Learn it you must, no matter how much you try to fend it off. Do you really think I'll still be around holding your hand, when you are all in the home for the elderly people?

What about that sucking bit over being the computer guy? Well, being a computer guy is not so much the problem. It's the expectations people have about you. I have the feeling I'm never supposed to say no and I do get the feeling that I have to fix every little problem brought to my attention. Of course your problem is minor and doesn't take much time to fix, but you are not the only one. I don't want to spend my days waiting for the next one to show up and ask me to do their own computing chores for free. It is your computer. Get of your butt and learn a little about it. If not, I'll have to start charging for my time, because time is money and mine ain't free.

Does that mean I won't ever help out again? Nah. I'm still a geek at heart and if you ask nicely and show effort to do stuff yourself, I won't say no. Just plan it in a timely manner. Flash visits to fix trivial stuff won't be on the menu.

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