When it comes to ease of use, there is no difference between a computer with Windows and a computer with Linux, assuming both systems are installed properly. That there is a meaningful difference is a myth perpetuated by Windows fanboys or individuals who have outdated experience with Linux. Also, the comparison that is often being made is unfair: One’s experience with a computer purchased as Best Buy or supplied at work, with OEM Windows already installed (see below) is being compared with a self-install of Linux onto an about to be discarded computer.
When something “breaks” the two systems start to differentiate a bit, with Windows maintaining GUI interfaces as the only thing a user trying to fix the system will see. A proper installation of standard Ubuntu will also have GUI’s for pretty much everything, but most Linux users will “drop to the command line” in certain circumstances. However, that is not a meaningful difference in ease of use for three reasons: 1) It is not harder to type in 20 or 30 characters to form an esoteric command than it is to click-navigate one’s way through dozens of esoteric and confusing GUI screens. In both cases, the naive user is being guided through territory that is scary, unknown, and annoying by someone who is telling them what to do; 2) There are almost always fewer steps to the solution in Linux, while Windows fixes sometimes require going very very deep into the GUI; and 3) When you apply the fix in Linux, the thing is fixed, but when you apply the fix in Windows it often is not and in the end, one must “wipe the drives” and “reinstall the system” or some other radical thing.1
So, if Linux is not Grandmother Ready than neither is Windows.
In addition to this, the comparison between Windows and Linux is almost always made between a computer that was originally sold with Windows on it that someone is converting to a Linux box, vs. a computer that was sold with Windows on it and, well, it still has Windows on it. A valid comparison would be this: Build two sets of computers out of motherboards, processors, and various parts obtained from mail order, then try to install each operating system on each computer. People do not realize that many OEM Windows installations include manufacture supplied patches or utilities to make their hardware work with that system, and the process of developing an installation “image” for a particular computer is a rather involved engineering process. All those dumb-ass manufacturer-specific buttons on your “multimedia keyboard” or your “multimedia laptop” or whatever work under Windows because somebody at the manufacturer made that happen. If you don’t believe me, replace your current hard drive with a new one to make sure there are no manufacturer supplied secret hidden system fixes on there, and then buy an off-the-shelf copy of your favorite version of Windows and install that on your HP Theater-Ready Laptop or some other computer and see how that goes. Let us know.
Another problem with the culture of misunderstanding in comparing Linux and Windows is the dual boot problem. Some people prefer to set up a dual boot computer to try Linux for a while before making the switch, then have problems and blame Linux. Geeks will disagree, but the truth is that changing your computer from a single OS Windows machine to a dual boot machine involves a high probability of totally screwing it up. Also, Windows has built in abilities to destroy other OS’s on the same hard drive. It’s a little like testing out the new safety helmet by standing in a woodchipper: You’ve significantly increased the chance of something going wrong, and that has nothing to do with Linux. A subset of this problem, alluded to above, is trying out Linux now and then but only on computers you are about to trash. A few people have related their Linux Horror Stories on this blog, and it is clear that the problems they were having were broken hardware, but they blamed it on Linux.
And I could go on with how the idea that Linux is hard and Windows is easy is a falsehood. But that is not the objective of this post. Rather, I wish to make the following two points:
1) Linux has a U-shaped distribution of numbers of installations plotted against ease of use, with the easiest end being easier than Windows and the harder end being harder than windows, with most Linux desktop users (a minority of Linux installs) floating around in the low part of the U; and
2) The ultimate Grandma-ready computer is a desktop system on the left (easy side) of that distribution, a computer setup that does not exist but that should, and that you can probably make.
First, about the U-shaped distribution. It looks like this:
This is unscaled. The height of the distribution is meant only as an indicator of “many” vs. “not many” and there is no meaningful scale on the x-axis; As you go from left to right the system gets harder to use, requires more knowledge, etc.
I wrote in the word “Kindle” to represent all those small devices that are incredibly easy to use (Kindle, Roku, some stuffed animal your kid plays with, a quarter of smart phones, routers, wireless network devices and such, airplane entertainment centers, electronic musical instruments, computer data collection devices, etc.). When Linux is embedded in a device properly, it does a few things very reliably and you don’t even know it is there. When people say “Oh, Linux is so hard, it’s not grandmother ready, when you make it easy give me a call I’ll try it” we Linux users laugh out loud inside. Those people are using Linux every day and it is so easy to use they don’t even know they are using a computer operating system.
On the other end of the diagram is the server and supercomputers. Servers probably aren’t’ really that hard to operate if they are not doing much, but if they are connected to the internet and running various services and must be kept secure and have multiple users then they are a lot of work and great expertise is required. Eight out of ten servers are run on Linux. You might think that since Linux is a free operating system produced by pimply faced fourteen year olds working out of a garage, that real servers, with real demands, and that are of real importance, would use a real operating system like Windows. But no. When we look at the high demand and more critical-task end of server world … the computers used to run the Mars Rovers, the servers used by Hollywood to make those fancy movies, the server that gives you the Major League Baseball strike box graphic … the percentage of boxes running Linux is nearly 100%.
So, Linux comes in two flavors: The kind you don’t see or fiddle with but use all the time with zero effort, and the kind found in servers and supercomputers, many of which you also use all the time with zero effort from you (the web page you are reading now was served up on a Linux server) but that require an expert to run. That describes the vast majority of Linux installations. Those of us using Linux as our desktop/laptop system in every day use are not only a minority of computer users, but we are a minority of Linux users. Every single commenter who bothers to tell me that I’m a Linux fanboy (true) and that I should just shut up (probably also true) are Linux users. Without exception. And, it may well be that the Linux desktop is one of the trickiest places to deploy that system, for the reasons cited above (frequent use off multi-boot systems, crappy hardware, zero engineering to match system to hardware, and so on).
When these problems are removed or controlled for, desktop and laptop Linux is no different than Windows in terms of ease of use. How do I know? Well, I’ve used both systems extensively. Also, every time someone uses my laptop to check their email or whatever, it works for them even though they’ve never used Linux before. I usually don’t even mention that it’s Linux. They just use it and probably figure I’ve got a highly modded version of Windows, or they figure out that it’s Linux and say “Oh, that was Linux. That was easy!” or something.
But what about grandma?
My wife’s grandma would be an example. She has a computer that she uses to type her memoirs. She opens up Word, types stuff, and when she’s done, she prints it out. I’m not even sure if she saves the files. She is using a desktop computer as a typewriter. That’s it. The computer is maintained by her son, my father-in-law. He is very computer savvy, having owned desktop computers since they first became available, and is one of those “go to” guys for when your computer is broken. Recently, he made the switch from Windows to Mac for all but one computer, which he maintained only because it was required for work (due entirely to their secure VPN system). With semi-retirement, he doesn’t need that any more either, so I think he’s all mac now.
But, he does travel over to Grandma’s place every now and then to fix her computer. I’m not sure how often, but every now and then the Windows installation that does nothing other than open and close Word needs to be fixed. Probably because of Microsoft Office or Windows “patches” or “upgrades.”
Grandma Paulson would be the perfect test case for an embedded Linux system. Imagine a desktop (or laptop) that acts as an embedded device, using Linux as the OS, and running only one piece of software (or maybe even three or four). When you turn on the computer, the software also starts up. Perhaps you normally hibernate rather than start up, and there is no password required. Icons on a toolbar allow switching between the apps if there is more than one, and all files are stored in a single directory that, perhaps, happens to be mirrored on dropbox for backup. Files are automatically encrypted, and there is a print button.
The only thing that happens other than typing in stuff is that someone (Duane, me, whomever) comes by once a month and runs the updates. If Grandma had a fast enough Internet connection, that could be largely automatic, and the updates could be done over an ssh connection, but I think she is not that well connected to the Internet. I also think everyone in my wife’s family would freak out if I tried to get grandma on Linux, so I’ll have to find someone else to experiment on. And, probably, I don’t really want to do that either because I probably don’t have the expertise to make something so simple.
But perhaps you can. And report back.
I know what some of you are thinking. I’m talking about something that already exists. They’re called netbooks, or thin clients, or kiosks. Maybe. But I think most of those things are not as simple as what I’m imagining. In fact, maybe I’m imagining something even more simple that suggested above. Like my old embedded word system. Back in the day, I found myself using only word and nothing else for long periods of time, on underpowered hardware running a sucky operating system (Windows 3.2). I discovered that I could run “Winword” as my “Shell.” In so doing, the operating system was not available, but I didn’t need it. I’d turn on the computer, and it would be Word and nothing else. Word had a file management system built in, so that was taken care of. I could even run other office software from Word, if I needed to. But the computer was essentially an embedded word processor system.
Another use of this sort of embedded system is discipline. I’m considering adapting an old laptop I have, which has a fan that works but makes noise, to be a coffee shop computer. No Internet, no browser, just a minimal Linux install with one end user app: emacs. I would take this to the already noisy coffee shop and write, with no temptation to check email, browse, etc.
Just in case I need to look something up, there are ways. If there is an Internet connection, I can use a text-based interface via emacs to access Wikipedia or the Internet Movie Database, and a dictionary or two. Those features would do in a pinch.
Grandma’s Embedded Linux (GEL) would be as close to the left side of the U-shaped distribution as possible, but fill the needs of many who are working in the middle of the distribution. The stripped down nature of the system would add to the already existing benefit of using Linux on older hardware: Your sluggish machine would fly, but with one engine and one seat and one purpose (as a text editor, or perhaps if you like, as a browser).
What do you think? Can we get this project off the ground?
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1Windows 7 is, of course, a perfect operating system and nothing ever goes wrong with it, and when something does go wrong, it is easily fixed, and when that does not happen, wiping the hard drive and reinstalling the system is painless. Or so I’m told. Or was I told that of Vista? Yeah, that’s the ticket. No, no, I was told that of XP. Right, I remember now. Or was it Windows 2000? Oh, I’m so confused … I can never keep straight which Windows OS is the perfect one.