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The HeliOS Project is now.....
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Sunday, November 23, 2008

2008 State Of The Penguin Report - Part 1

Blog of helios is happy to publish their findings after over 1000 separate Linux installs. This will be the first part of a three part weekly series. We hope there is something for all of us to learn within.

I hear it coming before it's even asked.

"Who are you to give the state of Linux?"

In the course of the past two years, I've successfully built and operated a Linux-centered company. In this time, I've done in excess of 1100 individual Linux System installs. I've seen our sparkling successes, our failures and mostly, I've seen first-hand how new users react to Linux and what problems they have with it.

In this area, I believe I am qualified to make some observations and suggestions. And no, this is by no means a complete report on the State of Linux...it's simply my observations and suggestions, given the exposure I've had.

If in your opinion, that does not qualify me to write this article, you are kindly invited to amass this level of data and pass it along to the rest of us. There is no such thing as too much pertinent data. This report is based on the above-mentioned experiences and observations.

Unquestionably Entwined

The computer user and the operating system are melded into one, once he or she sits down at the machine. It is the user that makes an operating system successful or not. If you care to disagree, let's take a look at general public opinion concerning Vista. As unkind as it may seem to many of you, there are some stark realities we must face in going forward.

The "everyday" computer user doesn't "use" the computer at all in most cases. Fact is, if the computer is a moving automobile, the "everyday" user is simply a passenger in the front seat, twisting on radio knobs and fooling around with various switches on the dash board....and only the few switches and knobs he knows to fiddle with.

Let's be honest here.

Many computer users we deal with are functionally illiterate when it comes to their machines. They've learned to click this and click that by pure habit and with nothing that vaguely resembles an understanding what they are doing. I've witnessed these people get totally flustered when something as simple as a dialog window pops up in a different place than they expect it. Fact is, I had one person swear I had put a virus on her computer because she had inadvertently drug her panel to the side of the screen and couldn't understand the telephonic instructions on how to drag it back into place. Even the most inconsequential variant in their routine will screw them up.

These people aren't really even computer users...they are application users who tolerate the computer housing it for them.

Are we to shoulder the responsibility for computer users who refuse to learn anything beyond a handful of mouse clicks to get their jobs done?

Absolutely not. However let me illustrate how we can assist those who might show an inkling of interest in their new computing environment. There are some simple things we can do that will make a world of difference.

During the month of June this year, I presented this situation to 61 different New Linux Users. These were people for whom I was installing Linux and in the process of showing them how their machines worked. Having seen this situation before, I wanted to see how "normal" computer users handled this specific situation.

I opened a dialog box for them and asked each person to complete a task. Now, I knew ahead of time there was going to be a problem. See, the task I assigned them necessitated they click "Administrator Mode" in order to do it. In several Debian variants and at least three rpm distros, it often happened that when you clicked the link to open the dialog, the dialog box did open but the "Administrator Mode" button was concealed by a graphic that was not opened enough to see it.

No big deal, right? Just move your mouse down to the bottom of the box until you get the "spreader cursor" and drag it down...what's the big deal?

I assigned each person presented this "task", three minutes to complete it. Out of 61 people, 48 gave up in frustration, stating there was no way to become administrator.

In the box to the right, you can plainly see the "Administrator Mode" button but on several distros, that button is not visible until you physically extend the box with your mouse.


To many of us, this sounds like a silly little nit being picked but to almost 50 people, it became an issue of frustration. If we can clean up these seemingly small things, I believe we will find that the big issues will lessen quickly. Problems like this to the new user often results in a general report to their friends..."Linux Sucks".

The problem it seems, has been to get someone to just go in and fix it. Having been reported to 4 different distros, I am seeing this "short box" pop up in 3 of the distros as of this week. Mint it is good to note, seems to have fixed it.

It's All About The Tools Kid...

Habits are hard to break, especially when you've spent a great deal of time perfecting that habit. I suspect some of the tools our developers use in putting together the distros are no different. I've seen some phenomenal improvement in wireless performance this past year, and I don't use the word phenomenal with a casual bend. It honestly has been amazing to see the growth and improvement in driver support. However, in several distros, there is a failure that repeats itself with maddening regularity.

Much has been reported lately on the improvement of "Network-Manager". The mainstay of wireless tools has historically been problematic. While there have been improvements, we've noticed an almost religious failure of the app on the second upgrade of many distros. So ok...here it comes...

"I haven't had a bit of problem with it."

Congratulations. Thousands others have and it only takes about 5 minutes and a google page to see it plainly. If it is working for you in a mature install, consider yourself fortunate. We have tested it time and again and the second upgrade failure is constant.

Some distros have recognized the problem and just cut the use of Network-Manager out completely and opted for a little-known but superior alternative called "wicd". It is the first tool I implement when I install new distros that will require heavy wireless use. The problem is that many distros will not allow both tools to exist on the same install so you must uninstall network-manager in order to get wicd to work.

So far, I have yet to have wicd fail and I would encourage some of the distros that are getting complaints about Network-Manager to take a look at wicd. It has solved a lot of problems for us and it's good to see some distros using it out of the box. Still, Network-Manager has some of the more polished functions that we want in a manager such as this and I hope they get this issue dealt with. It's obvious that Kernel upgrades are more than likely the culprit...regardless, a "fix" would be both in order and welcomed. It promises to be a fantastic tool.

Oh, and a word about "Managers". Because I work primarily in KDE, many readers may not ever encounter the problems reported or discussed here. One of the tools I held great hope for was KnetworkManager. While it does have some "management" capabilities buried in the dialog links, I have yet to have it act as a connection tool for my wireless. It fairly sits there and does nothing after I've typed in the appropriate commands. While it serves as a great monitoring tool, it has failed us consistently as a method to connect to our wireless sources. Out of the box, it has failed to pick up a wireless connection 5 feet away.

One suggestion would be to not flood the menus with wireless tools. What I have witnessed new users do is to open synaptic or yum and install every wireless tool they can find in hopes of finding one that will work. Several distros include 3 or 4 of them by default anyway. After a while, the new user has no idea which one worked and which one didn't...they simply rely on the one that did work to remember the settings and connect on the next boot...which is often the case. Wifi Radar has also been a good tool to connect with when others have failed....but one tool should be able to do the job without having to fall back on others.

In next weeks segment, we are going to talk about the habits of the New Linux User and especially focus on our observations of them in the business environment. Linux has become such a drop-dead easy replacement for Windows, even Microsoft recognizes the problem and is even copying some of our features into their systems. There are some simple ways we can not only make it easier for everyone, we can teach people finally that a computer is not an appliance but a tool that needs maintenance as well as knowledge to work correctly.

All Righty Then...







25 comments:

Anonymous said...

that when you clicked the link to open the dialog, the dialog box did open but the "Administrator Mode" button was concealed by a graphic that was not opened enough to see it.

ROFLMAO - I thought I was the only idiot that had that happen. MAN that is frustrating. I've completely uninstalled and reinstalled applications because I thought something was messed up with it. It took me forever to figure it out and I am nowhere near a new user. Thanks for letting me know I'm not the only dummy out there that has this happen to them.

James Dixon said...

This happens even in Windows. I can't count the times I had users complain that their printer wasn't in the list of printers, when all they had to do was scroll the windows to the right. Of course, the default for Windows is to scroll vertically, but for the printer display window they chose to have it scroll horizontally. :(

kozmcrae said...

I find your observations fascinating. I can hardly wait until the next installments. Nice work Ken, thanks.

Richie

Ronnie Myers said...

Yes, I think this guy is right. There are a million small things like the admin dialog box that mess people up. Those things are there in windows too but we have gotten to the point where we know where they are and correct them without thinking.

This is a good piece of insight, thanks for bringing this series to the rest of the users. Sometimes we forget we were new users too.

Ronnie Myers
Miami

Anonymous said...

I don't care anything about new linux users, just post some of the wallpapers you show in your screenshots. Blogger lets you do slideshows on the side. Share the wealth.

Sandy Remmis said...

Wallpapers? You are exactly the kind of Linux User helios talks about. There's work to be done and all you want is his wallpapers?

Try typing into google "linux wallpapers" you bum. Now go play, the grownups are trying to get some work done.

Sandy Remmis
Long Island, NY

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing these experiences. I don't think I'm patient enough to deal with such users but I do understand that they're the ones that set the User Interface standards, and this affects us all (i.e. there're no Clueless-Gnome and Advanced-Gnome.)
And, mate, you really need to polish your desktop themes. With those colours no one is going to like Linux!, hehe.

LimbClock said...

I've had many problems with the network-manager thing on ubuntu. I'm excited about this Wicd thing.

Mr. Pink said...

Death by a thousand cuts

Dennis Bean aka codemeister said...

Helios, Thank You!

Network Manager has driven me CRAZY in Ubuntu. I've spent hours on the forums trying to get the (pottymouth ammended) thing fixed and everytime I update the computer, I lose my wireless. I then trudge around fixing this and that and eventually, maybe days later it might work again.

Did as you said and installed wicd.
There were some problems initially with some of the setup options but inside of 10 minutes I had it handling my wireless and man is it good not to have to babysit my wireless application.

If you've done nothing else, you solved a huge problem for me.

Dennis Bean
Knoxville

DiBosco said...

IMHO, this is one area where Mandriva is very good indeed. Its control centre is absolutely brilliant and so intuitive.

I've just gone back to Windows for a short while to port a Qt app and I absolutely hate it. What seems obvious with Linux I scratch around to do in Windows. Of course, it's at least partly to do with what you're used to and hopefully these efforts by Helios will show more and more people that Linux is not hard to use.

Where Linux wins hands down is speed. Man, Windows is *slow*.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. Mandriva was my last stop before going back to Windows. It seemed that every distro I tried had at least one show stopper for me and what was frustrating is that everything else worked so well. It was always that "one thing" that blew the whole deal.

I was using PCLinuxOS for a while but it has problems of it's own. I read that helios puts Mandriva on the majority of his business clients machines and now I see why. It's not only the great control center, it's the fact that everything works and it's beautiful to look at to right out of the box. I guess you just can't out-mandriva Mandriva. It seems perfect without tinkering.

Anonymous said...

you really need to polish your desktop themes. With those colours no one is going to like Linux!, hehe.

Really? I've been getting his kde settings from him for months and his desktops are beautiful. And beauty it is obvious, is in the eye of the beholder.

r_a_trip said...

Are we to shoulder the responsibility for computer users who refuse to learn anything beyond a handful of mouse clicks to get their jobs done? ... Absolutely not.

Thank you! I'm all for better UI's and more intuitive ways of working with data, but I refuse to babysit this category of user. Accommodating them would result in a Fisher-Price (TM) interface (no I don't mean Luna), which would still confuse these users with only one button on the screen.

No big deal, right? Just move your mouse down to the bottom of the box until you get the "spreader cursor" and drag it down...what's the big deal?

It IS a big deal. If it's not visible, it doesn't exist. If it is a "niggle" in a program I'm not already familiar with, I react the same way initially. Dialog windows should show all options.

The Network-Manager. Yes that is an application with a lot of promise and a lot of hair ripping issues. I haven't had a smooth ride with it yet. I can fix it myself if I need to, but don't expect a newbie to be able to do that. It really should be fixed!

There are some simple ways we can not only make it easier for everyone, we can teach people finally that a computer is not an appliance but a tool that needs maintenance as well as knowledge to work correctly.

Hear, hear!

Matt said...

Thank you for this article.

I have installed Ubuntu Linux on five third-party machines, including one laptop. I have found some pertinent relationships within this tiny sample:

1. The less the user knows about "computers", the easier it is for them to use Ubuntu Linux.

2. A little bit of knowledge (think MS Windows) is very dangerous and leads to frustration.

3. iTunes is evil. After several years, two users willingly embraced Vista.

I cannot say if "a lot of knowledge" is less dangerous because I've not installed for that person yet.

For myself, who relative to the demographic we are talking about, would have "a lot of knowledge," I experienced two weeks of terror home-alone with Fedora 3 before I started to feel confident. Yet even during that period, I was immensely impressed with the whole shebang.

johnV said...

I couldn't agree with you more. Ergonomics, anyone?

Anonymous said...

I've been using WICD for over a year now. It solved having the card not waking up on resume.

The biggest issue I see with noobs is not having a clue about package managers on their systems.

Then they attempt to use Windows troubleshooting skills and start Googling, typing in old, outdated CLI commands that aren't even for their Distro, try to install from downloaded .Debs, RPM or tarballs and break the dependencies.

It's a bit weird hearing users of other OS's trotting out the objections that you have to use the CLI frequently, getting buried with comments from Penguinistas how that isn't true anymore.Then when they have an issue all the instructions from the Web search are CLI

Tor Magnus said...

Fairly interesting article though I'm not sure you're pointing out anything that hasn't been said many times already. Though if it's important enough I guess it can never be said enough.
I was, however, struggling with your writing style. It comes off as fairly passive-aggressive (your tone is at time accusatory) and running a spell checker on it wouldn't hurt either. I'll be interested to see the next article. :)

PS: "drug" is a substance, you meant "dragged" I think.

James Nyland said...

I was, however, struggling with your writing style. It comes off as fairly passive-aggressive (your tone is at time accusatory) and running a spell checker on it wouldn't hurt either. I'll be interested to see the next article. :)

Nothing passive about this piece. The author doesn't mask his intent or obvious bias. He does have an assertive writing style, many people do have trouble with assertive or confident authors. While you have no reason to do so, you might give my opinion here some weight.

I did run a spellchecker here. "distro", "uninstall" and every Linux application mentioned did red-flag the checker, everything else was fine.

+1 on dragged, a common mistake for a Texas Lad, or anyone for that matter. It's a common error. Bill Clinton made the verbal faux pas often and refused to be corrected by anyone for his improper grammar.

James Nyland

J. G. Hopkins said...

You know, I've been coming to this blog for over two years and I've been either so entertained by helios' stories or involved in his projects that I just never bothered to check his grammar or spelling.

hum, NOW we seem to have some passive-aggressive behavior to evaluate.

And hello Dr. Nyland! Did you get my email? Thank you for your help in the past. It was exactly what I needed to make things happen.

Jesse Hopkins
San Antonio

Anonymous said...

Helios, you bring some good things into the light. It is the small things like this dialog box that we simply learn to live with and forget that someone else might find it a stumbling block. Hard to get fixed though, many developers consider this kind of "bug report" a waste of their time. Did you catch Ms. Schroeder's blog? I think it might have been a good mate for this one.

Shame that our developers won't pay attention to the little things.

Anonymous said...

Thank you about the wicd tip. I've been looking for a reliable, distro-neutral GUI networking app that would handle wired and wireless and that would survive kernel updates and upgrades.

Anonymous said...

1)Has the bug regarding the Administrator Mode button been reported to KDE (I don't have time to search now)?

2)If it is fixed in Mint, have they sent the fix upstream?

Bz said...

so where is part 2 & 3?? I'm waiting on the edge of my seat here!

Blog of helios said...

It is coming this week. We've been inundated with HeliOS Project installs and other project tasks that simply haven't allowed us time. It is on my calender to do this week and I promise you it will get done.

h