I have a friend who has a passion for bicycle racing. He has teenage boys who do very well in the sport and have won a lot of races. One of his sons flew to Belgium to compete this last summer. As you can imagine, he was a very proud father. I once casually showed him a magazine ad for a bicycle I was considering buying.
I asked him what he thought of it and he launched into a long diatribe about how the bike I was looking at was all wrong. It was too heavy, the tires were too wide, the seat was too low and the handle bars too high… I let him go on for a minute or two then I gently said that I wasn’t intending to compete with the bike, I just wanted to ride around the park and maybe take it down to the beach to cruise up and down the boardwalk. “Oh,” he said, “Yeah, that’s a good bike for that sort of thing” and moved on to another topic, obviously a little disgruntled that I would even bother to show him anything other than a new high-tech racing bike.
I must admit I felt a little silly, like I had committed some awful faux pas. All of that could have been avoided if he had stopped to think about bicycles from my point of view before answering my question. That seems obvious looking back, doesn’t it? I could have prefaced my question by saying what I wanted to do with the bike, too. We both just had very different ideas of what a bike should be.
Judging a bike’s worth has a lot to do with who will ride it and it’s also just as true to say that judging a Linux distro relevance has much to do with who will be using it. I think those of us who are passionate about Linux need to keep that in mind as Linux becomes more and more mainstream. I realize that I have probably been a bit like my friend when it comes to answering people’s questions about Linux at times. It’s an easy thing to do when you’re very passionate about something. It took me doing something I would never advise anyone to do to figure it out.
As I write this, Canonical is just a few days away from releasing the next incarnation of Ubuntu. I found myself in a situation the other day where I had to reload one of my machines, the laptop that the entire family uses, the one that needs to work and be stable. This little HP EliteBook with its Intel i5 processor and integrated graphics has been running Ubuntu 14.04 for most of its time with us but I wanted to try something new, so I did this totally crazy thing: I installed Ubuntu 15.10 Beta. No, I didn’t test it, I didn’t read the release notes and I didn’t have one single issue with it at all. It just worked. I installed every piece of software I needed on that machine except one that is not out for 15.10 yet. I’m sure that PPA (personal package archive) will come to life in a week or two. It took me less than two hours to totally rebuild it including putting all the data back on it.
Now, I know that there have been many changes to the Ubuntu Base system since 14.04 came along almost two years ago but you sure wouldn’t know it by looking at the new 15.10. From a casual user’s point of view, nothing much has changed at all. It’s still the same old Unity desktop with new backgrounds, pretty much. What’s astonishing is how well everything worked more than a week away from the official release. How many of us more experienced computer nerds have waited a month or two to install a new version of software only to find that there are still bugs needing to fixed? I’m sure there are some issues lurking in Ubuntu 15.10 but they sure didn’t affect my use case, not one bit. I was amazed.
The knee-jerk reaction to the experience I just described above from many in the ever changing world of Linux computing would be to say that Canonical isn’t innovating enough or they might even go as far as to say that Ubuntu is boring and losing its relevance. As a computer nerd who loves to play with new stuff, I can understand that point of view. I was really shocked at how little had actually changed and maybe I was just a tad disappointed. My disappointment faded away fast when I saw my son playing Minecraft on the newly reloaded HP later that afternoon with not so much as a raised eyebrow on his part, though. It just worked and he was happy. That made me happy. That’s when it hit me that boring is good and we should all embrace it.
The fact that Ubuntu has been so consistent for so long is a good thing. No one who upgrades from Ubuntu 14.04 to 15,10 or the upcoming 16.04 LTS is likely to be knocked out of their comfort zone. Now, those who use Ubuntu in an enterprise application as a server or in a network will really find themselves in a different reality unless they have stayed up-to-date with all the changes under the hood. The switch from upstart initialization to systemd alone is going to require a lot of adjustment for enterprise users. The major changes are all under the hood so the average laptop or desktop user at home won’t ever know the difference. Once again, this is a good thing. The enterprise sector will adjust in no time to the base changes but the less computer savvy user would really be thrown for a loop if they had a completely revamped GUI.
Canonical takes a lot of criticism from the more enthusiastic members of the Linux press a lot of the time. I read a lot of Linux news, listen to podcasts and watch a lot of YouTube videos so I’ve heard it all. The main thing I hear again and again is how boring Ubuntu and Linux Mint are compared to more cutting edge Linux distros. Well, that brings us back to the whole point of view discussion because many of these folks who make the blogs, podcasts and videos are very tech smart and love to tinker with their Linux boxes. There is nothing at all wrong with that. Linux is like a big toy box and there’s so much to play with! The more you learn, the more you can really customize a computing experience that exactly fits your vision of what it should be.
I myself have done my share of tinkering and shared my experiences quite freely but the truth of the matter is that most folks simply aren’t that interested in that side of computing. They just wanna surf the web, read e-mail and maybe a few other humdrum tasks on a secure system that will be reliable. That’s all. Those who rant on about how boring Ubuntu and Linux Mint are completely miss that point. I feel they do the entire community a huge disservice when they do, too. What is lacking is a concerted effort to draw average users in by assuring them they will be able to get things done with Linux.
You see, I feel very strongly that Linux is approaching a tipping point. Windows 10 refugees are searching for alternatives right now. Some will just go plunk down huge wads of cash for a Mac but many more are looking seriously at Linux and they are just about ready to take the plunge. Linux doesn’t have any big advertising agencies pushing ads out to mainstream media. It’s mostly word of mouth in the form of blog posts, YouTube videos and podcasts that spread the good word about Open Source and Linux.
Linux also doesn’t get much serious coverage from mainstream tech journalists. It is most often portrayed as being difficult to work with and really only good for running servers. Most who say this are those that haven’t taken a good look at Linux in years. Add to that the fact that there are hundreds of distros and several desktops added in with millions of opinions on what Linux should be and these new folks coming to Linux could get very confused. Is it really a good thing for them to see a bunch of people putting down the distros that will most likely work best for them? No, I don’t think so.
Some see Linux as an exclusive club reserved for the few who can install it from scratch at a command line. These are the same folks who post rants about Ubuntu and Linux Mint being boring and irrelevant. These are also the same folks who tend to give snarky, snobby and sarcastic answers to questions they find to be below them if some poor newbie should happen to ask. I have taken a new tactic when it comes to dealing with these people. I simply ignore them and keep on going. I see the endless flaming and bickering as being counterproductive. It’s usually not worth the energy to engage them in any kind of discussion and many times it feeds the fire. There is so much positive energy around Linux and I choose to focus on that.
It has become more and more apparent to me that we, as a community, would benefit from a little bit of marketing 101 training since it’s up to us to be the ambassadors to Open Source and Free computing. It would also do a lot of us a lot of good to stop and think about the average user and what he wants from his or her computer before we launch off into a long-winded sermon about the pitfalls and joys of distro hopping. Keep it simple, offer limited choices at first and, above all, be positive!
Linux may not be for everyone but I see no reason at all why it can’t become a major player in the consumer desktop market. I don’t subscribe to the commonly-asserted idea that everyone will be using smartphones and tablets in the not too distant future and desktop and laptop computers are going to go away. People will always want real computers and while the market may have shrunk somewhat, there are many indications that the tablet bubble has already burst. Big companies like Dell and HP are starting to look at Linux, plus more smaller OEMs are shipping PC’s preloaded with Linux all the time. Most of those come loaded with Ubuntu. I wish them more and more success. I have even gone so far as to tell potential EzeeLinux clients that they might be better off to buy one of these than paying me to reload their old hardware. Whatever it takes to get them into Linux with a solid install that they can use everyday and learn from is alright by me.
Steve Jobs once gave a speech in which he chided himself for making the mistake of putting technology first and the people who were to use it second. He explained that he had come to realize that one should start with the user experience and work back from there. I think many pundits and developers in the Linux world are guilty of putting technology and principles before the user experience. I have done so at times myself when trying to convince someone that Linux is the bee’s knees. My feeling is that it won’t matter much because I see the rise of Open Source computing as being an inevitable thing.
Economics alone are enough to drive the movement forward but folks are getting hip to all of the dangers lurking in the cloud and they’re looking for safer platforms to manage their online realities. Still, our approach to new users can either speed this process up or impede it. What some might call boring may be the best place for these folks to start. Keep that in mind the next time you hear someone saying Ubuntu is boring remember: boring means stability, reliability, familiarity and that’s just what new users are looking for. There will always be room for innovation and customization in Linux and I don’t see that ever going away. We will all benefit as the user base grows and if Ubuntu leads the way, so be it.