As more people come to Linux, those of us who help the Windows refugees make the switch will need to be very patient with them. The more someone knows about Windows, the more likely it is that they will break Linux. Handing them a Linux laptop and saying, “Here ya go…” is not enough if they are going to succeed. You’re going to have to hold their hand for a while and telling them to “RTFM” will just drive them back to Windows. Understanding why they struggle as much as they do will help you to help them avoid some of the common pitfalls.
I specialize in helping people get started with Linux. I’ve helped hundreds of people over the last few years and I can pretty much spot the ones who are going to do well and those who are going to be frustrated. If a client approaches me and they start the conversation with “I’ve been using Windows for 20 years…” I know it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
The pattern is always the same: I walk them through an install and all is well for about two weeks and then I get a frustrated message from them about how Linux is stupid and doesn’t work. I know without asking that they’ve broken something major or borked up the whole system. I usually can fix the problem and make a good lesson out of it for them. I have gone so far as to walk them through a second installation from scratch. If the system is totally hosed, that’s the best way to go. Give them a clean slate to work with and hope they learned something.
On the other hand, if a client tells me that they know nothing about computers but they need one to get things done like writing documents, spreadsheets, web surfing and email then they usually have zero issues. I get them setup and I don’t hear from them again. I usually contact then after a month or two and they invariably tell me everything is working perfectly. I got a call from a gentleman I hadn’t heard from in a year and a half recently. He said everything was working nicely but he wanted some advice about upgrading his Linux Mint from 17.3 to 18.1 and could I help him get it right. No problem. Wonderful to hear that all is well!
I put my Mom on Linux a couple of years ago and she has had no major issues, as well. I go over there every so often and check on the state of the system and it’s chugging along just fine. I upgrade the kernel and that’s about it. She hasn’t even changed the wallpaper since I installed it. It’s not like she doesn’t use the computer; she’s on it every day. Since I switched her to Linux, she has embarked on a big research project that involves crunching a lot of information and scanning in mountains of documents and photos. She told me that she never did anything like that before because she was always afraid of breaking Windows that now that she’s using Linux she isn’t scared anymore.
So, what gives here? Sit a total newbie down in front of a Linux computer and they just start using it but hand Linux to a 20 plus year Windows power user and they trash it and get frustrated. Why is that?
I’m not a psychologist but I can hazard a guess or two on the subject. First off, nobody becomes an expert overnight. No, it takes years of practice. Lots of reading and experimenting and poking around have to take place before you can call yourself any kind of guru. A lot of it becomes muscle memory after a while. Take someone who is used to the Windows way of doing things and then put them in front of a Linux machine and it throws them off balance. What makes matters worse is that they are coming to Linux because they have reached a point of severe pain. They have become so disgusted with Windows that they are desperate to rid themselves of it. They’re impatient from the get go and that’s a bad place be mentally when you’re embarking on a big life change like learning Linux. Remember, we’re not talking about average users here… They feel like they’re smarter than the average bear and they can manipulate Windows to do their bidding. With Linux, everything they know doesn’t apply. It’s completely different.
These folks have a hard time taking what they see on the screen at face value and it has become an ingrained reflex to think in terms of “tricking” the system. Windows isn’t very up front about how it actually works. I remember back in my Windows Server days asking experts what the system was doing and they’d look at me and say, “I don’t know.” These were Microsoft certified engineers, folks. If they don’t know, who does? So, it’s easy to get into a place with Windows where you have to trick the system into doing what you need it to do. This kind of mentality doesn’t work with Linux at all and that’s where the problems really begin.
I have found that the attitude you someone brings to their first steps with Linux will define how the entire journey is going to go. If they expect Linux to work, look and act just like Windows then they are doomed to fail. Linux is NOT Windows and even though many newbie friendly distros work hard to look like Windows, they’re actually nothing like it under the hood at all. That can be very misleading to new users.
I liken moving from Windows to Linux to picking up and moving to another country. Let’s say I decide I don’t like being in America anymore so I decide to move to France. Now, if I expect everything in France to be just like it is in America, I’m going to be very frustrated when I get there. Example: Here in America, I know where all the good grocery stores are, I know what products I like to buy there and I don’t give buying food much thought at all. But, drop me in Paris and I won’t have a clue. Finding a grocery store won’t be too hard but I won’t know any of the brands. I can either ask for help or just go buy one of everything to see which ones I like best. I’ll have to learn how to feed myself again. I can either have fun with it and see it as a challenge or get miffed at France for being different. It’s all up to me. Same goes for Linux.
It’s also good to keep in mind that some Windows power users feel quite threatened by Linux. They have a lot of their identity wrapped up in Windows. They’re big fish at work and among their friends. Admitting that they don’t know something is hard for these people. These are the ones who post a constant stream of ill-informed negativity anywhere that Linux is brought up. Some feel like it’s their personal mission to stamp out Linux and discredit it at every turn. Their OS is their religion and, just like any fanatic, they must convert the lost and punish the infidels. I tend to completely ignore these folks. They’re not worth my time or yours, for that matter. Less commented Windows users are influenced by these folks, though. I spend a lot of my initial time with clients dispelling myths. You wouldn’t believe some of the crazy stuff I’ve heard.
I usually explain all of this to Windows refugees who’re struggling to adapt to Linux and I also remind them that they didn’t become Windows gurus without making quite a few mistakes along the way. I’m a good example myself. I was an early adopter of Windows XP. Most folks now point to XP as being the best Windows ever… Well, if you’d seen it on 2002, you’d wonder why. It was a buggy mess and it has numerous issues. I jumped directly from Windows 98 to XP and I know I trashed it completely at least five times in the first six months because I kept trying to “fix it.” That’s how I got good at installing Windows XP: Trial and error. Most long-time Windows users have forgotten all about that and when they find that they trash Linux it’s automatically Linux’s fault. I say don’t blame Linux if you screw it up out of ignorance. That’s not Linux’s fault, it’s yours. Own it, learn from it and move on.
Truth be told, there’s not a long-time Linux user out there who doesn’t have stories to tell about borking up a perfectly good Linux install because they got curious and started poking at the system. It’s part of the process of learning. Fortunately, re-installing Linux is usually not an all-day endeavor like rebuilding a Windows system is. As long as you keep good backups and hang on to your notes, you can usually redo a system in just and hour or two. I know of some Linux users who have written very intricate scripts to automate the process! They do not live in fear of breaking anything.
This is why I always advise Windows power users to leave their Windows setup alone and install Linux on a different machine, all by itself. These folks are going to trash Linux- it’s inevitable. Those who dual boot with Windows run the risk of trashing Windows, too. Yes, I’ve done that myself. I started out with Ubuntu by setting up a dual boot with Windows XP and I trashed both systems many times because I didn’t know what I was doing. It taught me how dual boots work, though.
Another piece of advice that I frequently give out it to take your time and don’t get ahead of yourself. Leave the system as it is for a while and just use it before you go hog-wild trying to tweak it. If you do want to change something about the desktop or swap out software then look before you leap. Chances are, there are lots of other users out there who have done the same thing and posted about how it went for them. Read those posts and decide for yourself whether it’s worth the risk of messing up your Linux install. If you’re doing it on a secondary machine or in a virtual machine then it doesn’t matter. Go for it and see what happens.
Speaking of Virtual Machines, VirtualBox is a powerful tool for learning in Linux. It lets you create any environment you want to and then just go crazy trying stuff out. You can snapshot the VM and then restore it if you try something that ends up not working. Back to square one. I very often try new software out in a VM before I install it on my main system. There are a lot of folks out there who are running Linux in VM’s on Mac and Windows and they kinda get stuck there. The truth of the matter is that they will never be comfortable enough with Linux to use it every day until they put it on hardware. I encourage these folks to take the plunge and get serious about it. Dual boots and VM’s are cool to start with but at some point, you need to throw away the security blanket to really get the feel of things.
Finally, I think it’s worth pointing out that Linux is not a product, it’s a community. Windows and Mac people have a hard time wrapping their heads around that. They’re used to venting frustration at Microsoft and Apple. If they do that in a Linux forum, they will most likely get flamed. It’s important to understand that attacking Linux is like attacking the entire community. Is Linux perfect? Hell no! Is there much room for improvement? Absolutely! How you present your critiques and/or ask for help makes all the difference in the world. I have found that a positive and constructive attitude goes a long, long way. I have had developers bend over backward to help me with a problem or point me to an alternative solution just because I came to them with respect and didn’t point fingers.
It’s up to us as a community to point all of this out to those poor souls who come to us from Windows in a nice way. We must be patient with newcomers if we want Linux to grow. There should be no room for elitism or bullying in our community. Linux is all about sharing and sharing is a noble human endeavor. Sometimes it’s not as easy as it should be, though. There’s a fine line between helping someone to find what’s best for them and forcing what works for you on them. You can lead a horse to water… Well, you get what I mean. ‘Nuff said.