Keir Thomas, whose body of work I greatly respect and in many was envy, published an article on Friday on PCWorld’s Business Center blog that is very pertinent to my short series on transitioning to desktop Linux: Top 7 Reasons People Quit Linux.  As a (the?) top author of books on desktop Linux, particularly Ubuntu, it is probably safe to say that there are very few people in the world who have thought as much about this particular process as Mr. Thomas, so the article is definitely worth a look if you are interested enough in the subject to be reading this blog post.

The article lists seven of the top reasons why people abandon the transition after trying it for a while, with his thoughts about each one.  I agree to a certain extent with at least three of the reasons he lists.

Lack of Applications

Mr. Thomas’ number one reason is “Linux doesn’t run a program I use”.  That has been my experience to a certain extent (see my previous post), and it also holds true with clients whom I have failed to persuade to migrate to Linux. For most users I have met, the set of applications they use are the computer.  They don’t honestly care what is under the hood unless it bites them.

I believe strongly that this is why embedded Linux, in the form of devices and cell phones, has succeeded so wildly while Linux on the desktop still struggles—every embedded device is new and unique, so people expect some adjustment and education in figuring out how to use it.  That expectation is different on the desktop.

That being said, I do not agree that it is only “specialized industrial tools” that are at issue.  Microsoft Exchange is an enterprise standard that was problematic until very recently.  Likewise, Photoshop is emphatically not an specialized tool—it is in widespread use by a large variety of people, from web designers to scrapbooking grandparents, and while Gimp retains all of Photoshop’s functionality and more, it still lacks the smooth user interface that has taken Photoshop nearly two decades to evolve.

And there are other apps as well—for example, I’ll always have to keep a Windows box handy as long as Yahoo Messenger enables me to play Java-based pool with my wife in a chat window.  When Pidgin can do that, I’ll probably migrate full-time.

Some Hardware Support Spotty

I agree 100% with the article on this point, which is that the issue is not specific to Linux.  Windows has just as many difficulties with hardware support as Linux—more, in fact, because of the willingness of Linux geeks to help scratch other people’s itches.

I particularly like the convivial, helpful last line in this section:  “Treat it as an opportunity, rather than an ordeal”.  This is a good philosophy for pretty much anything, but especially true here.

Unhelpful Community

I trust the author when he states that a large number of people have found Linux forums unhelpful.  I have found them to be enormously helpful, but I have also seen long flamewars, misinformation, and outright meanness.  I think the author missed an opportunity, though, to remind people that there is meanness everywhere.  I have seen just as much bile in Windows forums as I have in the Linux community, possibly more if considered as a percentage of the total information available.  In other words, this is a statement about the human race, not about Linux communities.

Chill out, Mr. Thomas

From an outsider’s perspective, I would have to say that items 3, 4, and 7 are all basically the same problem—a lack of familiarity on the part of the user with desktop Linux, coupled with long-time familiarity with Windows or MacOS.  I disagree with Mr. Thomas’ apparent assertion that this is not a valid concern.  In fact, I believe that this lack of familiarity will continue to hamper desktop Linux from ever reaching the mainstream.  MacOS is in the same boat.

I think it does no favors for Mr. Thomas’ position to state that “If you’re unable to adapt, it says more about you than it does about Linux”.  That is a true statement, but that does not imply that the reader deserves the contempt implied in this section.  Some of us use our experiences to learn about ourselves, and if I learn that I am unable—or unwilling—to adapt to something, I have learned something valuable about myself.  Epic win.

I just don’t like it

This is the crux 0f the issue, I think.  Some people just don’t like desktop Linux, meaning in this case that the way they have to interact with the machine does not resonate with them.  I feel the same way about OS X, and it always makes me sad because so many other propellerheads dig it.  I don’t.  I also don’t like most cell phone interfaces, and I think the UI on my washing machine is fairly non-intuitive for those of us who are not intimately familiar with laundry.  On the other hand, my truck, a 5-year-old Dodge Dakota, has a rock simple UI that I understand intimately, possibly due to 25 years of familiarity with automotive issues.

In my opinion, the “I just don’t like it” defense is possibly the most valid of the bunch, because the more complex a tool is, the more complex its interfaces must necessarily be, and this minimizes the opportunity for personal resonance.

Those interested in this subject should also read Neil McAlister’s article Has Desktop Linux Missed Its Opportunity?, also from PCWorld, particularly the paragraphs about user interface on page 3.

I’ll post another rant in the desktop Linux transition series after my first experiences with digital video this week, stay tuned.