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SEUL: Fwd: Linux (potential) end-user research.
I can't believe I shelved this for over a month. I kept almost
responding to it, but realizing I didn't have the time then.
There are a couple of misconceptions that should really be
cleared up. But overall it's well-written and could be a good
document to distribute once those have been cleared up. Indeed,
the misconceptions are just the sorts of things we should discuss
for a while and try to decide why everybody believes them currently.
Sorry for ignoring you for so long, David. :(
I'll try to get a response out by the weekend. Other people can
feel free to jump in before then, of course. :)
------- Forwarded Message
Date: Tue, 26 Jan 1999 16:54:30 +1100 (EST)
From: "email@example.com" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Linux (potential) end-user research.
After writing this out, I looked for the most helpful place to send it,
and I guess you're it. It seems you're way ahead of me on my main point
(about researching potential end users), but this piece might still help
you to identify some issues for consideration -- issues that might not
readily occur to highly expert computer types, such as I assume you to be.
I'm (very) new to email, so I couldn't figure out a more useful way to
send this than to post it directly to the SEUL organisation. It would be
very kind if you could forward it to whoever there was most likely to find
some use for it. Thank you in advance
Best wishes, and thank you for being interested in the non-elite
Why I Am Interested In Linux, and FUD As It Really Is
by: a "newbie." (Maybe. I still haven't decided.)
I wrote this out to begin with, to sort out my thoughts on the usefulness
or otherwise of Linux, a topic on which I could go either way.
I finished this piece, because I looked at some discussion lists on Linux
and it seemed to me that people were speculating or even inventing images
of these strange, stupid non- technical users and their FUD. No-one seemed
to be asking the people concerned about anything. Because I am basically
sympathetic to the Linux project, it seemed to me that I could do a small
service by explaining what one of these dullards who don't "get" Linux was
actually thinking about, and what FUD, as a reality, not a slogan, is all
My individual problems are of not the slightest interest or importance.
But, if Linux is to achieve "world domination," someone whose say-so
counts for something had better be thinking damn hard about these problems
in general. It is not possible to beat Microsoft while Microsoft retains a
"lock" on nine out of ten non-technical home users across the world. I'll
say that again: it is not possible to beat Microsoft while Microsoft
retains a "lock" on nine out of ten non-technical home users across the
If I can leave people with just one though, I would say: "Stop speculating
about the motivations and fears of non-technical potential users of Linux,
and ask them. Do research."
Why I Am Interested I Linux
(1) I crave stability in an operating system.
By "stability," I mean:
Linux won't be "killed" by its owner or the market. For example, I loved
OS/2, but IBM "killed" it as a personal operating system. They won't do
anything more for it, and because it's proprietary, no one else is allowed
to run with it. No-one has authority to "kill" Linux like that. It has a
Linux is properly constructed so as not to self-destruct. Windows 95 has
near enough to no self-repair capacity, so when it gets itself screwed up,
you have to back up all your data, wipe your hard drive, and start again.
(At lest that's the only 100% solution that a non- technical user has the
skill to implement.) I can't use Windows 95. I have my hard drives
partitioned from C to G, with everything pertaining to Windows 3.1 backed
up on C, and separate installations of Windows on D, E, F and G. During
semester, I don't have time to fix anything that goes wrong, but If
Windows doesn't get screwed up more than three times, I'll still have a
good installation to work with. This works, but I feel there must be a
better way, and I believe Linux is this way.
Linux is properly constructed so as not to crash. Windows 3.1 is easy to
crash, and Windows 95 is much worse, because it crashes almost as often,
and it takes the whole computer with it, instead of just sending you back
to DOS for a little while. I feel there must be a better way, and I
believe Linux is this way.
Linux makes sense. I don't have confidence in Windows, because its design
makes no sense to me. Broadly speaking, every program can do anything to
anything, anywhere, at all times, and the windows\system directory, which
contains the "guts" of Windows, and ought to be a fortified stronghold, is
actually a garbage pail for any kind of miscellaneous file, and it never
gets cleaned. I don't understand anything about programming, yet, but I do
have enough common sense to see that this is "garbage." Anyone can
understand this. I understand that Linux is built logically, with key
files segregated in protected areas, dangerous actions restricted to the
"super-user mode," and so on. I feel much more secure with this kind of
Linux is constantly peer reviewed and debugged. Windows is secret, and in
the case of Windows 3.1 (the only kind of Windows I would run) the secrecy
seems to serve the function of hiding what a shoddy job of design and
programming it is. (Compatibility is king, otherwise I would prefer
GeoWorks.) Peer review is impossible, there is essentially no ongoing
debugging, and Microsoft won't fix it because they want to force everybody
to upgrade, and upgrade, and upgrade. Naturally, I trust only the OS that
gets debugged, and not the OS that is swarming with uncontrolled bugs and
Proper login security, with an option for restricted permissions so that a
visitor can't do anything that could fundamentally destabilise the system,
is highly desirable. This goes from "stability" to "security," but many of
my friends share house, with several personal computers to a house. People
really hate having their personal computers used without their permission,
particularly as the "visitor" can do absolutely anything on a Windows
machine, even by accident.
Why Stability Is Key
I don't need an operating system with a lot of features. At least 90% of
what I do is just word processing, and the main "features" I care about
are those that are imposed on me as standards, for example: "You must use
typographic quotation marks." But I absolutely, positively do need a
stable platform under my feet when I am on the ragged edge of a deadline,
and this is exactly what Microsoft non-peer-reviewed, closed source
software will never give me. I don't care if my comuter's screw-uop can
easily be corrected in time. There are frequent occasions when I don't
have time to deal with such problems at all. Pass or Fail might not look
"mission critical" to Redmond, but by G-d it looks critical to me.
(2) I want the contents of my hard drives to be works of art, whether it's
my own work or someone else's.
I feel that Linux is a work of art by many hands, and so I am happy to
have it on my hard drive. Guys like Torvalds and Rasterman aren't saying:
"Screw quality. We'll toss it out there, win market share, and fix the
bugs later, if we have to." They're saying: "Let's do the best job we
can." I have a really good feeling about having the work of such artists
in my home.
I feel the opposite about Microsoft Windows 95, which seems to be the only
"live" alternative on my hardware. This is not art. This is a trick to
gouge money out of people. I am viscerally hostile to Windows 95, which
defined the Start button as my primary interface point, and then dumped
the menus there full of advertising and dross that I didn't have the skill
to get rid of. Even in Windows 3.1, which is mostly sort of OK, Help About
leads to a "gotcha!" where the software company reminds you who's boss.
Help About should lead to Help About that program, or I should be able to
change it so that it does.
I want to control every visible aspect of the OS, to make it beautiful in
my own eyes. OS/2 gave me a lot of that: absolutely everything was an
object, with an extensive property sheet for me to define. Windows 95
takes that away: I couldn't even rearrange the items in my Start button. I
understand that Linux is the best: it will be possible for me to choose,
and customise, my desktop program to get the effect I want, and to get
things to work the way I want. (Ideally, the way I'd like to do things is
to have a directory tree showing my files (with "long," unmistakable file
names) here, and labelled boxes of tools and programs (with unmistakable
icons and maybe "balloon help") there, and drag this file to that tool (or
vice versa) to do everything. Real "toybox" stuff. I assume there'll be a
way for me to set that up in Linux, if things are even half as
customisable as people say.)
Linux is open source, and I hope to do a computing major, so in time I may
hope to contribute to this art in a fundamental (though probably tiny)
(3) I can run Linux on my hardware (probably?), and I can afford it.
Suppose I thought that Windows NT/2000 would solve all my problems: on my
hardware, and with my budget, so what? Linux is a "real world" solution.
(4) Linux will run applications that will enable me to do my work.
I read that Corel is committed to WordPerfect on Linux. That kind of thing
is critical to me. Now if someone would just write an equivalent for
Microsoft Works for Windows, Version 3.0, but on Linux, I would be really
The Internet is becoming important to me, as a student and as a guy with a
network of friends who are all easiest to reach by email. I believe Linux
is totally superior for anything related to the Internet. Nothing else
comes with a remotely comparable set of (free!) tools, or, above all, has
the "life" and future on the Internet that Linux does.
Even just having a ""kill"/stop doing that!" button would be a Good Thing,
and I know that Linux has one. Many things that are impossible with
Windows are automatic with Linux.
I read that SCO Unix is free for personal use. Joygasms. What kinds of
word processing and works programs are written to run under SCO Unix on a
486? If I need strong tools (and I do), I need Linux.
(5) I believe that having good open source software will help to teach me
The only way I learned anything about chess was to study the games of
great masters like Capablanca and Fischer. It makes sense to me that to
understand software, I'll have to study the programs of great masters like
This kind of beauty, based on appreciating an underlying logic, won't
yield to superficial study and "once over lightly" treatment in lectures.
I'll need authentic, top quality source material, working in my own home.
Maybe (and "maybe" is not good enough here) I can pass without it. But can
I learn art without it? The idea is ridiculous and offensive. No
worthwhile art can be learned without earnest study of the great masters.
(6) There are -- or soon will be -- enough Linux people around to trade
ideas and files with.
It would be easier for me, personally, if there mere more end users, and
not just hackers who obviously can't be happy to be disturbed by newbies.
(Even help files and FAQs tend to say: "Don't ask in public. You'll only
make a fool of yourself.") But the people exist. Saying "OS/2" now is
like disturbing a graveyard.
Fear, Uncertainty and Doubts about Linux
(1) Once bitten, twice shy.
I tried to install Red Hat Linux, supposedly the "easy" package, a couple
of years ago. It was a nightmare, and completely useless. Effectively, I
turned my computer into a paperweight, and myself into a nervous wreck. I
tried re-installing, over and over. No dice. As for my "free support," it
was online, and of course "I had no computer." Things stayed that bad for
over a month, after which I wisely gave up. "Never again."
Some minor points in the maelstrom:
(1) As it happens, I do not carry around the chipset and exact screen
refresh rate of my monitor. And anyone who can move as often as I have
while never losing any documentation is a genius.
(2) Why should I guess what partition sizes I need? Hard drive sizes +
packages = exactly the sort of task a computer is supposed to automate.
The installation program should ask questions in the right order, ask
permission, and then "just do it."
(3) Cylinders? At any time, but now with a hard drive that is damaged in
some way I don't understand except that 70MB of it is now useless? "You
(4) The important task of determining whether you have just done the right
thing, and if not, how you should back-track, is radically more difficult
on a kind of system you have never used before.
I can't help contrasting this with my experience of OS/2's installation,
where everything worked perfectly every time -- no fuss, no tears, just
results. And this was with all the "difficult, advanced" options, with
Boot Manager, HPFS and so on. If I had found OS/2- native software to do
what I needed done, the way I needed it done, I would still be using OS/2
and pitying the suffering masses.
I read lying "booster-talk" about how easy Linux is to install, and I just
laugh. You'd better believe I warn my friends about the truth. If luck
does not favour you, installing Linux can easily become a species of
(2) Linux may not work on my hardware.
I never did get Linux to recognise my CD-ROM drive. Maybe that's because I
was doing things wrong. After all, there were lots of things about Linux I
never got to work properly, starting with LILO, the start-up program. But
maybe Linux just won't tolerate my CD-ROM drive, or my sound card, or
something. I've talked to other people who also couldn't get Linux to
recognise their CD-ROM drives, and gave up. I read the compatibility
lists, and all my stuff (Panasonic CD-ROM, true Sound Blaster and so on)
is there, but maybe it is somehow set up wrong, or connected in a way
Linux doesn't like, or something. I could pay someone to crack open the
box, and go on a random fishing expedition, at $60 per half- hour, looking
for "things Linux might not like." Then again, perhaps not. There may be
no solution, given that I can't afford a new computer.
My CD-ROM drive is my only music player, so one of the things I remember
about my efforts to install Linux is that my flat fell quiet.
(This is the right time to think very seriously about this, because
"disaster just struck," and I have to get my CD-ROM repaired, perhaps
replaced anyway. This may be a critical decision "in the dark.")
I also have only two hard drives, of 470MB (after damage) and 200MB. Linux
hates multiple drives -- it doesn't even like to read a floppy disk, in my
experience -- and it wants its one hard drive to accommodate hundreds and
hundreds of megabytes of -- "stuff." It was way beyond me to figure out
what I should leave out and what I might need. According to an expert I
read, the only smart, safe move is to buy a multi-gigabyte drive and
install everything. I don't regard that as an option. Besides, if I want
to install hundreds of megabytes of useless fat, Windows can do that for
me, no trouble at all. There is no "logic," no economy of force, no art,
in this approach. And I haven't got the money.
A 486 DX2/66 with only 24MB of RAM may not be nearly enough to get
acceptable performance out of the graphical interface(s) and all the
programs that rely on them. I think a well-written, light, lean program
should go: "Snap!" Very likely, that won't be possible. Well, it was a
sexy machine when I went so deep into debt to buy it. Not any more.
I also have definite ideas on multi-tasking performance. OS/2 was
splendid. Windows 95 was grotesque. ("Kalunk, kalunk, wait while I think
about it, wait ... Thunk. OK, now I'll give you back your input
devices.") If, because of my weak hardware, Linux multi-tasks as badly as
Windows 95, or even worse, that would be -- ugly.
(3) There is no cheap, safe starting option for applications software (as
far as I know).
This issue can't be wholly segregated from installation. I know when my
operating system is properly installed, because I do simple tasks with it,
and they work. I write: "Hey, it worked!" in IBM Works or Windows Write,
and I print it out. I play a CD, and it sings: "I Feel Good!" And so on.
For a non-technical user, the possibility to read a "man" page, or start
"emacs," and in either case be baffled, does not provide the same sort of
feedback. It's still an open question whether the system can be somehow
manipulated so as to do a useful task or generate an output.
One of the things that boggled me about Linux is that there is nothing to
get started with. Not IBM Works. Not Windows Write and Cardfile. Nothing.
There's no Microsoft Works to buy. There's no "happy stuff" either: no
Chessmaster 4000, no Microsoft Encarta, no Dangerous Creatures, no
Microsoft Home Essentials. Nothing. You sacrifice all that, and lash out
for your "big" applications suite, because no-one is offering anything
more "human-sized," and because, consequently, until you get your big
applications suite, your Linux home computer is an elaborate paper-weight.
With the "reputation" that applications for Linux are earning, this is not
an attractive gamble. Will Star Office or Applixware support my 9-pin
dot-matrix printer that emulates an Epson LX800? "Do ya feel lucky, punk?"
As it happens, my honest answer to that question is: "No." And I have no
plans to rob a bank in order to buy a PostScript printer.
Besides, I don't want a high-tech, advanced-technical-feature "office." I
want Home Essentials for Linux, but I don't think Microsoft will be
bringing it out anytime soon.
If it doesn't work, what is the next move? Configuration Hell reinstalling
DOS and Windows? Yes, that would be the next move. "Been there, done
that," and "better the devil you know."
(By the way: I'm not mad at Microsoft in general. I think they make
excellent mice. If they were strictly a hardware company, I'd put them
almost up there with Logitech. But they've virtually "locked out" low-end
users who need a small, good-quality, reliable operating system, and I am
mad at them over that.)
I don't believe WINE is the solution. First, I don't believe WINE works.
Second, I don't believe WINE works. ("It's such a big problem I thought
I'd mention it twice.") A toy that's considered impressive because it runs
WordPad, usually without crashing, is of no use to me. A WINE that's
almost as good as the real thing returns me to OS/2: "Congratulations.
You have just installed an enormous Program Manager replacement. And by
the way, it will cause problems for your multimedia CD-ROMs." A
better-than Windows WINE, a bullet-proof WINE? I don't believe it. The
future for Linux is Linux native software, or failure. More to the point,
I don't believe anything but Linux-native software will give me the
reliability I want.
(There is one area where WINE is valid and vital. But that comes later.)
Maybe the only way to get Linux-native applications as reliable as Linux
is to make them open source like Linux. In which case, I'm out of luck,
because there's no indication I know of that open source word processing
is possible, or that an open source works program is even "imaginable."
Ideally, I would like programs to work the way they do in GeoWorks. Along
with your choices about new document/old document or template, you get to
choose a complexity level from (say) 1 to 3 (and you can customise what
each includes and leaves out, if you want to). So, if you're making a
"difficulty of one" document, (or if you're a "difficulty of one" user),
you never have to deal with buttons and choices that are useless to you. I
know lots of Word users who would like to be able to do that. But it's
only too obvious that no-one is about to write this kind of simple
software for Linux.
As far as I can tell, the people who write stuff for Linux only care about
impressing each other with advanced technical features, in a spirit of
"can you top this?" It seems irrelevant whether the people who make the
software charge money for it or not: Applixware, which is commercial,
seems to have the same attitude. I think that if that's your attitude,
it's impossible to write the kind of good quality simple software I need.
If someone insists on making a screwdriver advanced and technical and
complicated, he'll make a lousy screwdriver.
(4) Compatibility is king, and it is in question.
Can I get the university computers to "eat" the files I would generate
with Linux? I don't know. Can I print out on the superior printers at the
university? I don't know. When I get an assignment that requires 100%
Microsoft Word compatibility (and I know I've got at least one coming up),
could I do it on my Linux home computer? I don't know. Internet Service
Providers generally want to dictate what software you use. (They also want
to take your money and provide no service, in my experience, but that's
another problem.) Will an ISP who would be acceptable to me on other
grounds tolerate a Linux home computer? I don't know.
My guess is that all of this would work out, somehow or other, after some
trouble. But guessing is not knowing by experience. I know what I can do
with the software I've got, defective as it is.
I do know that a whole lot of ISPs want/require you to run Win95/98 and
Explorer. Maybe the whole Internet will divide, with the ISPs keeping
Linux for themselves, and forcing their clients to use Windows 2000 and
I do know that using Linux puts me at loggerheads with the Australian
Government Telstra is partly privatised, but still the government
telecommunications company. It is providing a basic email service for
free. (And a good thing, too. This should be part of the basic phone
service by now.) This service is provided free exclusively for Microsoft
Windows 95 and Microsoft Windows 98 users. The Microsoft Australian
Government software is written exclusively for those platforms, and if
you're not running the Microsoft Operating System that Microsoft wants you
to run, you're
(a) about to "upgrade" as required, or
(b) not entitled to equal services.
As the man on the phone patiently explained to me: there are no
work-arounds, there aren't supposed to be any work-arounds, and there are
no plans to support any "obsolete" (= "non-Microsoft") platforms, ever.
This is a disturbing straw in the wind. When a key Government company goes
into the business of diminishing personal choice and market competition,
for the benefit of Microsoft Corporation, then it may become very
"inadvisable" for small, weak individuals to buck the system. This is
where WINE is vital. If it works well enough, it may enable Linux users to
put up a "mask" of Microsoft conformity when the Australian Government
requires it, as the Government may in future do on far more important
questions than whether or not you get equal phone services.
Maybe other governments will also standardise on Microsoft, because it's
easiest to write for one platform. When masses of ordinary people need to
be Microsoft customers in good standing, in order to talk most easily with
their governments, then the competition about operating systems will be
over, as far as I can see.
Anyway, let's keep the paranoia to a dull roar. No-one is going to shoot
me for not going Microsoft all the way. They're just going to make life
inconvenient. But my capacity to buy my way out of inconveniences is
limited to say the least.
(By the way: I feel this is really unfair. I am a Microsoft customer:
Microsoft MS-DOS, Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Works, Microsoft
"everything." I just don't count as one, because Microsoft has dumped my
operating system, and, effectively, me. They didn't even maintain
backward compatibility for Word. This does not engender goodwill.)
Why I Am Still Strongly Interested In Going To Linux
Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt are justified, but they don't get me anywhere.
I can limp along effectively enough with my present system, and I would
probably be wise to do so. However, the down side of that course is that
my present difficulties will never diminish. They will only increase, as
time and Microsoft-controlled standards leave me further behind.
If I want security, stability, beauty, strong tools (at least in certain
specific areas), and the satisfaction of supporting people I like instead
of people I no longer like much, I want Linux. This would be the (only)
way to solve my computer problems rather than putting up with them. That
is, it would be if Linux worked for me, and I don't know whether it could
or would do so.
I guess this is where the file ends. I've laid out my pros and cons, and I
still have no conclusions.
I wonder how many there are like me? Quite likely there are millions of
us, inflating the figures for "people who've installed Linux."
If I can leave people with just one though, I would say: "Stop speculating
about the motivations and fears of non-technical potential users of Linux,
and ask them. Do research."
And if that's already agreed, I would say: "Do qualitative research."
------- End of Forwarded Message