In spring 2016, after reviewing the reasons for Microsoft’s aggressive efforts to make Windows 7 users switch to Windows 10, I decided it was time to switch back to Linux. I spent several months working through that transition. Along the way, I came to some tentative conclusions about what Linux was, and what it could be. This post presents those conclusions.
What Is a Power User?
In characterizing myself as a power user, I rely on sources such as WikiHow, whose definition includes (among other things) using the command line and writing scripts, a preference for the keyboard over the mouse, and choosing appropriate software. In Wikipedia’s words,
A power user or experienced user is a computer user who uses advanced features of computer hardware, operating systems, programs, or web sites which are not used by the average user. A power user may not have extensive technical knowledge of the systems they use and is not necessarily capable of computer programming and system administration, but is rather characterised by the competence to make the broadest or most general use of computer programs or systems.
There certainly were users of Microsoft Word or Excel whose skills in such programs would put me to shame, and likewise for any other mainstream program, scripting activity, or operating system. Maybe the best definition, for present purposes, is that I was a power user because I was willing and able to make the transition to Linux, partly because of the things that it would let me do with the computer.
My one and only computer programming class was a course in BASIC at Columbia in 1979. But that was enough. That enabled me to understand and use DOS batch files in the 1980s and WordPerfect scripts in the 1990s. More importantly, that initial exposure to real computing gave me a sense of how fun — sometimes, how exciting — it could be. In that light, a power user might be someone whose abilities and activities demonstrate at least some drive or energy to find better computing solutions.
The Power User’s Work Environment
Among WikiHow’s criteria (above), I found the reference to the keyboard especially resonant. I would say that a power user, in a computing environment, tends to be someone who needs a traditional computing interface — a big-enough monitor and a keyboard, not merely a touchscreen or mouse — to get things done. People can do many things with small devices. But those who make that possible tend to be programmers working at big screens. You are likely to need graphical real estate if you are going to manage databases, control nuclear power plants, design bridges, develop financial analyses, or even just work with multiple documents and source materials.
In this sense, Microsoft’s efforts to force people to use Windows 10 have brought matters to a head. It is clearer, now, that Microsoft is not oriented toward the needs of the power user. To the contrary, Microsoft will happily disrupt serious work for the sake of its corporate purposes — and it has done so repeatedly, not only with Windows 8 and 10, but even back in the 1990s. That is what Microsoft is. Such behavior may or may not be good business sense, but it is definitely not compatible with what people expect when they come to depend upon an operating system.
Linux for the Masses (Not)
In my explorations in spring 2016, I did not reach the conclusion that Linux on the desktop was moving backward. I had used Linux extensively for several years circa 2007-2011. A lot had changed for the better since then. And for power users, that was not necessarily true of Windows: Win10 did have some advantages, but there were good reasons why Windows 7 (and even Windows XP) users would decide to stay where they were.
I did conclude, however, that Linux on the desktop was misconceived. To a fair extent, it seemed to be trying for mass appeal. That was great, for my purposes: I appreciated the more familiar, Windows-like features that I was encountering in Linux Mint. But the masses were not impressed. Windows came already installed on their computers — for those who still used computers rather than tablets or smartphones — and Microsoft was going to make sure that Windows would remain sufficiently familiar for those people. Not that it would take much; the inertia was strong. Even the upheaval caused by the forced march to Windows 10 in 2015-2016 shook few ordinary Windows users from the Microsoft tree.
I was shaken loose, but I still began my transition to Linux with a Windows orientation. This meant that I was inclined toward the graphical user interface (GUI) way of doing things. For many tasks, there was no denying that the GUI was superior. But to a certain extent I just needed to get over it. Linux was going to require occasional command-line work until further notice. And for some purposes, the command line was superior. It was not necessarily hard: most of the commands I was entering at the start were literally copied and pasted. I was often just entering what people told me to enter; that was usually good enough; and when it wasn’t, I was often able to figure it out.
But the masses were not going to do that. They were going to get as far as the first Linux command-line situation, and then they would run back to Windows, with or without a half-hearted attempt featuring a poorly chosen or incorrectly entered command.
Basically, the masses were done with Linux. At this point, it had been nearly ten years since Tony Mobily pointed out that the window of opportunity was closing for Linux. It had been more than twelve years since the Wall Street Journal asked whether Linux could take over the mass desktop. Nobody was talking that way anymore. The data were not always clear. But as of early 2016, it appeared that, despite the best efforts of the Ubuntu and Mint people, the Linux market share of desktop computing — which was never above 3% — might actually be dropping.
My explorations had introduced me to various Linux-related databases that were not being maintained and projects that had been abandoned. For instance, the people who used to update the Wikipedia page on the pace of Linux adoption had apparently given up after 2014. A search of the Wine database produced a page indicating that efforts to run any version of Microsoft Office since 2007 had mostly produced “Garbage” results. Games were virtually the only entries in that database’s Top 10 Platinum list.
In short, the Linux failure to take over the mass desktop was exactly that — a failure.
Linux for Power Users
Linux took over the server environment, and that made Linux important. Linux was not going to take over the mass market, and disregard of that fact would continue to make Linux look bad. But with Microsoft’s Windows 10 misstep, Linux had some potential for taking over the power user market — and that could make Linux essential.
At this point, it seemed advisable to rethink some Linux efforts. For example, what about those user interface improvements? If their purpose was to impress the general public, they were a waste of time. The general public was going to yawn and look the other way.
But the power user might not. If an improved user interface made Linux more accessible to Windows power users, then that was a step in the right direction. Power users would appreciate the assistance. They wouldn’t necessarily mind doing some work; they would just not have the time, patience, and ability to struggle with everything in Linux.
There was nothing wrong with the desire to give Linux funky graphic features. Computing should expand. But for purposes of making Linux a force, it would be far more productive to give power users the tools they would need to call Linux their home. Generally, that would not happen if they lacked basic software and hardware.
It would help, for example, if people contemplating a move to Linux could know that the printer they were about to purchase would be Linux-compatible. Yes, they could consult a database. But the sensible reader may agree that the standard RTFM retort does not necessarily accomplish much in the real world. Right or wrong, most people don’t think of a hardware compatibility database. They may not even know that such a thing exists. They’re busy; the printer has crapped out; they need a replacement; they go to Amazon and see what everyone else is recommending. Linux does not enter the equation. Those who do consult a database might consult the wrong one; they might misunderstand it; it might be outdated, offering no information on the preferred model.
I agree: people should be smart. And that belief, and five dollars, will get you a cup of coffee. In lieu of a lecture, it would be far more effective if lovers of Linux did the hard work of choosing HP, or Brother, or some other brand, and making it their widely known favorite, such that that company’s printers would have a “Linux-friendly” sticker or logo on the box and a similar indication in their Amazon blurb.
At this point, Linux hobbyists, striving in a hundred disparate directions, were doing what any lover of knowledge would encourage them to do: branch out. Explore the unknown. Present your ideas and let the best rise to the top. At the same time, it seemed advisable to remember that most pursuits of knowledge are limited by real-world constraints.
One crucial set of constraints would include the things that make a software development effort successful. Consider a contrast. On one hand, we have a lonely coder who gives us one more unnecessary Linux media player. This project could go on to enjoy an hour of pleasant obscurity before becoming abandonware. On the other hand, we have someone who devises a way to run Adobe Acrobat Professional in Wine. Suddenly a major barrier falls, for many would-be Linux users. This one will not be forgotten.
A Focused Effort
There would always be hobbyists and people who want to play with computers, and there always should be. But this article is oriented toward those who have an interest in making Linux the preferred operating system of serious computer users.
People who have work to do may not have time to screw around with a dozen Linux distributions and an endless supply of opinions about each. They need something like the Wine database for distributions and applications: a single compendium of user reports on features and drawbacks for specific purposes.
Marketing Linux as a free product has not achieved much in the developed world. Again, people have work to do. They will spend hundreds or thousands of hours doing it. They don’t want to spend money on software that is no better than they could get for free. But they will most certainly spend money on software, if that’s what it takes to accomplish their goals. The ideals, the free availability — these are good things. But they can seem odd. Free software, like free dentistry, can support fears of inferior quality. To attract power users, quality is at least as important as price.
In an oft-cited list of “Major Linux Problems on the Desktop,” Tashkinov (2016) referred prominently to instability, hardware issues, lack of standardization and compatibility, no common direction, lack of cooperation among distributions, and internal wars:
I predicted years ago that FOSS [Free Open-Source Software] developers would start drifting away from the platform as FOSS is no longer a playground, it requires substantial efforts and time, i.e. the fun is over, developers want real money to get the really hard work done. FOSS development, which lacks financial backing, shows its fatigue and disillusionment. The FOSS platform after all requires financially motivated developers as underfunded projects start to wane and critical bugs stay open for years.
What was the cure for those ills? It was unlikely that a deus ex machina — a miraculous outside force — would sweep in and make everything right. In the real world, Microsoft acquiring Ubuntu would be an example of an outside force in Linux. Google cherry-picking what it needs to make a fortune, while giving very little back — that would be an outside force. The Linux world did not deeply need this sort of assistance.
But clearly desktop Linux needed something. As demonstrated by my struggles over a period of months, documented in numerous posts in this blog, desktop Linux had become chaotic to the point of unusability. Linux lovers had long disparaged Microsoft’s singleminded, domineering approach to software. And yet, to borrow a notorious saying, Microsoft made the trains run on time. The computing world had clearly demonstrated that people would choose an abusive and exploitative solution that worked, rather than an idealistic alternative that didn’t.
At this writing, it seemed clear that the Linux world needed a goal that a substantial number of its participants would focus upon in an effective manner. Such a goal seemed possible. For example, despite the foregoing criticisms of many people heading off in their own preferred directions, Ubuntu had coalesced much energy around a single Linux product. Linux Mint, building upon Ubuntu, prided itself upon the popularity of its “conservative approach to software updates” requiring “very little maintenance.”
The missing piece, in those mission statements and purposes, was an articulation of a realistic target market. This post has suggested that Windows power users comprise an appropriate and significant target market for Linux. For such users, the objective would not be to make child’s play of computing, much less to draw the masses away from Microsoft. It would be, rather, to create a computing environment in which basic commands and appealing graphics, along with clear hardware and software guidance, would enable an intelligent but busy knowledge worker to get things done with minimal disruption, learning helpful and manageable bits of Linux as needed along the way.
What would happen if Windows 7 power users departed en masse for Linux? Well, the world would change. The migrants could include those responsible for choosing or advising upon hardware and software purchases in many large and small companies and governmental agencies. Many would bring their fellow employees along. Linux would quickly cease to be perceived as a geek’s toy; it would become the desktop user’s long-awaited deliverance from the worst that Microsoft has to offer. Choosing an appropriate target market for Linux, and going after that market in an intelligent and focused manner, could make an enormous difference in what happens next.