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Lou's Views: Advocacy Done Right

Jan 15, 2001, 14:12 (13 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Lou Grinzo)

Advocacy Done Right

It's no secret that one of the on-going debates among Linux users is over the proper role and form of advocacy. Sadly, this is made all the more problematic by the terrible image the very word conjures up; "advocacy" has gained such a bad connotation across the Linux landscape that I'm hesitant to even use the word, for fear of giving readers the wrong impression. Just so there's no misunderstanding, I'm talking about level-headed and at least reasonably objective support of Linux, not the psychotic rants of the arrogant, reality challenged, hormone overloaded, arrested development cases we all encounter in newsgroups and other online venues. The most productive thing we can do about those people is ignore them and hope they'll find another hobby and group of innocent people to annoy.

But I'm not here (solely) to carp about the online nitwits, but to address an often overlooked aspect of responsible advocacy, particularly when dealing with mainstreamers: Understanding the other person's viewpoint.

The first hurdle you encounter with mainstreamers is one of simple name recognition. I know it's hard for people who leave, breathe, and eat Linux to believe, but there are many intelligent, computer literate people out there in the real world who just happen to know almost zip about Linux. Many of them still haven't heard of it. Even though Linux has caught the Mac in terms of desktop market share (depending on whose numbers you believe), Linux's mindset in the mainstream is about 1% of the Mac's. I guess we'd be doing better if we had lots of sappy, prime time TV ads with Jeff Goldblum gushing about how quickly you can connect Linux to the Internet, or how you can make your own digital home movies with it. (And if we had the budget we sure wouldn't spend it to show Jeff dancing around like a PCP-altered condor in our ads.) Even without a big advertising budget or Steve "reality distortion field" Jobs on our side, we're still in a perfect position to promote Linux through friends, co-workers, and relatives, but only if we do it right.

I mentioned in my recent Magic Wand column that I'd had an interesting talk with a relative (my wife's Uncle Bill) at a family gathering about his constant hassles with Windows server crashes at the high school where he's the principal. I told him that one possible solution was Linux, since not only was it conspicuously more robust than Windows, but it was free to acquire. (I didn't then, and I'm not now, claiming Linux has $0 TCO, so Windows advocates please don't get your knickers in a knot.) There I was, talking with a really smart guy and a dedicated educator, someone whose enterprise could benefit tremendously from Linux, who'd never even heard of it. Once we got past the "yes, it really is free, no you won't go to jail for copying it, and yes, it really was started by a college kid and no one company owns it" stuff, Uncle Bill had more questions than you can shake a microwaved Windows CD at.

Beyond this surface-level name recognition, it's also important to let people know just how robust Linux really is. This is related to another of those details that surprises Linux enthusiasts: Mainstream computer users are so used to Windows' legendary instability that they no longer distinguish between bad software and bad computers; they literally think that all computers crash a lot and need to be restarted routinely because, well, that's just the way computers are, right? Even the more advanced mainstreamers generalize and implicitly assume that hardware is generally robust but all software is flaky as grandma's apple pie crust. Tell these people about the Linux-based Internet servers that have been running non-stop for years without a single second of downtime, and they think you're kidding or exaggerating. Once they realize you're not this fact quickly becomes one of the most compelling things they've heard about computers in a long time, and you can literally see their opinions of computers, and in particular, Windows, change right on the spot.

A related surprise to many mainstreamers, of course, is security. Tell them about how much more secure Linux is overall, and how much quicker fixes are created and disseminated on the Internet for the problems that do arise, and you've got their attention. But be warned: If they work in an office that's been ravaged by a Microsoft Outlook virus, they might be so thrilled that they try to adopt you.

Even higher on the fun scale is telling someone (as I've done with several acquaintances and clients) that everyone in his or her family, including the kids, can have their own accounts on the family system, with everyone's data and configuration insulated from each other's actions, and the system protected from all of them. Then make the transition from feature to benefit, and explain that this capability will prevent anyone from turning the family PC into an electric, breathing paperweight via excessive downloads or picking up a virus. Inevitably people want to know why the heck Windows 98 can't do this, and I've heard more than one person say something like, "So, in other words, Windows 98 is a toy." Mainstreamers usually pick up the full ramifications of this feature in seconds, and they love it. I'd even go so far as to say that this is the single most interesting feature to mainstream users, since it gives them more control over their systems in a way they can very easily understand and desperately need.

Make sure you're ready, when the chance arises, to show people some of the fun stuff they can do with Linux on a desktop--five minutes browsing through themes.org should get their attention.

Of course it's critical you don't get carried away and oversell Linux. When people ask if they can run their Windows programs with it, be honest. Tell them there is no Quicken, Jack Nicklaus golf game, AOL client, Quark, PageMaker, or Internet Explorer for Linux. Just as important, don't over promise in the gray areas, like how well OpenOffice supports Microsoft Office file formats. Sure, OpenOffice has improved a lot in that respect, but don't tell people OpenOffice can flawlessly support any file Office (which includes at least the three most recent versions in the mind of most mainstreamers, and documents with embedded files) can crank out, 'cause it just ain't so. Similarly, if they ask if there's a version of PhotoShop or Paint Shop Pro for Linux, don't tell them GIMP is just as good; matching those programs in raw features isn't enough, and GIMP is different enough from those programs that it's not a reasonable replacement in the eyes of people who don't have the time to learn a new program.

If you get someone seriously hooked on the idea of giving Linux a test drive, make sure you stress that device support isn't as close to painless and universal as it is under Windows. You know the main trouble areas: some printers and scanners, many cameras and other digital gadgetry. Tell them up front that they'll have to do their homework to make sure their system will work as expected. Even assuming all their hardware goodies have available, compatible, and reliable device drivers, tell them that sometimes they have to locate, download, and install the drivers on their own (or enlist the help of at least one Linux guru along the way).

Make it clear that Linux on the desktop isn't a drop-in replacement for Windows. Even with the latest version of KDE or GNOME installed, its user interface is noticeably different from Windows in terms of operations, not just looks, and even experienced users will take a little time to get comfortable. (Example: How many new users will be frustrated by Konqueror's bizarre default behavior of using its internal viewer for many file types, like plain text files, when you left click on them? Sure, it's easy enough to reconfigure, but it defies user expectations and is a major usability gaffe. This looks a lot like programmers showing off a cool feature they added instead of thinking like a user.)

And finally, be ready to recommend a specific distribution, as well as books and web site newbies can use to educate themselves. There's no point in making them start their personal odyssey with a search for "Linux" in Yahoo! or Alta Vista. If you can possibly spare the time, volunteer to help them along the way. Nothing will get a Linux newbie up to speed quicker than a little personal assistance from someone like you, and it also might keep them out of newsgroups and away from the more toxic personalities until they're more capable of fending for themselves.

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