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Your Momma Uses Linux

Apr 27, 2007, 23:30 (38 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

Those of us who grew up in the seventies probably remember variations of this pejorative phrase. often aimed at either the schoolyard bully, or perhaps your best friend in jest. There was often no additional descriptor: just the first two words hanging there. The implication that your mother was... something left undescribed... was the worst kind of insult, the kind that only fists or more insults could avenge.

For the honor of our mothers, we were willing to risk getting pounded into the ground. (Our fathers, well, not so much.) And today, it is still our mothers, or grandmothers, or Aunt Tillies that we love so much that we will bless them with a Linux PC, to protect them from the evils of Windows or OS X. That's good. Our parents and families deserve to have a better operating system on their computers.

Then, in our exuberance, we hold all of our loved ones up as shining examples of how Linux is or will be ready for the desktop.

Except I'm not sure that's a good idea.

What got me started on this vein was an article I read on the Wall Street Journal Web site Thursday where tech columnist Walter Mossberg was answering reader mail. His second letter of the day asked him why he never recommended Linux as an alternative operating system. Mossberg was polite about it, but basically said that since his readership was non-tech oriented, and just wanted things to power up, plug in, and work right out of the box, he did not feel Linux was at that point yet.

Initially, I started firing up the e-mail client, ready to send him a counterpoint. After all, my family's not tech-oriented, and they use Linux all the time. So there, Mr. Mossberg! Then something jiggled to the top of my brain: while my family uses Linux, they are not the typical mainstream users. Why? Because they have me to explain/configure/fix things for them.

And I think that's a fallacy in any argument that begins "well, my insert family member here uses Linux, so it's not that hard." The fact that they're your family member, or friend, or acquaintance means that they will always have you to answer questions or set things up for them.

I also think, on the flip side, that any pro-Windows or Mac person who says, "when it's ready for my insert family member here, then Linux will have arrived." That's a biased argument, too, because the person making that remark is presumably tech savvy and is likely also the unofficial tech support person for family and friends. That person's assessment is clouded by expertise in their particular operating system.

No, the best argument can be made: "when Person on the Street can use Linux out of the box, then Linux will be mainstream."

If this is indeed the case, then Mossberg might have a point. There are, admittedly, still some post-install configurations that need to be done on any Linux install. In all of the test systems I have installed, there has always been something to tweak, and that's out of necessity, not personal preference. The instant you have to drop to the command-line for any reason, you've negated the mainstream status.

Things are better, goodness knows. I remember the early days of Linux, especially the desktop systems. And I think Linux is definitely very close to reaching that magic tipping point where it will be easy to use for all levels of users. When Dell actually gets around to selling preloaded Linux PCs, I think that's going to be a big step to legitimizing the "mainstream" nature of Linux. Improvements in drivers, like the ones being discussed by the Linux kernel developers and Ubuntu community, will also keep Linux moving towards the average consumer.

We are close but, reluctantly, I must admit we're not to mainstream level yet. My momma notwithstanding.