Why is the Linux command line so terrifying to so many people?
True, we all have our fears. I can't quite bring myself to handle
rattlesnakes, and when someone invites me to their church or
"business opportunity" meeting I experience powerful
get-me-out-of-here impulses. In fact I have a similar detente with
rattlesnakes, religious proselytizers, and multi-level marketing
hucksters: leave me alone and I'll leave you alone. The snakes eat
rodents so they're welcome to hang out in the pastures; the others,
I asked "Linux Command
Line Terror! But....Why?" in the Linux Today blog yesterday.
Now I confess it was written with a bit of mischief, a touch of
snark, but nevertheless I was serious-- what is so scary about it?
Time after time when anyone writes about the advantages of the CLI
they get all kinds of comments like these:
"Command lines are powerful. Way too powerful, even for
an expert user."
Such passions! I wish people would get that excited over things
that really matter. And so many irrational assumptions. I suspect
that few of them read past the headline anyway. I don't recall ever
reading a serious article about the Linux CLI that said 'don't let
anyone use a graphical interface, ban GUIs!'. These folks act like
saying "The CLI is cool and has many advantages, here, try it, it's
not scary!" is trying to take something away from them. Or forcing
them to do something. (There were a number of good and insightful
comments as well, if you feel like cruising through them.)
"...the CLI is evil. It is a warning sign that says that the
Linux community would rather be archaic than modern."
"...a GUI can always beat it in terms of power and efficiency
providing it is a *good* GUI. This is a distinction command line
zealots fail to comprehend."
There is a strange disconnect in the thought that the CLI is
dangerous and the GUI is safe, first of all because the GUI is
merely an incomplete interface on top of the command-line, even on
Macs and Windowses. On Windows it's the user CLI interface that is
crippled, not the underlying structure. (And now they're boasting
muchly of their Powershell, woo for them.)
I think that as a general rule GUIs are more dangerous because
they let users click randomly and make things happen without having
any real knowledge. This is why so many Windows systems suck--
because users and system administrators don't bother to learn
anything first, they just fire it up and start messing around, and
then get all mad when it doesn't work right. Or worse, get it sort
of working and leave it as a big insecure, unstable, inefficient
mess. One of the greatest harms (among so many) perpetuated by
Microsoft is the myth that owning a Windows PC transforms the user
into an instant expert on everything-- accounting, sound and video
production, graphics editing, presentations, system and network
administration-- it's nuts, it's wrong, and people still fall for
it even after years of frustration and failure.
There are two ways to get in trouble with the CLI: typos, and
copy-and-pasting something that some clown on the Internet says is
good to try. You can't just guess-and-click; you have to actually
have something in mind, and have done a bit of homework first. With
all of the great information available without ever leaving your
chair, it's very easy to find good howtos and tips.
The GUI is Intuitive
This is a myth that must die. Nothing about a computer is
intuitive. It's completely abstract and artificial. Go ahead, test
this yourself-- find someone who has never used a computer. Sit
them down at yours, and see how well they do.
The folks who claim "The GUI is intuitive!" have forgotten how
many years they spent learning Windows or Mac before they tried
Linux. The Mac is supposed to be the most intuitive of all-- so why
is Mac OS X
Leopard: The Missing Manual the O'Reilly best-seller? Why are
"iPhone: The Missing Manual" number two, and "iPod: The Missing
Manual" number three? All three have been at the top of the
O'Reilly charts for a couple of years.
Tracyanne over at LXer said
"That's what scares most people, the fact that they
can't type, and think they might be called upon to do so. That is
also why most people don't use secure passwords, they can't type,
and it's so hard just hunting and pecking out really simple
passwords that contain only lower case letters, that anything that
requires upper and lower case (most people don't even understand
the terms), numbers that might include zero (what number is that?)
and non alphabetic characters (what are those?)
I guess that spending fifteen minutes a day with a free computer
typing tutor is out of the question.
"So the very thought that they might have to type actual words
to get the computer to do something throws them into a catatonic
Best of all Worlds
The way Linux is organized, we get the best of both worlds-- X
terminals in our graphical desktops, drop to the console, close
down X completely. Did you know you can run multiple X sessions at
the same time, and inside of each other? The more you know, the
more Linux lets you do.
It's seamless for the user who wants both GUI and CLI at the
same time. Use Alt+F2 to bring up a dialog to quickly run a single
command. Put a command launcher in your panel. Use a tabbed
terminal and have five dozen remote shells going at once. What's
not to like?
Skillz Are Stoopid
As long as keyboards are the primary computer interface, it makes
sense to develop decent typing skills. As long as computers are
important everyday tools, it makes sense to work towards becoming
proficient in using them, and learning the most efficient ways to
get things done. Oh I know, real people would rather make the same
mistakes over and over and over and over and blame their computers.
It's only us uppity geeks that think being good at anything is
I know, nobody has time, they don't care, they like their GUI,
whatever, blah blah. I'm tired of hearing all that. I don't care
who does what on their systems, just please do us all the favor of
not celebrating ignorance. Let's have a change of pace and
celebrate how open Linux and FOSS are for learning, and how the
more you know the more you can do. So much of modern consumerism
relies on ignorance and gullibility-- is that really something to
be proud of?
I treasure a
comment made in the Talkbacks a few weeks ago:
"Many people bag on Linux because it forces you to
learn; I use it *because* it allows you to learn."
Thanks Jeff, I needed that!