Installfest: Towards Mainstream User Acceptance

Now that I've been through the Ubuntu Linux evaluation and installfest experience, I'm convinced that even if the world isn't yet ready for Linux, Linux is ready for the world. Many of the technical barriers to acceptance have been alleviated.

I think the next step—maybe the final step—towards mainstream acceptance will come when we reduce the anxiety associated with acquiring a Linux computer. Linux aside, most people have anxiety about computer purchases. With Linux, because remains largely an unknown, the anxiety is higher. That's not because there is something wrong with Linux but rather because it's just different and unfamiliar.

There are two things we can do to lower the anxiety associated with Linux and help move it towards the mainstream. One is to reduce how differently and unfamiliar it feels, as compared to commonly available (Mac and Windows) desktops. The other is to provide the user confidence that they have the skills and resources to conquer the unfamiliarity.

The Ubuntu Linux distribution has made great strides on the first front. Ubuntu delivers a clean, attractive desktop. It doesn't look like a Windows or Mac desktop, but it feels familiar and is less intimidating than traditional Linux desktops. (See screenshots here.) Ubuntu installs a Gnome desktop that is simple and sleek. Mind you, it's not my personal preferred desktop, but I think it's a good choice for new users.

Note that I am not advocating making Linux look like Mac or Windows. There are window manager themes that do just this, and they haven't worked that well. What's needed is an attractive and intuitive appearance with solid functionality beneath. That's what Ubuntu has delivered.

With respect to the second action, good documentation and community support could be the resources that make a user comfortable with Ubuntu. Here, unfortunately, the story isn't so good.

There is no manual for Ubuntu Linux. There is help for the individual applications, and that's important, but there is no "Getting Started" guide. If you go to the documentation area of the Ubuntu Linux web site, it says:

We are in the process of restructuring our help system. Please consult the wiki for FAQs, How-Tos, Tutorials and other sorts of documentation for Ubuntu (wiki.ubuntu.com). There you can create more documentation, improve the existing documentation or help to translate these docs into your own language.

Ouch.

There is an active (and helpful) online user community at ubuntuforums.org and that's a big plus. One guy who picked up a Linux system at our installfest ran into a problem with his floppy disk. He emailed me and I pointed him to that site. He wrote back the next day saying he found his answer there. So, this is a useful resource. I do wish, however, there were better local resources: sort of a surrogate for the neighbor or friend you'd go to to ask your little Windows questions.

So, the next big step step we need for Linux success is better documentation and local support.

Hopefully better documentation is coming. The Ubuntu web site holds out hope. An amazon.com search shows that they will begin carrying their first book dedicated to Ubuntu this March. These are positive signs.

To address the immediate documentation problem, I produced a one page quick start guide for the installfest. Here it is. I found that most of the nervous "but how do I do X" questions that people were asking were addressed on that one-pager. (The biggest unanswered question was modem support, and that remains a really hard problem with Linux.)

The resources section was sort of stuck onto the end of the sheet at the last minute, and it shows. If there is a next revision, I'd like to make resources a whole second page, with pointers to books, web sites, and community groups.

The sad fact is that a User Guide would make people feel comfortable, but wouldn't get read. A good quick start sheet, however, may be the way to get somebody going with Linux. I got positive feedback on the one page sheet we used at the installfest, so I feel comfortable we are on the right track there.

So, this brings us to the end of the installfest saga. I look forward to the opportunity to try again, because I am convinced now more than ever that the Linux desktop is ready for end users. The post-install methodology we used was successful. The next challenge we need to tackle is improved documentation and support. The one page quick start guide I produced is a small step in that direction. I hope the Ubuntu volunteers can produce a user manual as excellent as the distribution deserves. I also hope that we can begin to develop new avenues—possibly commercial avenues—of local user support.

Comments

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re: Installfest: Towards Mainstream User Acceptance

hey Chip,

Glad to see you're still out there and alive and kicking; I hadn't heard anything from you since you passed the torch in the austin.* newsgroups to Doug.

Anyway, I just wanted to suggest that there *is* something vaguely like the friend/neighbor to ask about linux: our local linux users' groups. Sure, they're not gonna pop over in 5 minutes to help you recompile your kernel, but they are valuable, quick-response (sometimes =)) local resources, And to be fair, I *have* popped over the next day to help recompile a kernel, even for people I didn't know before they asked. This, after they solicited aid on one of the users' groups mailing lists.

It seems to me that there's a pretty technically-strong, vaguely evangelistic, and helpful linux user community in Austin. I say encourage people to embrace and really participate in what communal nature remains, in our town-turning-metropolis, while it still lasts...and maybe it'll last a little longer.

re: Installfest: Towards Mainstream User Acceptance

How much would someone need to pay for a windows computer running office? How much would they save buying a linux computer with all the trimmings? Is personal service needed, or is the right answer quasi-traditional retail and internet mail order at a lower price?