Is Linux Too Dumbed Down?

Monday Feb 22nd 2016 by Matt Hartley

Some people claim that Linux is finally ready for the masses. Whether that's true is open to debate.

Over the years, I've heard some people claim that Linux is finally ready for the masses. I would suggest that outside of a completely locked down OS such as ChromeOS (which is Linux powered), no OS is genuinely ready for the masses. Instead, it has been my experience that the masses should stick to tablets and Chromebooks.

Smartphones make us dumb

I can see how my view of most computer users would seem a bit harsh. But I'd also be the first to point out that using smartphones have made all of us "dumb" in the sense that our complacency is at an all time high. Comparatively speaking, the difference between smartphones and PCs in terms of root access is night and day.

On a computer, running Linux...root is a mere command away from any terminal. With iOS or Android, you must gain access to a deeper level of the phone in order to have this sort of power. It's not nearly as simple and therein lays the comparative difference.

Most people believe their smartphones are completely safe from exploits and other malicious behavior because they have never experienced it on these devices. Mind you, I didn't claim this was a valid point of view. Rather, this is simply a widespread interpretation of how safe smartphones are. These devices also present a minimal learning curve for most people, so there is little to no reason to learn anything new about them.

Install apps, run the apps, and so forth – this is how we use these tiny computers.

Now take this same person who is complacent with a smartphone and ask them to use a computer safely. Most of the time, they'll treat it with the same regard they treat their smartphone. And as expected, these same individuals end up requiring local tech help due to malware or other related problems. Point is, most people aren't "into computing" enough to be effective with most computing platforms. And the introduction of smartphones hasn't helped things much.

Newbie friendly distributions

When most people go to get a new operating system, they used to buy a boxed copy from their local retail store or simply upgrade their PC, which came with it pre-installed. More recently, we've seen proprietary operating systems making themselves available via a secure download: Emphasis on the word secure.

At this time, distributions of Linux generally rely on using MD5 hash to verify the authenticity. And as we've witnessed from the Linux Mint project's recent attack, turns out many people aren't checking anything.

Why aren't they checking? Because it's yet another hurdle to getting to the ISO image. Some might argue its because people are in a hurry. Others still, might suggest that people simply don't know how. Honestly, the reasons why are immaterial. What does matter is the fact that we don't require newer users to practice using MD5 hash (OpenPGP secret keys?) to make sure the ISO they grabbed from wherever is, in fact, authentic.

From here, we see newbie distributions do everything possible to set things up for the newer users out of the box. Now my view of this is that this is completely fine. However, the problem is when something stops working, this same newer user doesn't have any idea how to rectify the problem.

I see newbie friendliness to computing as an increasingly problematic double-edged sword. Some folks are actively seeking new information, learning all they can on how to manage their desktops. But as I cruise various help forums, the results aren't looking that great. With new users adopting Linux as their platform of choice...we're seeing stragglers who simply refuse to employ an ounce of willingness to learn to use Linux – well.

With great distributions, come great responsibility

I believe we, as the more experienced members of the Linux community, need to accept that we're taking on newbies to mentor. I don't say this with disdain or disrespect, quite the contrary. Switching to a new OS for most people is a brave move and deserves a high five!

And for the most part, Linux communities such as Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and PCLinuxOSoffer newer users a safe, comfortable place to ask questions as these newbies spread their wings on their learning adventure.

Sadly though, many of these same newcomers fail to utilize the search feature integrated in most forums. This translates into ample repetitive questions, despite the answers usually already being available. Remember, they've been lead to believe that everything just "works," thanks to the modern distributions of Linux available. So the idea of doing anything short of just asking usually never enters the newbies mind.

To be clear, I'm talking about the complacent newbie, not all Linux newcomers.

It's my opinion that we're at a crossroads. Do we start putting security and knowledge first, with ease of use in the backseat...or do we continue as we have been? Perhaps instead, the issue isn't with distributions at all. Perhaps, the issues we see with newbies starts with how they're interacted with as they enter the Linux community?

Community Tough Love

I believe that the way we handle Linux questions on the forums and even how some distros present things is doing newbies a greater disservice. Understand that I'm not advocating that all Linux distro toss Linux newcomers into the deep end. Instead, I'd like to see greater emphasis on pointing newbies to easy to understand learning resources. YouTube is full of great examples on how to do just about anything. Linux forums are also useful for finding the answer to common Linux questions.

Newbie: "I broke Ubuntu and can't seem to install packages now."

Experienced user: "That is frustrating, but luckily you're not alone in this. As luck would have it, this forum has the answer to this question and many others. Just head over to the search box and type in "can't install software" and you'll have your fix in no time flat."

Now this type of forum dialog provides two points of value. First, it treats the new user with kindness. Second, it also pushes them outside of their comfort zone and encourages them to search for the answer. But, perhaps most shows the new Linux user how to search effectively. This is how we prevent the dumbing down of Linux. Instead of hand-holding or, worse, treating the newbie like a pariah, we can accept that all of us are part of the same growing community.

We are a Linux family – let's act like it

Yes, I think that Linux has become too dumbed down. But, after careful reflection I don't think it's the distributions that are ultimately responsible for this. Despite them making this crazy easy for newbies, much of the problem is the world around us. Bundle that with dumbed down tech devices for the masses, instant answers to questions from chat rooms and's no wonder why Linux newbies seem like they're too lazy to want to learn anything new!

Why would they, so much of it is being done for them.

What say you? Do you think newbies need more example setting from us and less hand-holding? Perhaps you completely disagree? Hit the comments, share your thoughts!

Mobile Site | Full Site
Copyright 2017 © QuinStreet Inc. All Rights Reserved