Seven Expectations of Linux Users

Tuesday Jul 24th 2012 by Bruce Byfield
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The assumptions built in to Linux accustom its users to taking charge of their computing.

Claiming that Linux users are different reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald's comment that "the rich are different from you and I" and Ernest Hemingway's alleged reply, "Yes, they have more money."

After all, computer users are computer users. A few geeks may argue over the differences in operating systems, but aren't average users more interested in simply getting work done?

Superficially, yes. But operating systems and applications are far from neutral. Behind the code and the interfaces are assumptions about how users should use an application and what they want and expect from an application – even about the relationship between users and an application and its builders.

Use an operating system long enough, and the assumptions behind it start to shape your expectations -- so much so that another operating system may seem hostile and bizarre.

You can hear the differences any time Linux users mingle with Windows and Mac users. The three groups have very different ideas about their relationship to their software, and communication is regularly confounded by differences in expectations.

So what do Linux users expect from their operating system of choice? I can think of at least seven replies:

1. Input into Software

Linux and its open source ecosystem have their roots in impromptu groups in which everyone is only an email or chat channel away. Even now, they have not quite outgrown this origin.

Finding Linus Torvalds' or Richard Stallman's email is not difficult, and, although the average user may not expect to talk directly to Jim Whitehurst, the CEO of Red Hat, they do expect that someone at Red Hat and similar corporations will listen to their feedback.

This attitude comes out very clearly in the reactions to Ubuntu's Unity or the GNOME 3 release series. Windows users might grumble about changes like the upcoming Windows 8 interface, but after venting they conclude that they can do nothing, and learn to live with the changes. However, Ubuntu and GNOME users reacted with outrage, many switching to alternatives -- and none of the scornful invitations to code for themselves have lessened their expectation that they should be listened to.

2. A Choice of Applications

Linux users soon learn that their installation is backed by software repositories containing thousands of packages. Since many of those packages are redundant, often some well-meaning observer will remark that progress would be much quicker if projects working on the same general category of application would only pool their efforts.

But such remarks miss the point. Amarok and Rhythmbox, for instance, may both be music players, but they are also opposites in design. Amarok is designed for those who want every possible feature, and Rhythmbox is for those who prefer minimal functionality.

In just about every category of applications, a similar variety of choices is available, up to and including desktop environments and distributions.

Until a few years ago, the only exception was OpenOffice.org. Released as a complete office suite, for years OpenOffice.org had no comparable rivals. But with the fork of LibreOffice and the growing maturity of alternatives like Calligra Suite, even office apps are less of an exception than they used to be.

As a result, while most users have favorites, anyone who has used Linux for more than a year or so has probably experimented with alternatives. If an application develops in a way that users dislike, or a seg fault disables it until a bug is patched, many users know how to switch to an alternative and be up and running in ten minutes.

If users are loyal to an application, it’s because they like it -- not because they are locked in to whatever a manufacturer chooses to give them.

3. The Ability to Do Things Their Way

In the user revolts of the last four years, KDE managed to minimize protests by restoring the configuration options that users expected. At the opposite extreme, GNOME 3 has continued to be unpopular because it not only limits configuration, but is designed so that users have no choice in how they work on the desktop.

When Linux Mint produced Cinnamon, a reconstruction of GNOME 2 on top of GNOME 3, its success was attributable to both the restoration of customization options, and the fact that it allowed users to choose which aspects of GNOME 2 to enable.

The moral is clear: Linux users expect software to conform to their work habits, not the other way around.

4. Function Over Form

Linux is moving beyond it geek origins, and its desktop environments are no longer struggling to catch up with its proprietary rivals. All the same, the priority remains how an application works, not how it looks.

Some users are automatically dismissive of eye-candy. Others favor a minimalist look to their interfaces. It's not that users are against aesthetics so much as they have inherited a ruthlessly practical outlook. Besides, aesthetics are associated with Windows and Macs as a triumph of marketing over substance. And in the last couple of years, associated with Unity and GNOME as the imposition of a small group's assumption on the entire user base.

Users may welcome a well-designed interface, so long as it doesn't slow down the system and has a reasonable selection of features. But, after having to settle for functionality while free software was developing, they still give it higher priority than mere looks.

5. Control of Their Systems

When Windows users agree to the license, they agree (among other things) to Microsoft automatically updating the system and scanning for unlicensed software.

These things are done in the name of security, but no Linux distribution would dare to do the same. While an update button is standard in many distributions, it is generally set by default to notify that updates are available, not to install them automatically. Linux users can read the details of each update and choose which, if any to install.

While Linux users have nothing against security -- being, if anything, far more security-conscious than Windows users -- the idea of changes being made to their system without their explicit approval strikes many of them as decidedly unsafe.

And as for accessing their systems for any other reason, or activating software before using it, forget it.

6. Immediate Updates

Any given Linux-based software is in a state of more or less constant development. For this reason, bugs are not unknown. However, when bugs do occur, the expectation is that they will be acknowledged and fixed as quickly as possible.

Most developers I know take this assumption very seriously. I have even known some to take personal time off work to spend the afternoon correcting a reported bug on an application or package for which they are responsible.

7. The Ability to Help Themselves

Linux users may start by being helpless to troubleshoot their system. But Linux has a long history of fostering a do-it-yourself attitude. Many applications, as well as large parts of the system, are configured in text files that can be easily edited from the root account.

Sometimes, of course, this tinkering can cause disasters, especially if backups of original configuration files aren't made. Still, after a year or two, many Linux users find themselves configuring their systems in ways that they wouldn't have imagined initially.

For many users, this attitude extends to a far greater user of the command line than is common with proprietary operating systems. Many Linux desktop applications are no more than shells for command line tools, and Linux's BASH shell is far more powerful and easier to use than anything found on Windows. Although you can still find Linux users who fear the command line, a surprising number are more or less comfortable with it.

In general, where Windows encourages passive users who turn to experts when anything goes wrong, Linux encourages users to get their hands dirty and to learn how to manage their systems for themselves.

A Sense of Ownership

These expectations can be summarized very simply: Linux users have a sense of ownership. Windows users are told in the license agreement they have bought only the right to use the software, not the software itself. They are used to thinking that they can do little to influence the manufacturers of their software, and to ceding their rights to do very ordinary things to the manufacturers.

But Linux users are in a more complex situation. Using licenses like the GNU General Public License, they are often restricted in how they can redistribute their software. But this restriction is irrelevant to most users.

Of course, much of this sense of autonomy is unconscious. It is absorbed far more than it is ever deliberately expressed. In fact, large numbers of Linux users dismiss the free software activists, the minority who do think deliberately about such matters, as fanatics. Yet in their daily computing, most of them demand and expect exactly those rights that free software licenses bestow.

New users, accustomed to more restrictive operating systems, can be slow to understand these rights. Yet, despite the growth in Linux over the last few years, even users brutalized by proprietary licenses soon expect the same rights over their software that they have over their clothes and car.

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