Windows Legacy Apps vs. Linux Desktop Adopters?

Monday Nov 15th 2010 by Matt Hartley
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Linux offers a more challenging user experience yet also delivers more value, an expert opines.

In a previous article on Linux-Window desktop competition, I shared my thoughts on why desktop Linux shouldn’t focus on competing with Windows. Not because Linux can't compete, but because Linux can stand its ground on its own merits without being held against Windows for comparison. I believe most groups within the Linux community can agree on, despite their differences on other issues.

Now let's ask a bigger question. Is it not possible that the real culprit that prevents people from trying new platforms like Linux is actually due to legacy software and familiarity with the Windows desktop? Seems plausible that the above hurdles could be a common challenge faced by prospective Linux adopters, does it not?

Let's dig in a bit deeper.

Diving into the unfamiliar

Think back to when you first started using Linux on your desktop. Unless you already had some Unix training in your background, the odds are pretty good that you were coming from Microsoft Windows and looking for greener pastures.

Now stop a second and think back to the first time you loaded up KDE or GNOME on your computer monitor. Remember what your first reaction was?

Do you remember the excitement and perhaps, the little bit of intimidation you felt as you realized this was uncharted territory? I know I felt this with an early copy of Red Hat Linux years ago. Back then, practically everything was done manually, from getting the network going to mounting my hard drive. It took someone who was really interested in "owning" their desktop experience to maintain interest in the Linux desktop back then.

Flash forward to today and we find many Linux distributions have everything from mounting hard drives to self-connecting wireless functionality done automatically. Now it’s still a new experience for those just passing by within the Linux community, yet today's Linux experience is a cakewalk compared to what it took to use Linux a mere five years ago. Understanding this leads us to understand one of the above mentioned hurdles: Lack of desktop familiarity.

For young people whose minds haven't fully acclimated to one way of doing things versus another, migrating over to like Linux isn't really a big deal. But I believe the fear of detaching from "the familiar" is a big deal for those users who’ve reached a point in their adult lives where change isn't something they seek out.

Some people simply aren't too keen on exploring what's new with technology. Perhaps they feel they have something that works well for them and change is unnecessary? The possibilities for the lack of adventure here are endless.

But remember what was said previously. There is more to this issue than the mere familiarity. The need for certain software tools is also a problem for some people.

Legacy software – like a comfortable pair of leg irons

Most software used on the Windows desktop is proprietary. I'm not stating this as an iron-clad fact, rather basing this on my own presumption. It seems like the big hang-up for people is always that there's one legacy application they cannot seem to free themselves from.

There are many software titles that come to mind, all of them from the list of proprietary software. But the two applications I hear about most have to be Photoshop and Quickbooks.

I have used both applications in the past and have nothing but disdain for them. Each application serves its target market just fine. Yet to counter that benefit, each application has plenty of bloat and immediately makes using the software an "all or nothing" proposition. Still, it's a tough sell to ask a small business owner to stop using the proprietary software they know, or expect a photographer to suddenly drop their dependence on Photoshop based on the potential of something new. More often than not, these conversations end with a resounding "no."

Because of this small-minded fear, these users have exchanged their freedom of desktop choice for the comfort of familiar, existing proprietary software. This, of course, means you can forget about using either on the Linux desktop. Proprietary vendors are largely disinterested in the Linux desktop it would seem, though some might argue that this is beginning to change.

I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention that you can run these proprietary applications in WINE or with a virtual machine. Yet at the end of the day, you're still trying to limp along with Windows software on Linux. The more sustainable choice, of course, is to switch to software like GIMP and Nola.

Due to the open nature of each application, there are plug-ins available for each application to help the end user meet the functionality needs that might be missing otherwise. Accounting software known as Nola even offers a plug-in for converting Quickbooks into a compatible file format.

But again, when you're talking about people's livelihoods, many people are simply too caught up in what they "know" to take a chance with the above mentioned open source alternatives. Time may very well prove me wrong on this, however.

Freedom isn't always easy

At least a few times a month, I receive email from readers who will ask me why I stick with the Linux desktop when they believe that using alternatives like OS X are so much easier. My reply is almost always the same: Real freedom isn't always easy.

Sure, I can say forget it and install Windows on my PC. Perhaps instead, toss my existing computers aside and just adopt OS X, like my wife has.

But then I would have to brush aside intense moments of discovery and problem solving from over the years. Learned tricks, Linux specific scripts and discovering software so simple that adding any extra layers of fluff to it would feel almost criminal. No, for me easier is not necessarily better.

While there are always going to be people out there who are willing to cling tightly to their limited little world of easy and safe, these individuals can never really evolve into tech savvy problem-solvers. Perhaps this is a bit harsh, but I’ve seen evidence that some of the most innovative programmers are those who cut their teeth on open source code.

Linux is too good for the mainstream

I think Linux is simply too much "work" for those who live on a fast food mentality. "I want it now, I want it easy and no, I don't care of it's healthy or sustainable."

As long as we live in a society that feels that way, I think we'll see Linux inroads to mainstream society remaining largely behind the scenes. Keep in mind that Linux adoption on the desktop is increasing everyday, despite the lack of mainstream press. How can Linux remain in growth mode while the mainstream still hasn't even heard of it? Simple. More people are becoming less mainstream in their thinking and joining us here within the Linux community by actively seeking out alternatives not sold on store shelves.

Sure, it's fair to say that advances in making things easier have done wonders for Linux adoption. However, is it not also fair to say that new users still have to meet the Linux community half way, despite some of the latest "niceties" available on the Linux desktop?

To put it bluntly, there is still some "assembly required." Even the most "new user targeted" distributions of Linux have a basic learning curve that must be dealt with head on.

Tomorrow and beyond

With each passing day, I see the economic climate changing. What was important to a computer user two years ago is evolving into a different vision of value today. Seems like everything is becoming more value-based and less about how much it costs. People are finding that sometimes buying into the easiest option isn't always the most sustainable or the most desirable.

Linux on the desktop will continue to grow in user numbers. We're going to see more people adopting to our way of doing things along the way as well. This doesn't mean the end of the proprietary operating system, by any means. Rather, we're entering a time in which people are seeking out more cost effective, sustainable computing alternatives to buying a new copy of Windows every few years.

Despite not realizing it yet, I believe it's this mindset of "value for time invested" that will deliver us sustainable Linux adopters vs. whiners. Unlike putting out a blue-light special on the latest proprietary operating system, we will not be seeing new users simply looking for a deal. Instead, I believe we'll be surrounding ourselves with individuals who feel they have a vested stake in the success of Linux as an independent desktop operating system for free thinking users.

Want a good computing experience? Great, Linux gives you what you've put into it yourself.

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