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Helping Newbies Learn to Love Linux

Helping Newbies Learn to Love Linux

The Linux blogs were feeling the love a bit early this week, perhaps in preparation for Valentine's Day. Much of the discussion centered on how to support those who are new to the Linux experience, and how to help them break out of the "Windows mindset."

By Katherine Noyes
02/02/09 4:00 AM PT

As if in the blink of an eye, January has come to an end and it's the month of Love once again. How in tarnation did that happen so fast?

Of course, we geeks tend to have mixed feelings about V-Day and all its associated social pressures. Rather than dwelling on those, however, or all the pangs of anxiety they might bring on, Linux bloggers in this past week apparently turned their thoughts to another kind of love.

Specifically, all throughout the blogosphere, in discussions far and wide, Linux aficionados pondered how best to spread the love of Linux to those who don't yet know it well.

'A Newbie's Guide to Linux'

Yes, though the articles were not explicitly connected in any way, supporting users -- particularly new ones -- was clearly an overriding theme on bloggers' minds. An article on NetworkWorld titled "Don't Fear the Penguin: A Newbie's Guide to Linux," for example, drew numerous accolades from Digg users, who awarded it more than 650 Diggs and made nearly 150 comments.

Then there was LaptopLogic's "A beginner's guide on how to install Linux software," which also got picked up and discussed on Digg -- drawing more than 1,000 Diggs and 200 comments -- and "Jumping to Ubuntu at work for non-Linux geeks," a Slashdot discussion of a post at CCIE Flyer.

An article on WorksWithU, meanwhile, discussed ways to provide effective support on the Ubuntu forums and was picked up on both the Linux Loop and LXer.

Ubuntu Pocket Guide

As if that weren't enough, there was also news of the availability of the downloadable Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference, which drew both praise and discussion on Lifehacker, Digg, LXer and others.

Call it support, call it education -- either way, the love is all around! LinuxInsider took to the streets of the blogosphere for some more insight.

"Linux isn't hard to learn -- it's actually quite easy to learn," Slashdot blogger Mhall119 told LinuxInsider. "What I have noticed, however, is that Windows is hard to forget. Nearly all of the common problems I've seen new Linux users encounter were not because of Linux, but rather because they were still in the Windows mindset."

A Different Mindset

Whenever a former Windows user wants an application, for example, "they go directly to Google and try and find somewhere to download it," Mhall119 explained. "Almost every time either the exact application they wanted, or an acceptable equivalent, was available in their distro's repository. In at least one instance I've seen, it was already installed!"

Coming from Windows, however, "they assumed that they had to locate a setup.exe on the internet to get it," he explained.

Another stumbling point is choice, Mhall119 asserted. "Windows users have become so conditioned to not having a choice that it's almost incomprehensible for them to think about," he said. Such is often the case when new Linux users are confronted by individual names for like applications, like movie players, he said. "If the idea that we need individual names because we need to distinguish between multiple movie players seems foreign to them, it's little wonder they can't grasp how both KDE and Gnome can be Linux's desktop."

Integration and cross compatibility are also foreign to newbies, Mhall119 added. For instance, "it's not unusual for a Windows user to have three different IM clients running -- when all those clients aren't available for Linux, they think Linux is the deficient one."

'This Isn't Like Windows'

The real trick, Mhall119 said, "is to find a way to tell newbies 'this isn't like Windows' without it sounding like an apology. They need to break out of their Windows mindset, which is much harder than it sounds, and start rethinking many of their assumptions about how computers work.

"That is the task at hand, because Linux isn't hard to use once they stop trying to use it like Windows," he concluded.

"I have helped thousands of students experience GNU/Linux," educator and blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider. "They do not need books or help forums because I show them how to get started and they are not afraid to poke around. Several times, I discovered they had found new functions in the menus that I did not realize were there."

'Between the Chair and the Keyboard'

Adults, on the other hand, "are terrified of 'doing something wrong' and hold themselves back from exploring," Pogson said.

"I think they learned this behavior on that other OS, where they are said to be the problem 'between the chair and the keyboard' and they have experienced many BSODs or freezes," he explained. "In GNU/Linux, the system administrator takes care of the setup and there is very little the user can do to harm anything except deleting his own files."

Adults are also more resistant to change, Pogson added.

'Making FUD'

"I used to spend many hours at LinuxQuestions.org, helping newbies with the usual problems due to unfamiliarity," Pogson said. "I enjoyed using Google to help newbies find specific solutions to specific problems."

The personal touch is the best for helping Linux newcomers, he added: "One can instantly help someone with a few words at the right time."

Naysayers who claim the cost or difficulty of supporting a migration to GNU/Linux is a serious impediment "are making FUD," he concluded. "In my experience, a five-minute introduction is all that a young newbie needs, while adults want the comfort of a class or two."

'100 Percent Ubuntu-Centric'

Not all the newbie-focused articles out there in this past week met with the approval of all bloggers.

NetworkWorld's "Don't Fear the Penguin," for instance, "is pure filler -- this says nothing that a trillion blog posts and Ubuntu's own documentation haven't told you already," Slashdot blogger drinkypoo told LinuxInsider. "The article is 100 percent Ubuntu-centric, and it should admit that very little of it applies to the specific way things are done on other distributions."

As for WorksWithU's article on providing Ubuntu support, "I agree in principle with most of the article, but then I got down to the bottom," drinkypoo said -- specifically, the part where the article states: "But the fact that most Ubuntu support is given for free doesn't mean that those seeking it don't deserve professional service. You don't call Microsoft with a problem only to be given a link to vague, poorly written instructions that assume a high level of technical skill on the part of the user."

'A Cry for Help'

Actually, "the fact that Ubuntu support is given for free DOES mean that those seeking it don't deserve professional service, BY DEFINITION," drinkypoo asserted. "And, uh, you most certainly DO call Microsoft only to receive some vague instructions pointing you to a cryptic page with complicated instructions."

In short, "this article seems more like a cry for help from someone who is stating what they need to be successful than instruction from above," he concluded.

'Very Helpful'

Nevertheless, many found reason to be encouraged by the increased focus on helping new users.

For instance: "Finally a post about how to help Linux newbs instead of just bashing Windows users for not using it!" wrote Digg blogger FlareHeart in response to NetworkWorld's article. "It's very helpful and I am glad that the community is finally starting to be more helpful!"

Indeed, "it is good to see more guides coming out for the less technically inclined," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. "These sorts of projects make new users feel safer about trying, even if they still end up asking for help."


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